Harvey Milk

The recently released, award-winning film, “Milk,” is reawakening interest in the gay icon, Harvey Milk, a man of many contradictions: funny and self-serious, narcissistic and socially conscious, idealistic and cynical, sensitive and searingly nasty.

Born of working class parents in Queens, New York, in 1930, trained to be an actuarial statistician, but breaking free from the system, to relocate to San Francisco in the 1970’s, to open a camera shop on Castro Street, then the center of a gay Mecca, he wound up a leader of the gay movement in that decade’s sexual revolution.

The camera shop did not fare well, but he became a neighborhood activist for renters’ rights and for local shopkeepers, so much so that he became known as “The Mayor of Castro Street.”  On the third try for public office, he finally won a place on the Board of Supervisors and became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office and became a role model and inspiration for a generation of gay men and women.  Sadly, shortly into his term, he and George Moscone, the actual mayor of the city, were assassinated by a fellow Supervisor, Dan White.

Part I: The Natal Chart

An immediate glance at Milk’s planets in Gemini (Sun, Jupiter and Venus) portray him as a community-loving man, be that the community of his neighborhood or the gay community.  (Gemini is the sign of local politics).  That story is emphasized by their placement in the 3rd and 4th houses, ruled by Mercury in Taurus in an out-of-sign conjunction with the Sun.

The same factors indicate his quick wit and humor, as well as his “two lives in one,” so to speak, first in the very stodgy world of insurance, followed by the free-spirited shopkeeper.  We could even add a third life as the politician, and a very cunning and strategic one, at that!  Again, these are all good examples of Mercury’s affect.

The ability to wiggle through the system with chameleon-like ease is attributed to the Moon in Pisces, which also accounts for his position as martyr.  Its square aspect to the Jupiter describes his over-the-top personality and flamboyance.  (He was a great lover of opera).  We should include the natal square between Sun and Neptune, especially since it is the aspect with the tightest orb, as descriptive as these qualities too.

Parenthetically, these astrological factors represent the irony in Milk’s first powerful constituency – the Teamsters!  He helped them orchestrate a boycott again Coor’s Beer, and in turn, they lent him the necessary support in his political bid. 

The Aquarius Ascendant, of course, explains the humanitarian in Milk, the “friend to all,” a social leader, reformer and rebel, defender of the underdog, the unconventional, and so outspoken about civil liberties.

All of that, however, is heavily underscored by the most striking feature of the horoscope, Saturn in the 11th house.  It is the highest elevated planet, strengthened by its rulership in Capricorn, and ruler of the chart by tradition.  Saturn’s retrograde motion, along with Mercury as the only other retrograde planet, make for his individuality too.

These traits are certainly depicted by his natal T-square of Saturn in opposition to Pluto with Uranus and Mars in Aries at the apex.  Probably, more than anything else in the horoscope, this accounts his characteristic intensity, drive and high energy, as well as his cantankerousness and feistiness, not to mention his “in your face” style.

Additionally, in Milk’s relocation chart to San Francisco, this T-square gets even more expression.  Not only does it move into angular houses, the Mars-Uranus conjunction moves right to the IC!  He probably would not have fulfilled his potential as a social reformer if he stayed in his native New York.  Rather, San Francisco allowed him to live more openly, to bring his 11th house Saturn of social responsibility into the first house of personal identity, and to stir things up in his world.  This chart also brings his relocated Ascendant to anorectic degree of Sagittarius, on the Cardinal Axis.  It’s an excellent example of astrocartography.

Some mention should be made of the lunar nodes too.  Obviously, the South Node in Scorpio and in the 8th house represents his “never ending story,” i.e., influence from beyond the grave, as well as the controversy of his sexuality (that would have been in his day and age).  It also represents his uncanny ability to know what to do with the talents of other people as well as his affect on others.  The North Node, on the contrary, represents how he benefited from them.

Between the power of Uranus, the Aquarius Ascendant, Saturn in the 11th house and this San Francisco chart, Milk’s life was like a Frank Capra movie, but with an expectedly tragic ending.  It was filled with friendship, uniqueness and unpredictability, including, unfortunately, his assassination, but the greatest surprise is his legacy.

Part II:  The Assassination

On November 27, 1978, Milk was assassinated by Dan White, who was sometimes an ally and sometimes a rival on the Board of Supervisors.

The tragedy is signified by these secondary progressions:

  • the progressed Sun was moving into orb of a conjunction with natal Pluto,
  • all-important Mercury was moving into orb of an opposition with natal Saturn,
  • progressed Mars opposed natal Mercury,
  • the progressed Ascendant moved to the World Axis, in a conjunction with natal Chiron and the third house cusp,
  • the progressed Moon was approaching its full phase in relation to the progressed Sun.

Milk’s solar arc measured 46 degrees and 46 minutes, just passed the critical semi-square aspect, but obviously, still in effect at that point.  Applied to his natal Uranus, it conjoins the natal Sun.  Applied to the natal Mercury, it comes to a square with natal Uranus.  And Uranus is the planetary symbol of assassination!

The significant transits for this time are self-explanatory too.  They include:

  • transiting Pluto at 18 Libra in the 8th house, in square to natal Pluto and closing the aforementioned T-square into a Grand Square,
  • transiting Neptune at 18 Sagittarius in the 10th house, in square to natal Moon,
  • transiting Uranus at 18 Scorpio, just out of the 8th house and into the 9th, formed a Grand Trine with natal Moon and natal Pluto.  (It was also approaching a Yod with the natal positions of Mars and Jupiter, but it would not peak until the following February).
  • transiting Mars hit 18 Sagittarius (on Neptune) and served as a trigger for martyrdom,
  • Mercury and Jupiter had just turned retrograde two days before the event and Venus turned direct on the day after the event at 7 Scorpio in his natal 8th house.


The city of San Francisco came to a halt by a street march of 25,000 to 40,000 mourners.

The preceding lunar eclipse on September 16th was at 23 Pisces, in a square to natal Jupiter, and the preceding solar eclipse at 8 Libra, near his 8th house cusp.  Both of them aptly set the stage for this sort of event.

By the way, Dan White, born on September 2, 1946, has natal Mars at 15 Libra, in wide conjunction to Neptune at 7 Libra.  By synastry, it sits in Milk’s 8th house and closes his natal T-square into a Grand Square. 

His defense became known as the “Twinkie Defense” (Mars in Libra?) because his actions were blamed on a junk food diet that triggered a hypoglycemic attack on the day of the assassination.  He was convicted of manslaughter, not murder, served five years of a seven-year prison term, and committed suicide on October 22, 1985.

Part III:  The Renewed Interest

We can find a few sociological reasons for enough renewed interest in Harvey Milk to have a major studio finance a film about him and have significant talent associated with it, i.e., the need for hope in our current social climate, the need for a real life “Rocky” and so forth, but there are astrological reasons too.

Milk is an excellent example of how horoscopes work long after the death of the native.

Consider, for instance, some of the secondary progressions for the opening of the film on November 26, 2008:

  • the progressed MC is conjunct the natal Ascendant,
  • the progressed Sun at 15 Leo is on the World Axis,
  • the progressed Ascendant just moved from the square to the natal Moon, and into a conjunction with natal Jupiter,
  • the progressed Moon is moving into its full phase in relation to the progressed Sun, just as it was at the time of the assassination 30 years ago.

Of course, 30 years ago means the current time is the Saturn Return of the assassination, so the public is ready to return to the event and review Milk’s significance in social trends.

The current transits to his natal chart include:

  • transiting Pluto moving from his 10th house into his 11th house, reawakening his connection with the people,  if you will,
  • transiting Neptune moving over his natal Ascendant, perhaps deifying his persona,
  • during the making of the film, transiting Saturn moved above the horizon, and just passed the square to the natal Sun and MC, so his memory is released to the public,
  • transiting Pluto just crossed over the San Francisco Ascendant, raising from the dead, not only Milk, but a time and place in modern history, an era to some.

Finally, the most recent lunar eclipse at 23 Aquarius was on his Ascendant, bringing him to light!

Part IV:  Why Sean Penn?

The synastry between real life characters and the actors who portray them is endlessly fascinating, especially when they never had an actual relationship or any interaction, and it raises many questions about the nature of symbols.

When we compare the charts of Sean Penn and Harvey Milk, here are a few of the synastry ties:

  • Penn’s Sun at 24 Leo closely conjoins Milk’s Descendant,
  • they have the same Saturn’s,
  • Penn’s South Node is conjunct Milk’s Moon,
  • Penn’s Mars is on Milk’s IC,
  • Penn’s Ascendant is in conjunction with Milk’s MC, albeit an orb of 7 degrees,
  • Penn’s Jupiter sits in opposition to Milk’s Jupiter and Venus.

Progressed synastry tells the “why now” about relationships and theirs is eye-opening:

  • Penn’s progressed Sun came to Milk’s 8th house cusp,
  • in fact, Penn’s recent progressed full Moon conjoined Milk’s 2nd house/8th house polarity,
  • during the filming, Penn’s progressed MC formed a Grand Trine with Milk’s natal Moon and Pluto,
  • Milk’s 2008 progressed IC conjoined Penn’s natal Sun,
  • Milk’s 2008 progressed Mars conjoined Penn’s Descendant,
  • during the filming, Milk’s progressed Mercury, his all-important planet, conjoined Penn’s Pluto.

Such synastry ties explain how two souls come together in a certain point in time and what the purpose of their connection will be.  Such examples of two people, who have never met, should give us pause for thought about how symbols work on a level of reality, free from the material plane.

In closing, John Marchesella, the astrologer, says, before or after seeing a biographical film or reading a biography, compare the life to the chart and find the person in the horoscope.  It’s a fine and helpful way of learning astrology and sharpening our skills.  John Marchesella, the movie buff, says, see “Milk.”  It’s a great film that captures the essence of an memorable era (albeit, only a few would say a great one), as well as the essence of a great man.

Birth Data:
Harvey Milk, May 22, 1930, 1:30 A.M., Woodmere, NY, 73 W 42, 40 N 39
Sean Penn, August 17, 1960, 3:17 P.M., Los Angeles, CA, 118 W 15, 34 N 04

John Marchesella works in New York City.  He’s been a member of NCGR since Saturn had His rings.