Dan White Killed Harvey Milk In 1978, But He Got Away With Murder Using The Bizarre Twinkie Defense

In the late 1970s Dan White admitted to assassinating both Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California’s history, and the Mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone. And yet, when White went on trial, he had a defense for his actions at the ready: he blamed the tragedy on Twinkies.

The roots of the 1970s gay liberation movement can be traced back to New York City. In June 1969 police officers conducted a raid on a Greenwich Village LGBT bar named the Stonewall Inn. And in response, the surrounding LGBT community began staging violent demonstrations against such police actions. These protests have come to be known as the Stonewall riots.

In 1970 San Franciscans, too, had become more visible and vocal in their promotion of gay rights. Indeed, through less violent means – including LGBT publications and parades – communities across the United States began the gay liberation movement. And soon, the Castro neighborhood became San Francisco’s nucleus for all such activity – and it is here that great strides toward equality were made.

To begin with, gay bars within The Castro had blacked-out windows so as to obscure the activities that were going on inside. In 1972, though, the Twin Peaks Tavern had installed see-through panes. A bathhouse, lesbian bars and various gay coffeehouses were established in the district during this time as well.

San Francisco also became home to the planet’s only gay softball tournament, which began in 1974. What’s more, three years later, the city staged the first queer movie festival that the world had seen. And the San Francisco Bisexual Center proved to be one of the nation’s most enduring community facilities for those who needed support and counseling.

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And 1977 saw another landmark being reached: the city had the first openly gay elected official in California: Harvey Milk. Prior to his election, Milk had lived much of his life keeping his sexuality a secret. He’d had homosexual desires as a teenager but had swept them under the rug. According to The Attic, he used to tell friends, “I can’t let it out; it would kill my parents.”

So, for years, Milk hid his personal relationships from his loved ones and co-workers. After studying mathematics and then going to New York State College for Teachers, Milk joined the U.S. Navy in the midst of the Korean War. He was a junior lieutenant by the time left the service in 1955.

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Come 1956 Milk had returned to New York, and it was there that he encountered Joe Campbell. The men first crossed paths at a beach in Queens that had become a hotspot in the gay scene. Milk was smitten with Campbell, and they stayed together for nearly six years.

Of course, Milk’s relationship with Campbell – and his next one – took place behind closed doors. And when Milk fell for Craig Rodwell, he once again showered his partner with love and affection. But things between them turned sour when Rodwell became part of a New York gay-rights group. After Rodwell was subsequently arrested, Milk broke things off.

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Soon, however, Milk would start to let down his own guard. It all began when he and his next beau, Jack Galen McKinley, met in 1964 while working on the Republican presidential bid. Five years later, the pair would move to San Francisco while McKinley worked on a production of Hair.

When work drew McKinley back to New York, though, Milk opted to end the relationship and stay behind. He enjoyed living in San Francisco too much to leave, after all. Milk subsequently began to grow out his hair, despite his employers’ complaints about his new appearance. Clearly, conservative ideology had begun to lose its hold on Milk.

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Soon, Milk would present his new set of beliefs on a bigger stage. First, though, he met his next boyfriend, Scott Smith, with whom he established a camera shop in the heart of The Castro in 1973. Later that year, a local government worker breezed into the store and demanded that Milk pay an outstanding deposit of $100.

This made Milk so livid that he yelled at the bureaucrat. And he went on to make numerous protestations to local government offices – to the point where they agreed to lower the fee in question to $30. Back at his camera store, Milk became further incensed by government policy after a teacher asked to loan a projector from him as their school didn’t have one that worked.

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Then came Watergate. The scandal erupted when it was revealed that President Nixon’s administration had been involved in a cover-up of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee. When the Watergate hearings took place in May, 1973, Milk’s pals had to stop him from smashing up the TV as Attorney General John N. Mitchell responded “I don’t recall” to question after question.

With that, Milk felt that he had to throw his hat into the ring. “I finally reached the point where I knew I had to become involved or shut up,” he told The San Francisco Examiner in 1978. But Milk’s path wouldn’t be straightforward: he would have to deal with veteran politicians who wouldn’t exactly welcome him with open arms.

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One example was a stalwart of San Francisco’s gay political scene named Jim Foster. Milk reached out to him for an endorsement in his race for city supervisor, which Foster refused. Foster didn’t think that Milk had put in enough time and effort yet to earn such support. But in a way, this actually helped Milk.

Gay-bar proprietors had grown tired of the meek stance taken by established gay politicians against police persecution. So instead, they threw their support behind Milk. And the rest of his platform drew from a liberal base. He proposed legalizing marijuana, for instance, and believed that the government should stay out of people’s sex lives.

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Milk also supported a reorganization of government so that supervisors could be elected on district ballots, thus allowing neighborhoods to choose who would represent them. If this measure had been enacted at the time, he would have won the 1973 election, as he did well in The Castro and similarly liberal districts. Instead, though, Milk ended up tenth in a field of 32, meaning that he didn’t earn the seat.

However, Milk didn’t abandon his newfound path. After regularly switching careers throughout his life, he had at last found his place in the world. In a 1986 The New Yorker piece, journalist Frances FitzGerald referred to Milk as a “born politician.” He gave memorable speeches, for instance, and forged alliances with other political operators.

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One of Milk’s biggest successes came when he brought the San Francisco unions and The Castro together. Coors and other firms wouldn’t agree to the unions’ conditions, so the latter approached Milk to help establish a boycott. And he agreed – on the proviso that the unions would vow to employ more homosexual drivers.

With said deal agreed, Milk began making his way through The Castro, speaking with bar owners and encouraging them to stop selling the beer brands in question. Milk’s coalition achieved their goals and gave him a very powerful future ally. And the politician subsequently started calling himself “The Mayor of Castro Street.”

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Milk’s clout in The Castro would prove to be very important. In November of 1976 – a year ahead of the city supervisor elections – voters opted to restructure the ballots as Milk had previously urged. District returns would now decide who would become supervisors, so neighborhoods could finally vote for their representatives directly.

By that time, San Francisco’s openly gay population had ballooned. Some estimates put it at close to one-third of the city’s 750,000 inhabitants, in fact. Many LGBT-run businesses were set up in The Castro, and as a result, the neighborhood’s bank had to expand its premises. And these developments served to bolster Milk’s campaign, too.

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Milk shared his campaign philosophy with The New York Times in 1977, saying, “We don’t want sympathetic liberals; we want gays to represent gays… I represent the gay street people – the 14-year-old runaway from San Antonio. We have to make up for hundreds of years of persecution. We have to give hope to that poor runaway kid from San Antonio. They go to the bars because churches are hostile. They need hope! They need a piece of the pie!”

And Milk’s constituents heard his message of hope loudly and clearly. On November 8, 1977, he won the local city supervisor seat by a 30 percent margin. Then, Milk hopped on the back of a motorcycle, and the self-appointed Mayor of Castro Street rode through the neighborhood to celebrate.

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Milk’s victory certainly caught the nation’s attention. After all, no openly gay male in U.S. history had previously been elected as a non-incumbent candidate. According to Randy Shilts’ book The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the new supervisor stated as he walked in, “You can stand around and throw bricks at Silly Hall, or you can take it over. Well, here we are.”

Meanwhile, Dan White also joined the Board of Supervisors for his first year of service. And like Milk, White had been elected by a previously neglected area of the city. His was a working-class neighborhood in the south of San Francisco. He and Milk quickly butted heads, however – over an issue that had been a centerpiece of White’s campaign.

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White had battled against the opening of a mental health facility for teens within his district. And although had Milk sided with White at first, he later swapped his vote as he became better informed about the proposed treatment center. Milk’s change of heart meant that White was defeated – something that White would not forget.

In fact, White went on to vote against everything that Milk proposed. His dissent did little to stop Milk’s first piece of legislation, though, which was a bill that would make discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation illegal. White was actually the only supervisor to vote against the civil rights legislation, and so it was passed into law.

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Moreover, White’s experiences as a supervisor did not live up to his expectations. He found politics in San Francisco to be frustrating, to say the least. And as a result, he stepped down towards the end of 1978 – just a year after winning his seat. Within a matter of days, however, White’s supporters had encouraged him to try to return to his position. His work had been appreciated, they assured him.

So, White rescinded his decision, and, at first, Mayor Moscone agreed that he could return to the Board of Supervisors. However, some politicians – including Milk – subsequently tried to persuade Moscone to change his mind. And the mayor ended up listening to the majority of the board – rather than the man who had recently resigned.

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Less than two weeks after trying to go back on his resignation, White returned to the San Francisco City Hall. This time, though, he had a gun. First, White climbed through a window to bypass the building’s new metal detectors. And White then headed upstairs to the mayor’s office, where he once again asked Moscone to give him his job back.

When Moscone continued to refuse him, however, White snapped; he shot the mayor in the shoulder, chest and head – a set of injuries that proved fatal. White subsequently made his way to the office where Milk worked. And once there, he again opened fire, shooting Milk five times and killing him, too. Then, White fled the scene.

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White eventually handed himself in to the police and admitted what he’d done. The tape of the ensuing interview would play a huge part in his 1979 trial, in which he would be facing first-degree murder charges. Jurors got to watch the filmed confession, in which White’s words could barely be deciphered because he was so emotional.

Although a taped confession might seem to make for an airtight prosecution case, White’s lawyers had an explanation of their own for his actions. They claimed that he’d killed Moscone and Milk because he’d been under an incredible amount of pressure. He was also depressed, they alleged. And this was where the bizarre so-called “Twinkie Defense” came in.

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According to White’s lawyers, you see, he had previously followed a healthy lifestyle. But after the man had fallen into a deep depression, he had apparently completely changed his diet to one that had been very high in sugar. Political satirist Paul Krassner subsequently came up with a name for their argument: the “Twinkie defense.”

All factors considered, White hadn’t been wholly in control of his actions, his defense claimed. And while many criticized this apparent attempt to blame sugar for a double-murder, jurors didn’t have such a hard time believing it. They seemingly accepted the idea that White had been pushed to the brink. Others, however, hypothesized that homophobia had also played a part in their sympathetic attitude towards White.

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In spite of White signaling that he had, indeed, premeditated the murders of both Moscone and Milk, jurors nonetheless decided to charge him with voluntary manslaughter. The gay community rioted in the wake of the verdict, and some of the gatherings they’d planned in memory of Milk quickly turned into violent protests.

Then, in January 1984, White was paroled – following just half a decade in prison. He waited another year before returning to San Francisco to be with family, but his marriage crumbled shortly afterwards. At his breaking point once more, White took his own life in his home – just 21 months after he had been freed.

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Although Harvey Milk’s life ended tragically early, his legacy undeniably lives on. He has landmarks and schools named after him, for example. And he was portrayed by Sean Penn in the Oscar-winning 2008 movie Milk, which retold his story to a mass audience. These homages – and other reminders – will ensure that Milk’s purpose and message endure.

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