OPINION It seems that everyone, from current politicians to former friends and lovers of Harvey Milk, is scrambling to serve as a spokesperson for the new Hollywood movie about the life of Milk, the first openly gay elected official in a major United States city.
Milk joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, only to be assassinated (along with then-mayor George Moscone) one year later by Dan White, another member of the board.
Cleve Jones, who worked as a student intern in Milk’s City Hall office (and later started the AIDS Memorial Quilt), is now serving as a consultant for the Gus Van Sant film. At the Castro Theatre on Feb. 4 he encouraged a crowd of extras gathered to re-create the candlelight march that took place after Milk’s murder by saying, "We made history on these streets, and we’re gonna do it again tonight."
But remaking historical moments from the pain and glory days of the past is hardly the same thing as making history in the present. In the 1970s queers fled abusive and stifling families and places of origin to move to San Francisco by the thousands and join dissident subcultures of splendor and defiance. Of course, queers still flee similar conditions; it’s just that the hypergentrified San Francisco of 2008 barely offers the space to breathe, let alone dream.
The excitement around reenactment obscures the reality that some of the same smiling gay men who came to San Francisco in the 1970s have consistently fought misogynist, racist, classist, ageist battles from carding policies to policing practices to zoning and real estate wars to ensure that their neighborhood (Milk’s Castro) remains a home only for the rich, white, and male (or at least those who assimilate to white middle-class norms).
Check out a quote from Dan Jinks, one of the producers of the movie, in the Dec. 27, 2007, Bay Area Reporter: "Our great hope is this will revitalize this district and make it a major tourist destination."
Revitalize the Castro, where you’re lucky if you can rent a flat for less than $4,000 or buy property for less than $1 million? Everyone who’s ever set foot in the Castro knows it’s filled with tourists from around the world!
Oh, I know what Jinks means: straight tourists. Some gay people are so anxious to participate in their own cultural erasure.
After White’s 1979 trial, at which he was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder and given a lenient sentence, rioting queers torched police cars and smashed the windows and doors of City Hall. Later that night vengeful cops went to the Castro and destroyed the windows of the Elephant Walk (now Harvey’s), entered the bar to beat up patrons and trash the place, and swung their batons into anyone they encountered.
I’m wondering if the new Van Sant film will end at the candlelight march, thus avoiding talk about such market-unfriendly issues as systemic police violence and property destruction as a political act.
Unfortunately, San Francisco is now more of a playground for the wealthy than a space for the delirious potential of dissidence. But there are still plenty of reasons to protest. Got housing? Got health care? Got citizenship? Nope, we’re just getting milked.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is the editor, most recently, of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (Seal Press, 2006) and an expanded second edition of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (out in June from Soft Skull Press).