Sunday, December 07, 2008

Milk on celluloid

We almost floated out of the Castro Theatre, holding hands and prancing down the sidewalk last week. The biopic Milk transported these two aging, long-partnered, lesbians back to our youth when being gay was about wanting to get laid, not about getting married. If you have a chance, do go see it and share the joy and terror that was the emerging gay movement of the 1970s.

The film and its times recalled for me a line from the murdered Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton:

"All together we have more death than they,
But all together we have more life than they."

Isn't that always the case when people are coming into the struggle for their freedom?

Of course I've got commentary. Hopefully most viewers of the movie will notice an absence. Aside from Anne Kronenburg, there are NO women in this story. That's true to the period. Lesbians in that time were more often fighting alongside other women still barely winning the rudiments of equality in employment, getting credit, raising children, etc. Gays might have been emerging, but the Equal Rights Amendment was going down to defeat and we cared.

I lived no more than a mile and half from the scenes in Milk, but in my little local political world, the struggle was about whether Latinos would finally elect a Latino to the Board of Supervisors from the Mission neighborhood (didn't happen) -- and how those of us who were lesbian and gay should relate to Latino fears that we were changing their turf.

Many San Francisco lesbians of the period were glad those boys in the Castro were there, but their world was not ours. Of necessity, we were more about survival and sobriety. Women did not get deeply integrated into LGBT struggles until the male leadership of the 1970s was decimated by AIDS in the 1980s.

The film makes me want to go back and restudy the campaign that defeated the Briggs initiative, the 1978 measure that would have fired gay teachers, and anyone who spoke up for them. We won that one, 65-35. Certainly the role Harvey Milk played, vividly portrayed in the film, demanding that gays "come out" and debating homophobes was a part of the victory. My ground level recollection of the campaign has several features:
  • the Briggs was the first time I remember hip and groovy straight people incorporating the struggle for gay rights as part of their self-understanding of liberal identity;
  • and, contrary to received dogma about how you win elections, the anti-Briggs forces never came close to achieving unity of message and organization. There were at least three major anti-Briggs campaigns that I can remember; affiliates of each thought the others were going to ruin us.
I'll have to do that research from where I sit now and try to understand why we won. Certainly one factor was that we had outspoken support against Briggs from both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

But that wasn't Harvey's game. He was about speaking out and standing up for ourselves. You have to love Sean Penn's portrayal of the guy as the Pied Piper of Gay Liberation. See the film if you can.


naomi dagen bloom said...

"Women did not get deeply integrated into LGBT struggles until the male leadership of the 1970s was decimated by AIDS in the 1980s." This startled me, Jan. From my hetero feminist spot, I'd thought it was about a general shift that came from more women in higher ed...questions raised by the second wave, women's studies, and protests against the war in Vietnam.

Looking forward to more of your thoughts on this.

sfmike said...

Jan is completely correct. Lesbians in the 1970s in San Francisco, at least in my memory, were for the most part female separatists and very hardcore leftists (or total hardcore capitalists). The gay and lesbian communities had a lot of trust issues, and still do, though not to the same extent.

I'm scared to see the movie, to tell you the truth, because I lived the damned thing pretty much at ground zero. I actually preferred Harvey Milk's losing election night parties to his winning one, partly because they were such great gatherings, where yes, one hoped to get laid.

Rebecca Gordon said...

Mike is right that some of us were hardcore separatists, and others hardcore leftists - although these two groups were pretty much mutually exclusive, due to disagreements about the Primary Contradiction.

Some of us in the former group were living a liberation as thrilling and glorious as the one a mile away in the Castro. We were discovering the world-shifting reality that women are human beings. It is hard to remember, from the distance of 30 years the power in poet Muriel Rukeyser's question and answer:

"What would happen if women spoke the truth?

"The world would split open."

I'm startled these days when I encounter folks - including women in their teens and twenties - who think of women's liberation, including its passionate struggles over the place of men in our movement and our world, as something that happened primarily in the academic world.

We fought these things out on the streets, and within a new set of parallel institutions - healthcare centers open and clandestine, shelters for battered women, and a whole intellectual world of feminist presses, newspapers, and bookstores that at that time had nothing to do with an academic world that still considered women's lives and work trivia.

Jane R said...

What is amazing to me, and I have to keep re-learning every semester, is that young college women have no idea how recent all the struggles for change were.

It's a little freaky to teach the 70s (and '80s!) as history especially when one has lived that period as witness and participant. (This happens especially in two of my courses, one in feminist and womanist theologies and another in African American religion and theology. Both courses deal with sexual orientation, and not so much as theory but as a reality within communities - though the two go together, or should.)

It's also astounding (though I shouldn't really be surprised) how much we all live in subcultures. Many of us have no idea how the subculture next door lives or thinks. It's very true of my students but true of almost all of us to some extent.

As for the shift in leadership brought about by the AIDS epidemic, my best friend from college Peter pointed it out for me as it was happening in his shul,Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the lgbt synagogue in New York City, and I witnessed it during my visits there with him over the decades. You can track the epidemic and the change in relationship between gay men and lesbians through the history of that congregation.

It's also interesting to track the history of lesbians and gay men via the health care movements in the women's and gay men's communities, and also to look at the racial dimensions of these movements and of various forms of community health care. Rebecca reminds us well of how much the women's movement of the 1970s (with much, much lesbian leadership, though not exclusively so) gave us in the way of basic health care for women from the sequelae and prevention of battering to basic primary care to reproductive health.

I'm eager to see the movie. It's not a complete picture of the era, but I gather it is a very good partial one.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree to a certain extent about queer women and men working together in 70's. Look at "the times of Harvey milk" and you'll see many women involved (for one ann kronnenberg is a far stronger figure than in the film). Sally Gearheart had on again off again relations with gay men but often worked together. Gwenn craig and bill krause were the prime movers who organized a protest march against the killing of Robert hillsborough. Gwenn and bill were both later presidents of Harvey Milk Club. After white night riot it was Gwenn who gave the stunning "no apologies" speech for the rioters actions.
Gwenn and bill were also co-chairs of "no on 6." many no on 6 groups (like mine-health care workers) were men and women.

Harvey's retinue also included many drag queens and straight women (andrea Jepson who ran anti-NYC movement in No Cal, Sharon Johnson who later became Harry Britt's aide.

I could give more examples. It is also true that there were many people working in all male or all female (or all tranny)
Groups. Cusic

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