SAN FRANCISCO’S CASTRO DISTRICT was the first big-city neighborhood in the United States where openly gay people elected one of their own to represent them in City Hall. Harvey Milk, the man who was elected in this capacity in 1977, soon became nationally prominent as the leading spokesperson for gay and lesbian rights in a bitterly fought contest over a 1978 statewide ballot measure that would have banned homosexuals from serving as schoolteachers. The Castro’s mythical status was cemented by the assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone less than a year into Milk’s first term, and by the so-called White Night Riots that followed the lenient sentence given to Dan White, the former police officer who murdered them. Today the Castro’s terrain of hilly asphalt is a site of pilgrimage, its bars and restaurants home to a lucrative tourist trade and a gay nightlife scene.
A biography of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street (1982), is a gay nonfiction classic. And now, on the thirtieth anniversary of his assassination, Milk’s life and times have now been revisited in a $15 million movie, Milk, starring Sean Penn and directed by Gus Van Sant. The Castro itself has been preparing for a wave of media attention and tourism. In anticipation of the larger crowds in the coming months, San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society will soon open a full-scale temporary exhibition about the queer history of the neighborhood and city in a storefront space at the corner of Castro and 18th Street.