I just came back from the press screening of "Milk."
It wasn't ten seconds before I burst into tears. The film opens with the 1978 newscast footage of then-City Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing that Mayor George Moscone and fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk have been gunned down and are dead. Her steely voice breaks— the first and last time you ever saw that— and the crowd falls apart.
The movie is fantastic, as a movie— but for those of us who lived in San Francisco at the time, it brings the era back like a wet slap. The tears, though wrenching, are welcome.
The timing of this film's release, so close to the recent election and Proposition 8's horrible victory, make watching Gus Van Sant's feature a bit like reading into a crystal ball. What would Harvey have done, if he had lived? Is Obama going to see this film? I hope he cries hard enough to hold a cathartic press conference.
After I watched Milk, I ran out to rent Rob Epstein's Oscar-winning documentary, "The Times of Harvey Milk," which has a more satisfying ending for me than the Hollywood version.
In "The Times.." the movie ends not with the miles-long candlelight march of Milk and Moscone's memorial, but with the night a few months later— when Dan White, the assassin, got his verdict and sentence: Five Years. This guy crawled through a window, armed, his pockets filled with extra ammo, and shot Mayor Moscone where he sat. Then he walked into Harvey's office and shot him in the head, back, and scrotum.
Dan— who looked like a 1960s Ken doll— told the jury of his peers that he was under stress, suffering marital problems, wasn't eating right, coping with a shitty job. They wept. This dude is the only man in America who really did get an audience of his peers: No minorities, no gays, no liberals. Involuntary manslaughter, step on down.
That night, the city rioted. There were blazing fires instead of melting candles. Everyone knew that if White had only killed Mayor Moscone—not that anyone would want that awful choice— he would've been given a serious sentence. But because Dan killed a "fruit," he was blessed with the ultimate Hail Mary.
It's interesting that there's been so much chafe about "race politics" in the wake of Prop 8, because on "White Night"— as it was called— the straight black community and the gay ghetto reached their deepest rapport. All critical eyes were on the criminal justice system, where there are far too many victims deemed unimportant, the human beings who just "don't count."
Eighteen months after Dan was released back homr to the Excelsior district, he killed himself in his garage, running the exhaust fumes and playing his favorite song on the car radio.
I remember when I heard of his suicide I was driving, and pulled over the car. "My god," I thought, as unprepared as I was tonight in the theater: "He was a closet case." —Just felt it in my gut, right then.
I wrote to a few of my old friends in San Francisco to ask them about their memories in light of the recent movie, and I'd like to share what they wrote me.
Of course I participated in the White Night Riots; what an outrage! My blood still boils when I remember. Doreen and I were in the thick of it, pushing in the doors at City Hall. Police cars burning, rocks thrown, the cops charging and gassing us. I saw two guys pull a parking meter out of the sidewalk and heave it at City Hall. The only person the crowd would listen to that night was Amber Hollibaugh. Every one else was shouted down.
Most of the people in the streets that night were not the type you see lobbying for gay civil rights today in suits and ties. It was the young, the hustlers, the working stiffs, the whores, the dispossessed, who had been hounded and beaten and arrested by the police for years for the crime of being queer. It was everyone who'd been told, "Your life isn't worth two cents."
The term made me think about how I revealed myself to others. I did not consider myself closeted back when I came to San Francisco from Michigan in 1969, but discretion was a way of life. Unless someone asked me point blank I did not volunteer any information.
My rule was if they asked me, then I would tell ‘em. Hardly anyone asked, though, and my parents did not get near the subject.
Harvey wanted us to tell everyone— with our parents at the top of our list. My mother did cry when I told her and my father was honest in his judgment. He said he had lots of male friends whom he did not need to sleep with and I could do the same.
I met Harvey Milk on a quiet residential San Francisco street miles away from the
Castro district, when he was running for supervisor. I was walking with my lover, Tee. He came right up to us, with his big, bright face and floppy ears and told us he was gay, running for supervisor, and we should vote for him.
It was odd, because we were doing a "blend-with-the-neighborhood" thing and he outed us as lesbians on the spot! We were speechless and could barely manage a "well, alright then!" before he continued merrily down the street.
It was a spontaneous moment to be recognized by a total stranger within a positive gay context, in a foreign neighborhood. That moment had no history, and for a brief flash I could see its light project into the future.
I started my drive to come out by first telling my parents and working my way down to total strangers. I changed my rule from "wait ‘til they ask" to "tell ‘em before they even think to ask."
The results were unnerving. I expected people to unleash their vitriolic disgust, but instead they treated it like an adventure in a foreign land and seemed thrilled to meet such a rare bird as I.
That winter of 1978 was a hard one. I broke up with Tee. I didn't have a strong network of friends and I needed to change many aspects of my life, from work and housing to friendship and psychological outlook.
On top of that, I had run into trouble with the law. I regularly turned myself into the county jail to work off parking ticket violations by spending the night in the pokey— but i missed some critical deadline and a bench warrant was issued for my arrest.
The judge said I could go to jail or do therapy. Naturally, I chose therapy and began to scheme a plan that would turn the sentence into a positive experience. I chose a traditional Freudian shrink out of the phone book, thinking I would do battle with the devil himself and shine my coming-out light.
The "devil" turned out to be a woman who looked the part of a proper Freudian shrink and was as quiet as a sphinx. She didn't blink an eye when I announced I was a lesbian and that I liked it that way. We sat in matching burgundy leather chairs that reached over our heads. I couldn't sit comfortably in my chair without my feet coming up off the floor which made me feel like an infant. Not at all like the messenger I intended to be.
Things really south in November. I caught a terrible flu that made me delirious
and then— Jonestown happened. (Nine hundred people, mostly from San Francisco, were offed in a mass Kool-Aid suicide/killing).
The news was surreal and caught me off guard. I was tipping off the edge of the merry-go-round, “a lost ball in the tall weeds,” as my grandmother would say.
Whatever messianic journey I was on, I abandoned— and started to pay attention to my basic survival needs.
A week later, Harvey Milk was assassinated.
That night, I recall a therapy secession in which I was barely able to speak. The sphinx spoke to me with kindness. I couldn't understand what she said, but I recognized her tone of compassion.
I remember searching for my parked car for an hour and a half, determined to find it, despite the raising panic that threatened to overrule me. All around me, for miles down Market Street, was a large, quiet crowd of people walking with candles. I can see myself looking down on many candles melting into the concrete.
Looking back at that time, the boundary between "them and us" was permanently
altered— both at large and within my own system. I love to laugh at myself but
some of it was not so funny. What an enormous effort it took to move things around a
The mechanics of our current consciousness surrounding queerfolk is grounded on this coming-out process that Harvey Milk insisted upon. Person to person— and brick by brick— the whole wall has been altered. It's still there— but much easier to step over.
Film & Photo Credit: 1. Clip from Half Nelson. 2. Trailer for Milk. 3. Photo from Honey Lee of two of her prints in the darkroom, one of herself on right, and Amber Hollibaugh on left.