The bullet is still smashing down those doors.
My friend Amy and I went out for dinner and a movie tonight. I have to admit it was something of a strange, as well as nostalgic evening for me because of the film. And it may be difficult to explain all this here.
It is not unusual to have lived someplace, or near someplace, that appears in a film. But in this case the film takes place almost entirely in my old neighborhood. More importantly it mostly takes place on my old block. Many of the people depicted in the film were neighbors, people I would pass on the streets.
The film we saw is Gus van Sant’s Milk starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. I have to say that Penn captured the character of Milk almost perfectly.
My apartment in San Francisco has long topped the list of the places where I loved living. San Francisco was, and is, a city I love. I have always said that everyone should live in San Francisco once.
My flat occupied the third floor. On the first floor was a restaurant.To the left of the restaraurant was a door leading to some winding stairs to the second floor where you faced two doors. On the right was the door to some offices used by one of the local businesses. The door on the left was my door. It was deceptive; this door didn’t directly enter my apartment at all. Instead it opened up to a long staircase that made a sharp right turn at the very top. This stairway and hall at the top was just the foyer to the apartment.
At the top of the stairs there was an old large radio from the 1930s and the entire wall, from the second floor up the stairs, was a collection of old film posters which I eventually sold at auction. If you turned left at the top of the stairs you went into another foyer with the bedroom off to the right and the kitchen, pantry, bathroom and porch straight ahead. To the right of the main foyer was my lounge and next to it my library. These two rooms had massive bay windows looking onto Castro while the back faced toward Twin Peaks.
If I sat in my library I could read and watch that continuing soap opera that was Castro Street. Across the street and a bit to the right was what had been Harvey Milk’s business, Castro Camera. Above the shop, facing my side of the street was Harvey’s old apartment.
Seeing this film brought back a flood of memories of my old neighborhood and how it had been a epicenter of a social movement that is still changing America today -- I believe for the better, for the most part.
This films depicts Harvey Milks relative short political career before he was gunned down by the conservative ex-cop politician, Dan White. White snuck through a basement window into city hall and murdered the Mayor Moscone and Milk.
What I didn’t realize, until recently, what that White wanted other victims. One of whom was Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver. That surprised me. While Carol and I differed on many issues we had a strong common ground on defending Second Amendment rights which allowed us to work together on that issue.
Carol Ruth once said that for her a handgun was “a necessary piece of household equipment.” Had White run into Silver, before he killed Moscone and Milk, things may have turned out very differently. Silver was a contributer to a book edited by SF ACLU lawyer Don Kates, Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. Kates, like Silver was another ally on self-defense issues.
Milk shows an America lurching to the Right as Anita Bryant and Senator John Briggs push their antigay agenda. Milk was a major opponent of those campaigns in California.
During this time period I was a young writer working for a publication in the Midwest. But I paid attention. And when Anita Bryant came to the area I spent the day with her, and her then husband Bob Green, for an article I was writting. It became clear to me that she and Green were not in a harmonious relationship. She spent so much “saving the family” that her own fell apart. By the way they fought in front of me I could see a divorce was coming.
Bob Green struck me as an upleasant character and Kathy Lee Gifford, who had done babysitting for Bryant, said that Green was emotionally abusive. This fit well with what I witnessed. Anita eventually left him, went bankrupt, admitted to a pill addiction and eventually remarried. That was followed by further bankruptcy filings by her and her husband. Of course all this means she is now running a fundamentalist “ministry” out of Oklahoma City.
In the film Harvey tells a rally against Bryant that the audience ought to thank Anita Bryant. He noted that Anita’s hate campaign didn’t destroy the gay community but unified it. And that was tue.
This is precisely what I’ve been saying about the short-sighted Proposition 8. The parallels are intriguing. The antigay campaign that Bryant and Briggs led, Proposition 6, did unite a lot of people and radicalized a whole generation of gay people. And this is what I believe the Mormon sponsored Proposition 8 has done.
I saw Milk in a realtively conservative state in a very conservative town. Yet the cinema had moved Milk to the largest theater they had. The show before the one I saw had a large attendance and so did the showing we attended. What I noticed was the large number of young gay people, in their teens and twenties, who had come out to see this film. Most of them were not even born when Harvey Milk was gunned down.
Yet I can assure you that this film hit them where they live. They are all aware of Prop 8 and the Mormon Church. They saw this film about the Prop 6 campaign run by fundamentalist churches. And they reacted to the message of Harvey Milk.
It is important to contrast their expectations in life to those of gay people from Harvey’s generation. Virtually all gay Americans from Harvey’s era, grew up in a country where it was a crime to be gay. They faced arrest merely for having drinks with friends. The police, even in San Francisco, didn’t mind engaging in some “fag bashing” themselves.
Many of the young people in the showing of Milk have never lived under governments that would arrest them for merely being out with other gay people. Harvey’s generation knew the constant fear of losing a job, being evicted from their apartments just because they were gay. Today’s young gays know little of that. In the time of Milk full grown adults were terrified to be open about their sexual orientation. Many of today’s young gays came out to their parents and friends in junior high school and have always been open. They haven’t always been accepted, and often faced bullies, but they don’t know the closet the way Harvey Milk did.
The gay people of the Milk era were satisfied with token acceptance. It was considered something of an accomplishment just to get the police to stop assaulting you. The idea of full legal equality was just a fantasy. When people are satisfied with “don’t hit me so much” they aren’t likely to ask, “When can I have the same rights you do?”
Today’s young gays have different expectations, so the Prop 8 vote was a real shock to them, it was a wake up call. I’m betting that hundreds of Harvey Milks were born in the Prop 8 defeat. If the Mormon theocracy thinks that they won a victory they will find out precisely how wrong they are. In just this one showing, in one town, on one night, the story of Harvey Milk energized several new young activists who won’t rest until they live in a world where they are treated as equals. That is not what the Mormon leadership intended with their campaign. The young people in the cinema were ready for the message that Harvey Milk had to give them.
There is no doubt that Harvey and I were miles apart on many issues. But neither is there any doubt that I have immense respect for what he did and appreciate his contribution toward legal equality. And while I will fight Harvey’s legacy where he was wrong, I will applaud his legacy where he was correct. And I appreciate that his message, through this film, is reaching a new generation. I fully expect to see the day, in my lifetime, when full legal equality for gay people is achieved.
Conservative victories, such as Prop 8, can not extinguish the desire for equality before the law. In truth such conservative wins may not even slow down the drive for equality but speed excelerate it. Prop 8 recreated unity in the gay community, something that had vanished in the years since Milk was campaigning. Prop 8 made lots of gay people angry. And it put a fire under young gays who were less interested in activism than their older counterparts. Satisfied with many of the gains achieved since the 60s the gay rights movement was moribund; the Mormons and the Prop 8 campaign changed that.
Days before his murder Harvey sat down and recorded his thoughts, thoughts he said he wanted made public only if he were murdered. On that tape he said:”If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” I can’t see today’s generation of gays ever accepting the closet as an acceptable place to live. They are demanding a place at the table. They aren’t asking, they aren’t requesting, they are demanding. And I believe they will succeed.
Those who fought this battle with Harvey are growing tired, weary from the journey. Many of the brave pioneers have died, some like Harvey had their life stolen from them by the very hatred they fought. Until Prop 8, these baby boomers of the gay community were watching political activism fading away. So much had been accomplished, so much had changed, that many of the young didn’t see the need to do the “Harvey Milk thing”. Now they see. In one short campaign the conservatives created tens of thousands of new activists. Tonight the cinema was filled with many of these people. One of the lines Harvey liked to use at his political rallies was: “I’m Harvey Milk. And I’m here to recruit you.” With the wake-up call conveniently provided by the Mormons I suspect that thousands of young people who watch Milk will respond to Havey’s recruitment drive.
For more information on Harvey Milk you might read The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts. In another of those odd overlaps of life I worked with Randy’s brother, Gary, on some political projects of common interest. Gary Shilts is an active libertarian in Illinois.