When Dan White shot dead America’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, and the San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in November 1978, the case caused a sensation that would go down in history as the “Twinkie Defense” and make Milk into a gay icon.
Daniel James White was born on 2 September 1946 in San Francisco. He was the second of nine children and often described as an “an all-American boy”. At high school he excelled in sports and went on to serve in the Vietnam War as a paratrooper. He returned home to work first as a policeman and then as a fireman in San Francisco and, in 1977 he was elected onto the Board of Supervisors.
White was a conservative who was troubled by growing official tolerance of overt homosexuality and crime. He represented a district of predominantly poor white working class people and became part of a loosely formed coalition to oppose Mayor George Moscone and his liberal ideas, and White had frequent disagreements on policy with fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk.
In the 1970s many psychiatrists still considered homosexuality to be a mental illness and there was no real national gay organisation. Moscone was an early supporter of gay rights and had managed to abolish a law against sodomy. He was also the first mayor to appoint large numbers of minority groups, including gays and lesbians, to influential positions within San Francisco.
Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to an official position of any significance in America. He had previously served in the Korean War and when he returned to Manhattan he become a Wall Street investment banker. He soon tired of it though and befriended gay radicals who frequented Greenwich Village.
In 1972, Milk moved to The Castro, the heart of San Franciso’s gay community, where he ran for election as a city supervisor three times before he succeeded. His relentless pursuit for attention led Milk to be dismissed as a publicity whore by many, but he knew that the root cause of the gay predicament was invisibility and the gay community nicknamed him ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’.
On joining the Board, Dan White was forced to resign his job as a fireman due to a provision in the city charter that barred anybody from holding two city jobs. He started a restaurant business, but it failed due to the pressures of being a councillor. Finding it impossible to support his family on the meager Supervisor’s salary of $9,600 a year and the increasing back seat he felt he was being forced into by Moscone, Milk and other progressive Board members, he abruptly resigned his seat after Milk's gay rights bill got passed. White had opposed it.
His colleagues and constituents influenced his decision to protest at the position he found himself and retract his resignation. White approached Moscone and asked to be re-appointed to the Board and, although Moscone considered White’s plea, he had already been strongly influenced by Milk and other Board members to appoint another liberal, Federal Housing official Don Horanzy, instead.