*originally posted October 21, 2009
Dan White. Not a gay man. Not a gay icon. But, still, an important figure in gay history. I think there are several defining moments in gay history that we all have heard about, those sad moments, but defining moments, in our history that stay with us. One, of course, is the Stonewall Riots of 1969. And another is the murder of Matthew Shepard eleven years ago. And there is also Dan White, who murdered Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1978.
Not a gay hero or icon; not even a friend to the gay community. But nevertheless an important figure in our collective lives, Dan White was called the "most hated man in San Francisco." He committed suicide twenty-four years ago today after serving just five years for the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone.
He seemed the All-American boy; one of ten children; a Vietnam War veteran; a police officer; a firefighter. In fact, it was his work as a fire fighter, and his rescue of a woman and her baby from a seventh-floor apartment that caused the San Francisco Chronicle to dub him the "All-American boy."
Maybe not so much.
In 1977, Dan White was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to represent District 8, which included several neighborhoods of southeastern San Francisco. District 8 was described by The New York Times as "a largely white, middle-class section that is hostile to the growing homosexual community of San Francisco....As a supervisor, Mr. White made it clear that he saw himself as the board's defender of the home, the family and religious life against homosexuals, pot smokers and cynics."
Still, White and openly gay supervisor Harvey Milk, despite their personal differences, worked well together. In fact, Harvey Milk was invited to the baptism of Dan White's new baby, and Dan White persuaded Dianne Feinstein to appoint Milk chairman of the Streets and Transportation Committee. But it wouldn't remain so pleasant and peaceful for long.
In April 1978, the Catholic Church proposed building a facility for juvenile offenders who had committed murder, arson, rape, and other crimes in White's district. Dan White, born and raised a Catholic, didn't like the idea of criminals in his neighborhood, and was strongly opposed to the idea. Harvey Milk, on the other hand, supported the church.
This was the beginning of the end of any more collaboration between Harvey Milk and Dan White. It also didn't help that Dan White's record on gay issues was mixed; he opposed the Brigg's Initiative--which sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching--but voted against an ordinance prohibiting anti-gay housing and employment discrimination.
White took Harvey's support of the half-way house as a personal affront, and began to deliberately clash with Milk and other boardmembers. In November, 1978, Dan White resigned his seat as supervisor, citing dissatisfaction with the corrupt inner-workings of San Francisco politics, as well as the difficulty in making a living without a police officer's or firefighter's salary, neither job he could legally hold while serving as supervisor.
A few days later, after his supporters lobbied him to go back, Dan White reversed his position and asked Mayor Moscone to be reappointed to the board. And while Mayor Moscone initially agreed, at the urging of Milk and other supervisors, he later refused the reappointment.
On November 27, 1978, Dan White went to San Francisco City Hall to personally ask Moscone for his old job, but he arrived that day with a loaded gun and ten extra rounds of ammunition. And instead of entering through the front doors, and risking detection of the newly installed security system, Dan White climbed through a basement window.
In Moscone's office, White pleaded to be reinstated, but Moscone again refused. White shot and killed the mayor, then paused to reload his weapon. Next he walked over to Milk's office and shot him five times, killing him. The last shot was fired at close range.
Dan White ran from City Hall to the Northern Police Station where he had once worked, and turned himself in, saying, "I just shot him."
As ludicrous as that statement sounded, given he'd shot the mayor, reloaded, then shot Milk five times, his next statements would seem even more irrational.
At trial, White's defense team argued that his mental state at the time of the killings was one of diminished capacity due to depression, making him incapable of premeditated murder and therefore not guilty of first degree murder. A forensic psychiatrist, Martin Blinder, testified that White was suffering from depression and pointed to several behavioral symptoms of that depression, including the fact that White had gone from being highly health-conscious to consuming sugary foods and drinks.
It became the Twinkie Defense. Too many Twinkies made Dan a murderer. It was ridiculous. It wouldn't work.
But jurors wept as the prosecution played a recording of White's confession. Other witnesses, familiar with city hall, stated it was common practice to enter the building through windows to save time. A police officer, and friend of White's, claimed that several officials carried weapons, and speculated that White carried the extra ammunition out of habit as a former police officer.
The jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than first degree murder, and he was sentenced to seven years for killing two people, and San Francisco's LGBT community, having lost their voice in city politics to a man who claimed junk food made him do it, began to riot.
The White Night Riots began just after the verdict was announced, with shouts of "Out of the bars and into the streets." Cleve Jones, a friend of Harvey's led a crowd down Castro Street, their numbers expanding as more and more people walked out of the bars. By now there were more than 1500 people on Castro Street.; then they began marching to City Hall.
Now there were more than 5000 protesters shouting "Kill Dan White." The handful of police officers on duty at City Hall didn't know how to deal with the situation, and the Police Department, unaccustomed to an angry gay crowd, was similarly unsure of how to proceed.
Someone in the crowd ripped the gilded ornamental work from the building's wrought iron doors and used it to break first floor windows. Police cruisers were set on fire. People in the crowd had stolen tear gas from police cars and threw it at the officers. The mobs disrupted traffic, smashed store and car windows; electric trolleys were disabled when their overhead wires were pulled down. With his men outnumbered, Chief Charles Gain ordered his officers to simply stand their ground.
However, after three hours of shouts from the angry crowd, officers moved in, reportedly covering their ID badges with black tape, and attacked the rioters. They were surprised at the resistance they faced from the protesters, who pushed back, using tree branches, chrome torn off city buses, and asphalt ripped from the street, as weapons.
Late into the night, after order was finally restored, several SFPD cars headed into the Castro and, despite orders not to do so, the officers entered a bar called the Elephant Walk, shouting homophobic epithets at the men and women. The officers proceeded to shatter the plate glass windows of the bar, and attack patrons. After fifteen minutes police withdrew from the bar and joined other officers who were indiscriminately attacking gays on the street.
The retaliation lasted nearly two hours.
At least sixty-one police officers and an estimated one hundred gay men and women were hospitalized in the course of the riot. The next morning gay leaders convened in a committee room in the Civic Center. Supervisor Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk, made it clear that nobody was to apologize for the riots, saying:
"Harvey Milk's people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We're not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore."
Dan White served five years of his seven-year sentence at Soledad State Prison and was paroled on January 6, 1984. Fearing he might be murdered in retaliation for his crimes, Corrections Officials secretly transported him to Los Angeles, where he served a year's parole.
After satisfying the terms of his parole, White indicated he wanted to return to his lifelong home of San Francisco; Mayor Dianne Feinstein issued a public statement formally asking him not to return. Nevertheless, White did move back to San Francisco and attempted to restore his life with his wife and children. His marriage soon disintegrated.
On October 21, 1985, less than two years after his release from prison, White committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage by running a garden hose from the exhaust pipe to the inside of his car.
In 1998, Frank Falzon, the homicide inspector to whom White had turned himself in after the killings, said that he'd met with White after his release in 1984, and that White confessed his intention to kill not only Milk and Moscone, but Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver and California State Assembly member Willie Brown.
So, you may ask, why is Dan White here, on this blog, today? Well, I believe that we need to remember all aspects of the LGBT history, good, bad or indifferent. If we fail to remember that there are people like Dan White among us still today, we might become too complacent. We might let our guards down for a moment and, as Harry Britt said, "We're not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore."
The march goes on.
On This Day In LGBT History
October 21, 1797 – Reinder Pieters van Workum of Frisia Netherlands was convicted of seduction to sodomy and sentenced to flogging, ten years in prison, and banishment for life.
October 21, 1893 – Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward made the cover of “The Mascot,” a New Orleans periodical. It read, “Good God! The Crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah Discounted.” The editors referred to it as a “story of the love of two women-licentious, horrible love.”
October 21, 1939 – In New York, police raided a masked drag ball and arrested 99 men and charged them with masquerading as females.
October 21-22, 1977 – Days of Protest Rallies are held across Canada protesting job discrimination with focus on John Damien a judge with the Ontario Racing Commission who was fired for being gay.
October 21, 1979 – Letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok were made available. Many of the letters are of a romantic nature.
October 21, 1985 – Dan White, who murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone and gay City Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978, committed suicide by asphyxiating himself in his wife’s car. White served just over 5 years for the murders.
October 21, 1992 – The University of Iowa in Iowa City’s school board approved a policy to extend spousal insurance benefits to same sex couples and unmarried heterosexual couples.
October 21, 1993 – Yale University announced that it would extend spousal health benefits to the domestic partners of its gay and lesbian faculty members, administrators, and managers.
October 21, 1993 – Openly gay author James Leo Herlihy died in Los Angeles at age 66. Herlihy wrote “Midnight Cowboy” and “Season of the Witch.”
October 21, 1998 – US Surgeon General David Satcher released a report with recommendations for suicide prevention. The report recognized that gay and lesbian youth are a high risk group and recommended target prevention efforts.