The Myth of the Twinkie Defense

Harvey Milk, left, and George Moscone

Harvey Milk, left, and George Moscone

The recent bankruptcy of Hostess, makers of Wonder Break and the famous dessert cake Twinkies, means the end of two famous brands. Since the news was announced thousands of people have crowded stores in search of Twinkies, intent on storing up the sugary snacks. The end of Twinkies also brings to mind a tragic and famous moment in U.S. history, one that underscores how sometimes the myth is more influential than the facts.

 On November 27, 1978, former San Francisco city supervisor Dan White climbed through a window of city hall and walked to the office of Mayor George Moscone and fatally shot him two times. Then he reloaded his handgun and walked down the hall to the office of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay San Francisco supervisor, and shot him to death. White was quickly taken into custody.

 At his trial White’s defense team argued that White had been depressed at the time of the shootings. A psychiatrist called on by the defense to testify pointed to several changes in White’s usually impeccable appearance and habits as evidence of his clinical depression. One of the changes in behavior mentioned, almost in passing, was that the once health conscious White had begun eating large amounts of sugary snacks. He offered these changes and several others as evidence of White’s “reduced capacity,” which the defense argued was a mitigating circumstance that meant he was not guilty of first-degree murder but of a lesser offense.

 After several days of deliberations the jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. Immediately there were protests and the violence of what came to be called the “White Night Riots.”

 The so-called “Twinkie Defense” became an instant sensation. However, the psychiatrist or defense attorney had never mentioned Twinkies. Precisely who first used the phrase “Twinkie Defense” is not clear. Some say it was a local satirist, while others say it was local newspaper columnist Herb Caen. Regardless of who first penned the phrase the words were never uttered in the courtroom. But that hasn’t stopped the “Twinkie Defense” from becoming an infamous example of how outrageous arguments have been used to free obviously guilty defendants.

 Harvey Milk’s life as a trailblazer for the rights of gay Americans is not overshadowed by his violent death or the myths that have sprung up around Dan White’s trial. Today he is remembered as one of the principal figures in the Gay Rights Movement. To learn more about his life and contributions to the progress of civil rights check out Morgan Reynolds’ biography of Milk, No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk by David Aretha (9781599351292 )

John Riley


Published in: on December 6, 2012 at 10:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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“I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight…”-Harvey Milk

A gay rights demonstration at the Democratic National Convention in New York City in 1976

This week, tensions have been high as the state of North Carolina voted for Amendment 1, which defines marriage as solely a union between a man and a woman, stopping progress for homosexual couples in the state looking for equal rights.

A day after the amendment passed, President Obama announced that he endorses same-sex marriage, according to the New York Times. Obama said in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

If civil rights activist Harvey Milk were alive, he would most likely be celebrating, as he is known for his fight for gay rights in the 1970s.

Wrote David Aretha, author of No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk, “[Harvey] Milk, the outspoken voice of the gay community, was a lightening rod for bigotry. In 1977, he had been elected as a city supervisor in San Francisco, making him one of the first openly gay Americans elected to public office in a major U.S. city.”

As Aretha put it, Milk “fought for the have-nots and left-outs, especially gays and lesbians,” and in 2009, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

And today, the president has made history regarding the issue of gay rights. The New York Times reported, “A sitting United States president took sides in what many people consider the last civil rights movement, providing the most powerful evidence to date of how rapidly views are moving on an issue that was politically toxic just five years ago.”

It has also been reported that younger generations are slowly taking over the voting booths, and they are in favor of gay rights, for the most part. And so, more and more voters are flipping the script on something that has until recent years been looked at as a non-issue, something that was just never going to happen: giving homosexuals equal rights.

Harvey Milk once said, “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 need hope!”

With younger generations taking the helm and the president’s endorsement, the LGTB community can maintain hope that one day they will receive the same rights that their heterosexual counterparts enjoy.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information on Harvey Milk and his work, check out No Compromise: The Story of Harvey Milk by David Aretha (ISBN 9781599351292)

Published in: on May 11, 2012 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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