Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Milk ... and Gay Rights Right Now

We saw Milk last night at the Castro Theater ... certainly the best place to see it given that most of the events happened within two blocks of there. I went with Ian and his lover Andrew and with my sainted ex, Richard. Ian and I were in gay liberation together in the 70s in Vancouver, BC. (I used to call Ian by the pseudonym Frobisher in the blog, but I am not sure why I am so circumspect and I am changing that effective now.)

What to say: it was a great movie, I was near tears from beginning to end, clutching at air. Sean Penn's Milk is perfect ... the only time I forgot he was not actually Harvey Milk was when he had his shirt off and when they showed his backside as he spoke in front of San Francisco's magisterial City Hall ... Milk just was not that buff. The Cleve Jones character was perfect ... I know Cleve, though never well and not recently.

The one historical complaint which must be made is that it failed to show the gay movement. In reality, Milk did not invent the movement, but he did ride it and to some degree inherit it. It was not Milk or Jones running from bar to bar that got those thousands of gay people to march at different times. It was the broader movement and the broader mobilization. When things happened, people knew to go to Castro and Market. At the time of the Briggs Initiative, the main local organization, never mentioned in the film, was BAGL (Bay Area Gay Liberation) ... I googled it and found virtually no references to it, although an obit for the recently deceased activist Hank Wilson mentions the name in passing. BAGL was a mass organization with a very sharp curve from nothing to everything to nothing again. It is natural for a heroic film to slide on the history in this fashion; it is more than a little painful given that the history of this era is being written by the few survivors and often by those opposed us at the time given the terrible toll from AIDS.

But aside from this problem, the film masterfully recreated the feel of the era. The apartments felt real ... disorganized and eclectic ... the meetings were real ... chaotic and sui generis. The street was like it was. Toad Hall, the bar that the cops raided ... I loved that bar. It was the hippie bar, sylvan and dark and magical sexy. The film was nostalgia on that level; I want those heroic moments of discovery and creation back ... that's what it said.

Worth noting too that the film did not "PC" the scene ... Gay Liberation was overwhelmingly a movement of gay men and of us, overwhelmingly white. We could not get women involved both because of the open hostility of feminism and because of the unfortunate tendency of the political lesbians of the time toward non-activist lesbian separatism. I do not have a straightforward answer for why more black and Asian gays did not get involved ... one cannot lay it solely at the door of community hostility because white gays also had community hostility. But the fact is that gay men made Gay Liberation, and without us it would not have occurred. There is no shame in that, notwithstanding the ceaseless and vitriolic and dismissive rewriting of history that we have to endure. Not sure how accurate the character of Anne Kronenburg is (I'll check the spelling later), but there were always one or two lesbian gay liberationists who were often shunned by mainstream feminism. In Canada, we had the recently deceased Chris Bearchell; that was pretty much it!

San Francisco was ground center of the movement. Notwithstanding that the modern movement was invented in New York. The key events occurred in very short order here. (I was an activist in Vancouver through this period in an organization called the Gay Alliance Toward Equality, GATE; we were in ready contact with San Francisco through our friend Michael Merrill, who is pictured with Harvey Milk in the immediate previous post on to this blog, and through various other activists including Howard Wallace who is still "on the pavement", as it were.) I was chilled again to see and hear Anita Bryant, the boogey man if ever there was one; I return to her below. She succeeded in turning around our gains in Dade County and in Wichita, and also in Eugene and St. Paul which then and now were viewed as liberal. You see, then as now, it was legitimate to hate us alone ... you're allowed to do it even if you cannot openly hate almost any other group; nowadays Mexicans come close to us, but still the haters have to be careful with them and refer to their immigration status not their national name.

The Briggs Initiative almost certainly failed because of how far it over-reached. But we beat the damn thing, and that was our first electoral victory, and still one of very few. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the film in Milk's role in defeating the initiative. At the time, I was a lefty, radical gay activist (never actually a GLFer ... see previous post ... though I tended to have knee-jerk ultraleft sympathies which were kept under control by Maurice Flood, about whom I have written before). I saw the victory then as the work of the BAGL type organizations and the mass mobilization. It is obviously more complex than that. All that said, the victory was euphoric.

And then the assassination ... it seems so natural now, like it was always fated. But it was a thunderbolt. Remember that the gay explosion had the feel of an extension of the counterculture because it took place in that context and often in that milieu. We felt we were part of the new history, irresistible, always moving forward, inevitable, unbeatable. Milk's assassination brought us back to the world like an airplane slamming into a mountain. Like so many turning points in history, it was a bit of an accident. What if Milk had gone to the bathroom and White couldn't find him. What if he had delayed or had a meeting. White didn't know any of that. He went there to kill Moscone, and then take out the fag. Shots were heard, people were wondering what was happening. What if someone had raised the alarm.

That is not how it occurred and its inevitability of is bolstered only by the fact that it did occur.

But the lesson of the film is this ... as I wrote yesterday ... Gay Liberation has always been about civil rights. And the civil rights of gay people are revolutionary because they challenge the dominance of religious control of morality and the state. True then, true now.

So in the spirit of Harvey Milk, I am going to take up once more the debate in which I was involved yesterday in regard to Bob Ostertag's frankly retrograde and compromisist approach to the gay marriage struggle. It has quickly devolved into what evidently started it ... a way for gay ultralefts to provide cover for a centrist president-elect who threw us under the bus. That's how I see it. I support this centrist president-elect, and I believe that a rational centrist is precisely what we need in this country. But the celerity with which he betrayed us must be noted, and we have a moral duty to ourselves and an ethical duty to everyone to point it out loud and clear. Whether that is a protest at the inauguration or through the ample public space for debate and demonstration is up to those who choose to make their voices heard. It is not up to a cadre of compromisers peddling half-truths and shibboleths. Sorry Bob ... I have nothing but respect for you ... but you are wrong-headed on this.

I somehow got onto a mailing list on Facebook ... I assume because Bob and I are friends ... which illustrates this underlying point. One person pointed out that Melissa Ethridge if giving cover to Rick Warren; this is what someone wrote to this mailing list (spelling errors not corrected):

Check out Huff Post. Melissa Etheridge is in our camp!
WAR IS OVER IF YOU WANT IT.

We can stop GAY. Incs and Andrew Sullivan's plans to
disgrace us at the obama inagural.


Gawd noze what "WAR IS OVER" means. But I do have to point out that the success of the gay marriage protests were precisely because activists went over the heads ... or under the feet ... of the official gay organizations and organized for themselves in a modern, more-electronic version of the same stuff we did in the 70s.

Milk would have been on the side of the activists, not the ultralefts.

Then this note today on the same mailing list:

One last thought. Obama lent his image and quotes to the No on 8 campaign. He did not have to do this, it was a huge favor to our community and probably one of the reasons we did not lose in a landslide.

East Bay black politicians like Wilson Riles, Keith Carson and Maudelle Shireek have been raising our cvil rights issues for a long time in front of audiences where there wasn't a gay person in the room. I wonder what they would think of a protest at Obama's inaugural.

So some decide to thank him for this by protesting a 60 second speech by an evangelical who's mind can be changed. That is if you believe change and personal growth are possible. A friend of mine, J.-P.-, i have no idea of her sexual orientation but i know she has a mighty fine spirit, is marching in the inaugural parade and will carry Jamiacan and rainbow flags in support of us. I would hate to have a predominantly white group rain on her parade or embarrass her. It was at my behest she carry a rainbow flag rather than an HRC flag. We'll let Andreew Sullivan do that. Obama is a bigger person than I. I would be thinking "what a bunch of $#%^ing ingrates.


Hard to know where to begin with something like this ... the inventions about East Bay politicians are particularly laughable. I am not identifying the author because some day he should be ashamed of this, and he is a well-known and respected street-level AIDS activist whose entire career bespeaks courage and commitment; I respect him deeply. But his views here are, in a word, reactionary.

What Milk taught us by his example is that we must speak truth to power. Not when it is convenient for the powerful, but always. Not when it is comfortable for us, but always. Every time. Without exception. Gay Liberation is not about race and cannot be subsumed under race. It is not even about gender, in my view, though certainly the trans-folks raise compelling issues about social constructions of gender. It is about loving whom you want to love and having sex with whom you want to have sex. It is about gay people being full human beings in every sense, and having inalienably the same rights as are inalienably a part of every other free person.

So back to Anita Bryant ... as I noted above, it was chilling to hear her voice and remember how her hatred spread its dark wings and cast a shadow over our lives. There is not a whit of difference between Anita Bryant and Rick Warren ... he has himself said that he entirely agrees with the positions of James Dobson, a virulent homo-hater, except in "tone". And that alone is what distinguishes the Anita Bryant homo-haters from the Rick Warren homophobes. Tone. Nothing but tone.

Tone and the smile of a preacher will get you a kick in the teeth. That's what Obama gave us, and it has been crushing. He should have known better, but he did not. Who is going to show him what we mean and what we demand?

What would Harvey have done?

On my way to a Christmas party at Richard's ... I will try to illustrate this with some photos tomorrow or on Boxing Day.

1 comment:

Ted said...

Another excellent, excellent post. I think we're on exactly the same political wave length.