A post showed up on my Facebook page recently that asked who I would like to spend an hour with on a park bench talking about the state of the nation and the world.
Initially, I thought about men and women like Robert Kennedy, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks.
But then I realized the person I would really like to spend some time talking with, as a sixty-year-old gay man who remains very concerned about the still tenuous progress my community has made on the civil rights front, is Harvey Milk.
In November, it will be forty years since Harvey and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White, Harvey’s colleague on the city’s board of supervisors.
In 1978, when Harvey and Moscone were assassinated, I was a junior at Merrimack College. I was living in a state of constant fear that someone would find out I was gay.
I dated girls, played intramural hockey and lacrosse with a level of intensity and aggression that was totally counter to who I really was. But appearances and illusions in 1978 were critical, or so I thought, to survival itself.
I was in my dorm room with friends drinking beer and doing bong hits, with the Grateful Dead blaring on the stereo, when the news came on about the assassination of the nation’s first openly gay elected official.
The things my “friends” had to say in response to Harvey’s murder were the last straw. Still, I kept silent.
I decided I could not spend my senior year in the dorm. My parents, not knowing the truth about why I wanted out of the dorm so badly, agreed to let me live my senior year at the beach house and commute to school.
I got a dog of my own, decided to get honest with myself, and ever so slowly began to inch out of the closet.
Thirteen years later, I wound up moving from Cambridge to Gloucester to oversee NUVA’s HIV and AIDS counseling, testing, and prevention programs.
Prior to coming to Gloucester, I worked for several human service agencies in New Hampshire and metro Boston. It was in those positions that I, for the first time in my otherwise very sheltered and privileged life, saw the impact poverty and economic struggle have on individuals, families and entire communities.
Harvey Milk saw that impact as well. When he migrated from NYC to San Francisco to settle in the increasingly gay Castro District, he quickly recognized the long-standing working-class nature of the neighborhood. He worked hard to build bridges between long-time working class, straight residents of the Castro and the thousands of gay migrants flocking to the neighborhood from all over America.
Harvey’s camera shop became not only a hub of gay rights activity but also a place where union truck drivers who delivered Coors beer met to organize and strategize against the Coors family’s efforts to bust their union.
For many blue collar residents of the Castro, Harvey was the first openly gay man they’d ever met. Many were impressed by his commitment to working with them to fend off the gentrification going on in the rest of the city.
That gentrification was a phenomenon driven by wealthy, downtown elites, many of them erstwhile liberals, gay and straight, like California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s multimillionaire real estate developer husband, and the very wealthy gay man who founded the national gay newspaper called “The Advocate”.
But Harvey really won the hearts of the long-time, straight, blue-collar residents of the Castro, and the union truck drivers fighting Coors in particular, when he got all the gay bars in the Castro to stop selling Coors beer in a show of solidarity with the truck drivers.
Those blue collar, straight, Castro residents were as significant a factor in Harvey’s election to the board of supervisors as the newly arrived gay boys who never dreamed one of their own could win elective office anywhere.
Ironically, members of the wealthy, downtown, “liberal”, gentrification pushing establishment, including Dianne Feinstein, her husband, and the owner of the Advocate, did all they could to prevent Harvey from winning the Castro district seat on the board of supervisors because he was an obstacle to their agenda.
So, I’d like to sit on a park bench with Harvey to pick his brain about two things.
The first is the troubling rise of classism and elitism within certain elements of the gay community that mirrors what Harvey confronted and challenged in 1970’s San Francisco.
Harvey warned the gay community, particularly its more affluent members, that it was making a mistake aligning itself with San Francisco’s wealthy “liberal” elites, whose agenda of unregulated real estate development and gentrification would, in the long term, alienate and anger the long-time blue-collar residents of old city neighborhoods like the Castro.
In one speech, Harvey warned that the wealthy downtown, “liberal”, gentrification pushing elites were transforming San Francisco into a city where only the wealthy would be able to afford to live.
That speech went over like the proverbial lead balloon with Dianne Feinstein and her real estate industry political contributors.
Harvey gave that speech more than forty years ago. To say that speech proved prophetic is an understatement.
I see very real similarities between what Harvey warned about forty years ago in San Francisco and what is happening in Gloucester today.
I am sure if Harvey was sitting with me on a bench on the “Boulevard” in the city I affectionately call a “mini San Francisco,” he would wholeheartedly agree.
The second thing I would like to pick Harvey’s brain about is the gay rights front. Much progress has been made in recent decades, but there are some very troubling signs looming on the horizon. I worry more than a few in the American gay community, especially among the community’s more affluent and largely self-anointed political leadership, are not paying attention because they have grown complacent and too comfortable with the current status quo and their relationship with today’s affluent, straight, liberal, elites – particularly within the Democratic party establishment.
The troubling signs on the horizon relating to gay rights are not just limited to the United States.
The rise of far-right, faux-Christian, neo-fascist, nationalist politicians and parties is a global phenomenon, and in more than a few cases, gay men and lesbians are routinely scapegoated as the “others” that right-wing politicians, like Donald Trump, blame for a country’s problems to mobilize their followers.
A case in point is Costa Rica. A far-right, fundamentalist Christian minister may yet win the presidential runoff election, and the cornerstone of his campaign is his rabid opposition to gay marriage.
More locally, the Reverend Scott Lively is challenging Gov. Charlie Baker in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Lively is a rabid homophobe who, in 2009, was a consultant to the Ugandan government as it contemplated implementing the death penalty for gay and lesbian Ugandans.
Although Lively will never be the MA GOP’s gubernatorial nominee, he does have a following among the Bay State’s small but vocal far-right, Trump-loving, Republican base – including several people on Cape Ann.
But more troubling than Scott Lively’s longshot candidacy for governor, at least for this old school, Rooseveltian liberal, is the sad reality that many of the gay community’s straight, liberal “allies” have often been unwilling to go to the mat on our behalf.
For example, in 2009 the fundamentalist Christian organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast invited a Ugandan bishop who’d been a forceful advocate of the death penalty for people involved in same-sex relationships to attend the event. Since its inception in the 1950’s, the breakfast has been a “must attend” event for sitting US presidents and any politician who aspires to the presidency. When word got out about the Ugandan bishop’s presence, the gay community begged Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to boycott the breakfast. Neither one of them did.
So, for a long list of reasons, the person I would love to have a conversation with on a bench overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Stage Fort Park is Harvey Milk.
And what a fascinating conversation it would be.
Michael Cook is a long time liberal and gay rights activist who saw the uniqueness of Gloucester from the first moment he drove over the bridge during his move from Cambridge to Cape Ann in 1991 to run NUVA’s AIDS education and services programs.