May 27, 2008
San Francisco paid a long overdue - though never more appropriate - tribute to one of its unsung heroes last Thursday with the unveiling of a bronze bust of Supervisor Harvey Milk . The Hall was regaled in rainbow balloon anemone chandeliers. Old Glory was dressed in her best tie-dye, draped over the balcony of the second story, The Sisters in white, veiled and bejeweled. It had all the pomp and circumstance of a corporate sponsored gala, State Senators stumping. Sure Milk was a visionary, sometimes prophetic - portending his martyrdom - but could he have imagined the movement he was part of being mainstreamed to the point where (to put it as Cleve Jones did) Smirnoff and American Airlines targeted his community as "just another marketing demographic"?
Milk's voice was echoing in the rotunda, booming ominous and ethereal and indecipherable with the acoustics of those coffers, as if he were speaking from some great beyond - though I doubt that'd be his style, because he couldn't have banked on the afterlife if he gave so much of himself to the living. He predicted his own murder, his sacrifice to the movement, giving his life so we - all those queer and questioning and fluid and anything but mainstream - could be public and live openly and with dignity, without fear from the tyranny of regression.
There were other voices - Newsom's was hoarse, and maybe I imagined it, or some part of me wanted to hear it, but I thought I heard him say something about San Francisco values and "eat your heart out, middle America." Tom Ammiano's soprano soared in sharp relief - a pointed "SHUT UP" for anyone who ever wanted to stamp out equality.
Going alone, I thought I'd just play casual observer - mostly to soak up inspiration for writing - but people are drawn to distance. Two women asked if I knew whether Sean Penn was making an appearance, another assumed I was a reporter and thought I was old enough (gasp) to have been around when Dianne Feinstein made the shell-shocked announcement on TV that Milk and Moscone had been killed. He lamented the lack of direct action, the complacency that capitulated, "it's enough to build a website." I bristled a little, said the lack of media coverage made it a losing tactic, and that people had turned to making media of their own. He himself had given up on mainstream media, the tenant of objectivity that "gave voice to crazies".
There was one man that made the decision to get off at the Civic Center station worthwhile on his own. He announced himself by gently teasing me about my back - too young to be aching from standing. A self-described San Francisco native, a man swilling a celebratory bourbon, he sidled up next to me while I was doing my best self-composed fly on the wall. He told me about the Milk he knew - a man he wouldn't have known but for the grace of PBS and "The Times of Harvey Milk" when he was "just a kid in the Bronx". We shot the shit - talking about the fight in November, how 2008 is it - finally it - and how insular San Francisco is, and how somehow short of moving inland, we've got to channel our political energies there. I couldn't help but feel proud to see Victory Fund's logo in the sponsor slideshow. He told me how Milk cut his hair, but he didn't conform - he just simulated the mainstream, and worked from the inside - never losing his principles.
Then there was the grand finale - GSA kids, out at 14, 15 - climbing the marble stairs, pulling back the silk drape, all flashbulbs and a chorus of happy birthday that moved me to tears. Home at last, to ordain the marriages of same-sex couples.
On the way home, a woman wielding a petition outside pleading for 30 sec of my day made me a little sheepish - my profession, but done outside the comfortable confines of an office, the anonymity of ghostwriting behind a screen. It had seemed hard enough to turn out after the 9 to 5 for this event and it made me wonder guiltily whether I still had the fortitude to do the canvassing thing. Made me even more grateful for the hard won victories of our forebears.