Harvey Milk’s Bullhorn Loaned to Smithsonian

Harvey Milk's bullhorn on display in the 'Our Vast Queer Past: A Celebration of San Francisco's LGBT History,' exhibition at the GLBT History Museum, 2011–2014. (Gerard Koskovich/GLBT Historical Society)

Today, May 22, is Harvey Milk Day. And the slain gay San Francisco supervisor’s iconic bullhorn is now on view in a new exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Milk used the now-battered bullhorn at many rallies in the late 1970s. The charismatic supervisor received it as a gift from teamster Allan Baird, and eventually passed it on to activist Cleve Jones. Jones went on to use it to corral support for gay rights and other social justice causes.

Jones, the bullhorn's current owner, eventually donated the artifact to San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society. The organization's executive director, Terry Beswick, says the artifact has near-religious significance for the gay community.

The Times of Harvey Milk poster
The Times of Harvey Milk poster (Photo: The Criterion Collection)

"The bullhorn is one of our icons," Beswick says. "This represents all the struggles since, all the marches, all the protests that we had to stage just to claim our piece of serenity, to claim our piece of the American dream."

Beswick says the Smithsonian is the first major institution to borrow the bullhorn. It was previously used in the Gus Van Sant movie about Milk's life, Milk, as well as the ABC miniseries When We Rise.

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The bullhorn is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for the next three years as part of the Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World exhibition.

GLBT museum display case showing spot where Milk's iconic bullhorn usually sits.
GLBT museum display case showing the spot where Milk's iconic bullhorn usually sits. (Photo: Gerard Koskovich/GLBT Historical Society)

Beswick says although Milk died before the AIDS epidemic emerged in 1981, Jones used the bullhorn in many marches and protests related to AIDS, including the rally where he launched the influential AIDS Memorial Quilt project.

Milk was the first openly gay person elected to office in California when he became a San Francisco supervisor in 1977. He was assassinated, along with then-mayor George Moscone, by ex-supervisor Dan White in November 1978.

Beswick says the Smithsonian exhibition runs through 2021, at which point he expects the bullhorn to return to San Francisco.

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