Saturday, December 13, 2008


On Thursday night, I went to see a breathtaking film. "Milk," as you know, chronicles the life and times of activist, and first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk.

Apart from the once-in-a-lifetime stellar performance of Sean Penn, it was an amazing piece of filmmaking, and this from someone who lived in the Castro in the early 1970's, and who was in San Francisco the day Harvey Milk was shot and killed in City Hall.

"Milk" captures the paradoxical nature of a city long thought to be liberal, radical, and progressive,and unearths a dark, provincial, conservative side which, in my youth, I came to experience firsthand.

In November, 1978, I was living in San Francisco, on one of myriad treks from New York which started back in 1972.

My favorite haunt from the early 1970's was Castro Street where I rented an apartment back in 1973 right over Andy's Donuts. Even back in 73, the neighborhood was diverse---part-family, part-gay, part-outlaw, part-artist. Ah yes, those were strange, and bifurcated, times.

Everybody blended together well, but the vast distance between the polarized worlds was plain to see, a difference that is explored brilliantly in "Milk" when the film juxtaposes images of Dan White's small town christening with that of Harvey Milk's big city defiance of convention too easily misconstrued as deviance.

After a short junket back to New York, I returned, and found a furnished room in a palatial Pacific Heights flat which was owned by the widow of a prominent San Francisco judge. Elsie was a prim and proper woman in her mid-60's. The apartment was fastidious. I had my own bathroom, so the only time we saw each other was in the shared kitchen. Elsie didn't work---she was clearly well provided for by her husband.

Our bedrooms were on opposite sides of the flat, so I had much-needed privacy. But, every now and again, when I thought that she was out running errands, I'd bring home some guy for a mid-afternoon romp, and we'd frolic for a few hours, then he'd leave. Back then, for me, a naked man was like a Christmas present unwrapped. Somehow, I knew that wouldn't sit well with Elsie.

One day, Elsie was standing in the foyer with her arms folded. "Do you have such low self-esteem that you would allow some man to come and use you for sex?" she asked. I recall laughing, and saying "What makes you think he's using me? I'm using him!"

So, clearly we didn't see eye to eye on things, I thought, but Elsie, through the eyes of a 30 year old, was a relic of a bygone era. At times, I wanted to see her as a character from Tennessee Williams play, or Ibsen; a source of amusement more than disdain.

Until, that is, the afternoon of November 27, 1978 when I came home, waited patiently for Elsie to finish up in the kitchen, but finding her there greeted her hysterically. "What's wrong?" she asked --- tears streaming down my face. "Didn't you hear what happened today? Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk were killed. They killed Harvey Milk" I screamed--sobbing.

Elsie dropped the dish towel, and turned to look at me marble cold: "Oh, he was just a faggot," she said, "just a faggot."

I felt every ounce of blood sink to my shoes, and I felt like my feet had been cemented to the floor. With whatever energy I could find, I stormed out of the room: "I'm moving out now." I told her I couldn't live with anyone who used the word faggot, except affectionately.

She told me I was paid up through the end of the month. "And," she said, "I have a month's security of yours." I told her she could keep my security, packed my bags, and went back east.

There are lots of Elsies in the world. Some of them are judges' wives, some of them are judges, some sit at the helms of Fortune 500 companies, some dare to lead our armed forces in battle; all of them will ultimately stew in their myopic infernos.

Harvey Milk wasn't just a hero for gays, bissexuals, transsexuals any more than Cesar Chavez was a hero for Chicanos. Harvey Milk was a hero for everyone who has ever felt different.

When he stood on his soapbox on Castro Street, and screamed into the crowd "I'm Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you," he wasn't talking about recruiting you to join his lifestyle. Harvey Milk was urging us to join him in daring to be ourselves.

The film brilliantly intersperses footage with quotes from a letter Milk wrote which was only to be read after his assassination. "Give them hope, hope, hope;" his last words.

Being different has always been a dangerous affair, look where it got Galileo, Joan of Arc, look where it got Jesus.

If he could be here with us now, Harvey might agree that the struggle doesn't end with hope; it begins there.