Sunday, April 06, 2008

Harvey Milk for President!

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician "in the history of the planet," to quote Time magazine. He represented my neighborhood on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was killed in 1978 (along with Mayor George Moscone) by city supervisor Dan White, a seemingly nice guy, by some accounts, who turned out to be a raving lunatic.

But when White was sentenced to a mere seven years for the crime, there were riots at City Hall and in the Castro. Here's some (murky) footage:



Now director Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Paranoid Park, etc.) is making a film of those events, staring Sean Penn as Milk, and much of the shoot occurred during the past several months on Castro Street, where I live on the border between the Castro and Noe Valley neighborhoods.

It's fascinating to watch a film put together: the facades of many Castro businesses were torn down and rebuilt to appear as they were in the 1970s; we saw famous people loitering around coffee shops; we watched staggering amounts of preparation for scenes that appeared to last for two minutes; and we residents were herded like cattle to avoid stumbling into scenes where our clothing would have made us anachronisms. Here's a little video someone did on the transformation:



But it was also interesting to hear gray-haired gay men reminisce about those days--and to hear the Castro's children ask about this Harvey Milk person. Liko wanted to know what all the fuss was about, of course, and I explained as best I could.

He gets that some of his friends have two mommies or two daddies, and it doesn't seem weird to him. I don't need to explain "gay" to him, though he doesn't know that word. He just knows that kids have different mixes of parents, and that boys can be affectionate with boys and girls with girls, just like his mom and I are affectionate. That's not so complicated, is it?

But it was painfully difficult to explain that there was once a time when the parents of his friends could not be parents--they couldn't be anything. They were invisible. And people like Harvey Milk helped create a place for them in playgrounds, schools, neighborhoods, and every area of life.

Love is easy to explain; hate is hard. It's not really suitable for children. One early morning I walked with Liko down Castro, and they had apparently just finished filming scenes of the "White Night Riots." The Castro was once again transformed, now with smashed windows, burned-out cars, and graffiti.

"What's going on, daddy?" Liko asked. I didn't say anything and I was just thankful that this was the reenactment of the riot, not the real thing. It was genuinely chilling to see the neighborhood in a state of ruin, however temporary and imaginary.

This history is often news to children of both queer and straight parents--both are learning about Harvey Milk and what he meant for the neighborhood. One afternoon during the shoot I heard this conversation between my friend Lisa (a lesbian mom) and her oldest son, about 9:

"Why was Harvey Milk so important?"

"He helped stand up for the rights of gay people."

"But what does that mean?"

"It means that we can take care of you and not be afraid of anyone taking you away."

Which is really cool, in every single way. I'm glad Van Sant is making this film, and I'm looking forward to seeing it, and I'm proud to live in a place with such great history.

By coincidence, the video of an updated version of Wyclef Jean's "If I Was President" was shot in the neighborhood at the same time as Milk. Liko and my wife Olli got roped into it one afternoon and they cheerfully participated, and now the video is out and they're in it, with many amusing San Francisco street scenes. They appear (for about a second in front of the Castro Theater) at the three minutes, eleven seconds point, near the end:



It's an accidental, personal juxtaposition, but it seems to me that "If I Was President" has a lot to say to Milk:

[chorus]
If I was president,
I'd get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday,
and buried on Sunday.

If I was president...
If I was president

An old man told me, instead of spending billions on the war,
we can use some of that money, in the ghetto.
I know some so poor, they use the spring as the shower,
when screaming "fight the power."
That's when the vulture devoured

[chorus]
If I was president,
I'd get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday,
and buried on Sunday.

If I was president...
If I was president...
If I was president...
If I was president

Tell the children the truth, the truth.

3 comments:

Just Another Dad said...

My 4 year-old has friends with widely varying parental arrangements (married mom & dad, single moms, same sex couples, and one family with two moms AND a dad) but to date we haven't got past the point of "kids have all kinds of parents and parenting arrangements."

I realized that if we were having this conversation a generation ago, or even perhaps a decade or two ago, it wouldn't be about how to explain to kids same-sex couples/parents, but rather inter-racial couples/families. The latter has become, at least in the big cities that many of us live in, much more normative, if not completely accepted in all quarters -- but certainly more accepted that GLBT families, for now.

chicago pop said...

Hah! That's awesome. Now I want to be in a video with Spot too, even if only for 3 seconds.

Had a girlfriend in Noe Valley. Fun while it lasted!

That's some great history there -- can't wait to see the film -- and thanks for the great sense of place that comes through here.

chicago pop said...

I realized that if we were having this conversation a generation ago, or even perhaps a decade or two ago, it wouldn't be about how to explain to kids same-sex couples/parents, but rather inter-racial couples/families.

This is a great observation, and is totally on the money. It's a huge part of the local lore/folklore/history around here (south side Chicago) that people make a point to keep alive. The issue of GLBT families is a more recent variation on this ongoing conversation about tolerance.