By Denny Meyer
Dec 24, 2008
|Like at least 100,000 other gay men, I was in San
Francisco during its Camelot years of the 1970s. In
those days, Harvey Milk and the other gods of the
gay revolution walked the Earth like ordinary
mortals. Anyone at all could stroll into Harvey's
camera shop or pause on the corner of Castro and
18th and chat for hours with folks who would go on
to become legendary and with some who already were.
And some, like myself, had no idea at the time that
we would one day years later play some role in the
battle for our rights. The inspiration for nearly
all of us was Harvey Milk's courage in those years.
Lieutenant Harvey Milk in the early 1950s,
saw service in the Korean War.
THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK
The film "Milk" was made with excruciating
accuracy and talent because of love for that hero's
memory, and also because there are thousands and
thousands of old men like me who would notice and
bitch about it if anything were amiss in the
details. Thirty years later I can still hear the
protest clarion cry of the era echoing in my ears:
"Out of the bars and into the streets!" It
was portrayed in the film and gave me goose bumps.
Nevertheless I can and will complain about what was
left out. The cinematic story of this great man's
life begins on his 40th birthday as he cruises a
younger man on a New York City subway station
stairway late at night. Yet, some significant things
happened in his life before the age of 40.
For one thing Milk, born in 1930, served as a
lieutenant in the US Navy during the Korean War in
the early 1950s. Yet not a single film frame is
devoted to that. As a gay veteran, it offends me
that no mention was made of that. And in 2008, on
the cusp of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I
think it would have been quite relevant to have
portrayed his service.
Less of a sin, but still a lapse, was not showing
what happened after Milk was murdered, particularly
the White Night Riot, a year later, when his killer,
former San Francisco City Supervisor Dan White, was
given a slap-on-the-wrist, seven-year manslaughter
sentence for the assassination of two elected
officials, Milk and Mayor George Moscone. It
started, as did all the other gay protests of the
day, as a peaceful candlelight march. As it went
past my window, down Market Street, I told my lover,
"This time I'm going!" I hung up my apron
- it was my job to wash the dishes - and ran out the
door to join the march at dusk. I was so eager, I
ran all the way to the front and ended up at the
base of the steps at the entrance to City Hall.
Sixty thousand people were there, all angry. And
alas, there was no one to lead them and calm them.
Harvey wasn't there with his megaphone, of course,
and it was all about him. With 60,000 angry
protesters, there were bound to be a small number of
assholes in the crowd. And it was those assholes who
mounted the stairs, broke off some of the
wrought-iron door decorations, and smashed the glass
doors. A few thousand of us up front began chanting,
"No violence, no violence!" But, the roar
of 60,000 people made it totally impossible for us
to be heard. Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver actually
came out onto a rampart high up on City Hall with a
megaphone, but no one could hear her either. And
some idiot threw a rock at her, and she withdrew
back inside, injured.
The sound of the breaking glass on the front doors
was the spark that the police had been waiting for.
A phalanx of cops in full riot gear rushed in from
the right and all hell broke loose. Suddenly
everyone was shouting and pushing in all directions.
People were trying to flee and others were rushing
forward to battle the police. It was horrible, and I
was right up front in the middle of the chaos.
Because of my years, more than a decade earlier, in
the black civil rights movement, I had received good
training on how to survive when demonstrations go
bad. So, earlier, when the march peacefully
approached City Hall, I had more or less
subconsciously worked out an escape route, just in
case things went wrong. I also knew how to resist
the urge to run like hell. The cops were chasing
anyone who was running and beating them brutally on
the head with batons. There was blood everywhere. I
had to tell myself over and over, "Walk, don't
I walked, the cops ignored me and chased people
running right past me. I got to Market Street, where
busloads of riot cops were rushing toward the scene,
helicopters were overhead, and streetcar service had
been suspended. I was in a war zone. I walked and
walked. I got home at midnight; my lover was
watching the riot live on TV; he burst into tears
when I came in the door. He'd thought that I was
lying somewhere in a pool of blood.
We held each other in bed all night, watching the
carnage, watching the burning police cars. And we
just held each other tight. Little did we know that
there was another enemy already within his body,
that would take his life just over a decade later.
The film "Milk," of course, cannot be
faulted for leaving out what might have been. No one
knew, in Milk's days in the late 1970s, of the evil
virus that was already invading the bodies of those
we loved, or how many lives it would take in the
coming decades. Yet, had Milk lived, he would
certainly have led the battle for AIDS research and
funding, and likely would have become a congressman
to carry on that battle.
2008-2009 Gay Military Signal, 2008