Saturday, March 01, 2008
The Legend of Saint Harvey Milk
A line of trucks was parked on Van Ness in front of City Hall on Friday, and I assumed they were setting up yet another large, corporate party in the City Hall rotunda.
Suddenly, a gust of wind blew the covering off the backside of one of the trucks, and I saw a hand-painted sign that read "GAY PRIDE." After a moment of total disconnect, my first thought was, "Gosh, that sign looks old-fashioned," and then realized that it was purposefully old-fashioned and that the trucks were hauling movie equipment for the Gus Van Sant film, "Milk," about the gay San Francisco Supervisor who was assassinated in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone.
It's very odd to have lived through a dramatic series of historical events, playing one's own bit part, and then watch the legends and stories accrue to those same events as manufactured mythology.
All San Franciscans were invited to be extras at a march in the Civic Center neighborhood a couple of weeks ago, to recreate the spontaneous candlelight march from Castro and Market to City Hall on the night of the assassinations, but I decided not to take part for a number of reasons. For one, I didn't feel like staying up all night, but it was also because time's river really has moved on.
My downstairs neighbor Richard, who lived through the same period in San Francisco, and has wicked stories about everybody from Cleve Jones to Dennis Peron, asked me, "Do you remember what the Castro was like in the late 70's? Everybody was young! There were virtually no old people except for the straight families who hadn't moved out yet." His memory is right, and there's no equivalent in San Francisco anymore, certainly not in the Castro. The only neighborhood filled with young people is the Haight-Ashbury, who are trying to follow an even older template, the 1960s hippies.
I've discovered over the years that politicians can have good politics (in other words, I agree with them) but still be miserable people as human beings. The reverse, interestingly enough, is also true. Harvey Milk, however, had both good politics and was a wonderful human being, with a rare mixture of fervor and humor. In 1976, a year before he was finally elected to the Board of Supervisors, I ran into him at the San Francisco Opera where he had a subscription in the Balcony Circle. I was in the top balcony standing room with Dennis, my boyfriend at the time, for Britten's "Peter Grimes" featuring a performance by Jon Vickers from which I still haven't quite recovered. Harvey came by after the first act and tapped us on the shoulder. "I know the couple next to me are not going to be showing up. Why don't you join me?" That's how we ended up in the front of the balcony sitting next to a future legend and listening to a present-tense legend.
One of the worst side effects of Milk's murder was the ascension of the reactionary hack Dianne Feinstein into the mayor's chair and subsequent U.S. Senate seat, even though she was mentor to the assassin Dan White. Still, Dianne was about the only amusing character in the forgettable "Harvey Milk" opera by Stewart Wallace that premiered in Houston and San Francisco in the early 1990s. Let's hope Gus Van Sant does a better job with the myth.