Harvey Milk, 25 years later

Harvey Milk, 25 years later

From:Rick Rosendall
To:Gay and Lesbian Chorus List
Sent:Thursday, November 27, 2003 1:06 AM
Subject:Harvey Milk, 25 years later


Thanksgiving this year falls on the 25th anniversary of the death of Harvey Milk.

Many of you are too young to remember that awful day 25 years ago, but you have a connection to it. The first public performance of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus was on the steps of their City Hall the night after Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated. Milk had only been elected a year before.

Some people claim that Harvey Milk was the first openly gay person elected to public office, but that is not true. That was Elaine Noble, elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1974. Also in 1974, Kathy Kozachenko was elected to the Ann Arbor City Council. But Ann Arbor was not San Francisco. SF had iconic power. Harvey was only a Supervisor, but he was Mayor of Castro Street. He had just had a major victory — and the notorious Anita Bryant a setback — when California's anti-gay Briggs Initiative was defeated (a victory for gays that was clinched, strange as it may seem, when former governor Ronald Reagan spoke out against the initiative).

Ten days before the assassinations, a cult figure named Jim Jones had committed suicide in Guyana along with hundreds of his followers. Many of the victims were San Franciscans, and the city was reeling from that when the assassinations occurred.

That day, November 27, was the day Dianne Feinstein became mayor. She was chair of the Board of Supervisors. She ran out into the hall when she heard gunshots. She saw the murderer run out of Harvey Milk's office, and she found Milk inside on the floor. She reached to feel for a pulse, and her finger went into a bullet hole. A short time later, Milk's feet stuck out from under the sheet that he was covered with, because he had been so tall. That night, thousands of people marched up Market Street holding candles in an awesome expression of collective grief. Several months later, that image was replaced by one of burning police cars as gays rioted when the assassin, Dan White, was convicted only of manslaughter instead of murder. If you are young, you may never have heard of the Twinkie Defense. White claimed to have been made crazy by eating Twinkies.

Can it really be 25 years? That is the entire span of my adult life. 1978 was the year I graduated from college. That was the year I started coming out. It was the year I first picked up another man, in an adult bookstore on 14th Street in DC during a snowstorm. Bars and bookstores — that's pretty much all we had back then, along with The Block at Dunbarton and O Streets in Georgetown (which was our prime cruising spot), and the dances that were held in the Marvin Center at George Washington University. That was a year before the first gay march on Washington, three years before my own chorus was born in DC thanks to SFGMC's national tour, and three years before we were hit by a strange, deadly disease that was initially called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (or GRID), whose devastation forced our community to grow up. But in 1978, all of that lay in the future.

In the 70s, you could occasionally catch gay guests on the David Susskind Show, and it was as if he were interviewing Martians. I remember an episode of a PBS show called The Advocates in which Frank Kameny, founder of the gay rights movement in DC, argued for gay marriage in a moot court. It sounded like the most outrageous suggestion in the world, but he was logical and articulate and aggressive and confident and openly scornful of his opponent. He was like Clarence Darrow making a fool of William Jennings Bryan in a gay version of the Scopes Trial. But I had to watch such things surreptitiously, on the TV in the basement late at night with the sound turned down low, sitting right in front of the set. Now our issues are in prime time, at the center of the national debate.

Frank Kameny is still kicking at 78. He was born only 5 years before Harvey Milk. It is strange to think that next year, I will be the age Milk was when he died. The intervening deaths read like a list of war casualties — but mostly, thanks to pharmaceuticals, like casualties from a war receding into the past. With any luck, I'll grow old like Frank Kameny, with my mind still sharp.

If you are in your twenties, such backward glances are way off in your future. When you are approaching 50, I'll be nearing Frank's age. The cycle of life goes on, and we build on foundations laid by those who came before. Death and birth go hand in hand, as illustrated by the young men who climbed up the stairs of San Francisco's City Hall 25 years ago and started to sing. That is something to give thanks for. (For one thing, gay and lesbian choruses now have a lot more music to choose from, and people to consult.)

But it's especially appropriate on this anniversary to give thanks for our gay pioneers, not too far in the past, who had to build everything from scratch because until they came along the idea of public, open gay life was unthinkable. They broke through the barrier, and no bullets or constitutional amendments will ever be able to take that idea and unthink it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Rick Rosendall
co-founder, Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC

Copyright 2003 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.