Wednesday 2 June 2010


You may not be surprised to hear that there is a Milk Day. However, it is NOT a day dedicated to that nourishing liquid that serves as maintainer of your precious calcium balance. Neither is it a UN-declared day, one of which we have met in “Earth Day à la Berkeley”. Rather, it is a day, the 22nd of May, that the Governor of California, a countryman of mine - and from the same age-veneered Duchy at that -, has dedicated to a newly “sanctified” man”, Harvey Milk. Those of you who haven’t seen the movie may now be seen shaking their head and asking themselves what Schwarzy is up to now. The knowledgeable movie lovers among you know, of course, that Harvey is the man who “legalized” gayety in San Francisco, by becoming the first City Supervisor elected who was openly gay.

Harvey moved to San Francisco in the beginning of the ‘seventies and took over a photo shop, named “given”, in the Castro area after his uncle. Now, Castro was already then known as a favorite haunt for people of indeterminate sexual inclinations, only barely tolerated and far from accepted by the broad citizenship of San Francisco. Harvey organized the motley crew of alternatively inclined, residing in the area at that time, and formed it into a formidable political machine, rendering his constituents respectable in the process. His success as politician was underpinned by Mayor George Moscone, a gifted politician who craftily used minorities to boost his own career. As an aside, George won his first election with only a narrow margin, and would have lost it without the support of the “Peoples’ Temple”, headed by the ominous Jim Jones.

Harvey held the position of Supervisor only one year, from November 1977 to November 1978. At the latter date he was shot to death, together with George, by a fellow Supervisor. His death shook the gay community. A procession of more than THIRTYTHOUSAND people, with candles in hand, slowly winded from the Castro area to City Hall at the day of remembrance. As you may understand, his deeds and “martyrdom” had a lasting impact on the gay community, greatly increasing its self-respect and –reliance and introducing a sense of rightful belonging and citizenship, which soon spread across the country and, indeed, across the world. This is over and above an increased sense of acceptance and tolerance in the broader group of citizens.

I have for some time now nurtured the feeling of letting my readers down, by concentrating too eagerly on Campus events, neglecting more general tourist attractions in the Bay Area. So, when reading about the Milk Day in the news I decided to make a trip to San Francisco, combining a visit to the Castro area with a more traditional walk through the usual tourist haunts of San Francicso.

Once the decision was made, the implementation was immediate. On early morning of 22 May I walked briskly to the BART station at Ashby; the train was already waiting for me on the platform, and without further ado I was rushed under the Bay to Mission Station, where a blue sky with cotton-like clouds was greeting me, a condition seldom experienced in Frisco at this time of the year.

From this station it was another 20 minutes’ walk to Castro, but I didn’t mind, my usual morning exercise after breakfast could be done that way. Besides, I would be passing by Mission Dolores on the way, which may merit a brief glance. Already from afar, the huge cathedral towers could be discerned. But, make no mistake, this huge, over-decorated church edifice, almost too fancy in its elaborations, is not the real thing. The original church of Mission San Francisco de Asis, being very modest in style, is still in existence, hidden behind the cathedral’s almost worldly “false” splendor. Since the mission is well known to all tourists, I did not embark on a thorough examination, directing myself instead briskly towards Castro, where I soon arrived.

The whole area sizzled with activities, to celebrate Harvey’s “sanctification”. Would I be able to tell, from the general behavior of the people there, that I was ambling in a neighborhood predominated by gay people? Well, this special day had attracted many outsiders, like myself, so the situation was far from clear-cut. Still, it was easy to see that there was an unusual amount of men in fancy dresses strutting around. Furthermore, the frequency of men, walking in pairs and holding hands, was considerably larger than commonly observed on city streets. Don’t misunderstand me now: one such pair doesn’t necessarily a gay couple make, and we are talking about men, not women, but if you are seeing male pairs in the tens, then the question appears answered.

Whilst walking around, savoring the general spirit of the neighborhood, I observed that, in the true spirit of Harvey Milk, a group of protesters had united on the staircases leading up from the “Muni”, the station of the municipal underground tramway. I of course immediately joined the group and investigated with its leaders about the noble cause occasioning the rally.

The object of protest turned out to be a proposed new City Ordinance, the so called “Sit/Lie Ordinance”, making it illegal to sit or lie on any sidewalk in San Francisco. Having seen far too many people sitting and sleeping on sidewalks in Berkeley during my stay here, I understood that there was an issue to address. But, like the protesters, I had some difficulty understanding why arresting, and putting in jail, people for doing so may constitute an appropriate, or even efficient, solution to the problem. So, with some sympathy for the protesters’ cause, I staid on for a while to observe the details of the rally.

The person at left on the picture above, in monk’s habit, looked like a man to me, but spoke with an, albeit coarse, but still clearly discernible female voice. Dared I think the unthinkable? Better not! This Buddhist (it turned out to be) Monk led the protesters to pray for the poor outcasts of society and asked everyone to sit down on the street whilst doing so, to show solidarity with the downtrodden. Everyone obeyed and, for a while, the world seemed whole again and there was hope and goodwill in the air. But, as things developed, when the prayer was over, and everyone had risen, it was time for protest speeches and songs. Still, the Buddhist spirit lingered and the whole action was pursued with dignity. Whilst summing up, one of the leaders confessed, although being atheist, to still being glad and thankful for having joined in on the prayer for the poor.

After this uplifting ceremony, I joined the guided tour of the neighborhood, led by a dignitary, who declared herself to b a “silver queen” (the term alludes to the hair color of mature lesbian women) and showed us the more renowned monuments on the blocks. These were mostly unremarkable for us, but, a hundred years from now or more, when Harvey’s Sainthood will be firmly enshrined and the person behind it already conveniently forgotten, they will surely become wondrous places of worship and admiration. One of the architectural sites of interest in that context was the famous Castro Movie Theatre, an Art Déco edifice, well preserved from the age of silent movies. Apart from lavish decorations, both outside and inside, it presented us with a wonderful remnant from its glorious past, a Wurlitzer Harmonium, which rises from under the stage whenever it is time for the musician to accompany a (silent) movie. Notably, this was also the stage for the World Premiere of the engaging movie “Milk”, being shown again in the theatre that very day.

Continuing down Castro Street, we arrived at a plate, pointed out to us with pride by our guide. This monument honored one of the movement’s heroes, Lieutenant Leonard Matlovich, a war hero from Vietnam, as well as of the gay movement. The inscription said “When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one”. Apparently the poor man was discharged from the army in 1975, after coming out in a feature article about him in Time Magazine. This does the US Army no good at all, in particular since it is still engaging in a dishonorable “Don’t ask don’t tell” strategy, effectively forcing army staff to keep their innermost drives firmly locked up in the closet.

The guide also explained to us that the alternatively inclined population of Castro came in many guises and mores. An encompassing symbol for all of these was the aptly named “Rainbow flag” in six main colors of the rainbow, which was introduced in 1978 and gained wide use, all over the world, after Harvey’s murder in November that year. With this flag as the general rallying symbol, each specialization of the community had its own specific denomination and flag. As an example, she showed us the “International Bear Brotherhood Flag” (not to be confused with California’s “Bear Flag”) that designates especially hairy representatives of the Rainbow Population. A pair of bears was kind enough to let itself be portrayed, so that the characteristics of that brotherhood could be clarified.

After this comprehensive tour I felt that it was time to move on. There is only so much you can learn from the alternative community. As a treat for my readers I decided to have a closer look at the ancient (for California) institution of cable cars and follow the trace of one of them from start to finish; this of course on foot, so I could take pictures in a leisurely fashion along the way. Said and done: Tramway F brought me, slowly but surely, to Powell Street, the city terminal of most cable car lines. But it seems to me that you deserve a break at this stage of the tale. Let me continue this eventful outage at a forthcoming blog.


hierdaux13 said...

Bonjour Emile,
C'est toujours avec plaisir que je découvre vos textes et photos. Des textes très agréables dans leur forme , qui me font découvrir de multiples facettes de l'Amérique, à la fois sur le plan intellectuel et "vie de tous les jours".Et d'excellentes photos !
Merci de vos envois ...qui me manqueront le jour où vous reprendrez le chemin du Vieux Continent.

Avec mes cordiales salutations

Jacques Burniat

Emil Ems said...

Dear Jacques,
It is always a pleasure to get comments from a Commission colleague, and a Member of the photo club at that. Thank you kindly for your generous comments. I will endeavor to prepare some four more postings, so that you can enjoy this blog a little while longer.