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Ghosts of San Francisco Past: Castro

The Castro SF

The streets of the Castro are covered in Pride flags. The roads roll up and down steep hills and the cars navigate them despite the fact that there seems to be nowhere to park. As I walked along the sidewalks, peeking through the windows of trendy shops, coffee and pastry establishments, bars, and small restaurants, I looked down and noticed small concrete memorials to LGBT celebrities past: Sally Ride, Barbara Jordan, Virginia Woolf, Oskar Wilde, Tennessee Williams. I wondered how many stepped over their memories, their ghosts, without noticing.

There are gay people everywhere. Big beefy men walk the streets, holding hands and and keeping dogs on leashes. Older gay men open store fronts. A lovely black lesbian couple make conversation on the subway. Men sit across from each other at tables sipping coffee, looking up and noticing other men walking by with casual interest. Eyes constantly wander. There are smiles on every face. Asian, Latin, African American, white, men and women of every shape, size, color, and age, in tank tops, jeans, suits, and dresses. And everyone smiling, shopping, eating. The sun shines down on all equally in this moment, another that will soon be passed.

I watch the posters advertising local shows and events. Shirtless men holding beers advertising happy hour; four women in drag as the Golden Girls advertising a holiday special; a drag queen in a cradle advertising a show called ‘A Gay in the Manger’; beautiful men in togas advertising a Bacchanalia festival. I overhear conversations about holiday party plans, see Christmas trees and lights in third story windows, and see bags of wine and booze being rushed up flights of stairs while bags of garbage are being rushed down them.

I stop in the newly established LGBT history museum and look at the two small rooms of displays. I spend most of my time on a computer where a feature allows me to select a ‘random obituary’, and I push the button nearly five dozen times. I see newspaper clippings about funerals from 1989, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2001, 2006. Nearly every one I see is a man dead of AIDS. Some have no photos. Some use aliases. One is about an Olympian athlete, one a doctor, one a flight attendant, one a drag queen and performer, one a Viet Nam veteran, all dead from a senseless epidemic. Several of the obituaries close with pleas to donate to local AIDS research organizations to help find a cure. There are only two outliers: an elderly man who had AIDS yet died of cancer, and a black lesbian who was shot in the head in a random drive-by shooting while her partner held her.

I walk a mile in the other direction, up to Corona Heights, and I ascend several flights or old wooden stairs, climbing and climbing. I arrive at the top, then climb on top of a big rock, and I look over the city. The ocean melts into the land on one side, and the Earth curves in the distance. The homes there are beautiful, ornate, enormous. I turn to the left and see rows of homes with no space between them and no yards. An ocean breeze blows against my face, chapping my lips, and I think of the homeless woman in pigtails and childlike makeup who sat on a street corner with a pink blanket wrapped around her shoulders as she made kissing noises at passers-by, and the man who was dressed in a Spongebob Squarepants onesie, the one who held a cardboard sign that said he’d been recently diagnosed with AIDS; he’d written in black marker the web address for his own GoFundMe page.

I climb back down and walk the streets again. I can’t get the obituaries out of my head. I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like back then, to be part of building a community like this. Now, gay neighborhoods are commonplace and have spread through cities. They have gentrified. Now, gay clubs are filled with straight people. But then, to be a part of building a safe place where there were no other safe places. To see these men and women walking the streets, finding jobs and families, building homes and lives. And then to see it all threatened, compromised, and washed away by AIDS, by violent attacks, by oppressive laws. The rushing thoughts inspired me and saddened me at the same time.

I walked past no less than six shops specializing in sexy underwear, sex toys, lube, and vintage porn, then I came across the Human Rights Campaign’s office, and realized it is based in the original Castro Camera shop, the one where Harvey Milk lived and waged his campaign for election before his assassination. That felt right, felt just somehow. Many may not know the history, but they know the name Harvey Milk. He’s been canonized, he’s become an icon, and to see that structure still standing for equality gave me a sense of hope, of history.

I sit to reflect, with Turkish coffee and a pastry with a name I can’t pronounce, and I think of history, of all who have come before who are only remembered by the lives they touched. I think of the stories I have to tell, and how hard it is to make a living at that yet how it’s the only thing I seem to want to do lately. It overwhelms me sometimes, this need I seem to have to honor ghosts. Yet it fulfills me in ways I never thought possible.

Later, I purchase tickets to see the movie Misery in the Castro, a film decades old about an obsessed crazy woman. Kathy Bates is brilliant in it, fully convincing with her syringes, sledgehammers, and dirty birdies. The theater is nearly 100 years old, with textured walls, old movie posters, carved ornate fixtures, and high ceilings. A man plays a pipe organ where the previews should have been. I look across the crowd and see several dozen people here, in this old building, paying full price to see a movie from the past. The Castro has sing-along nights, silent films, black and whites, and still the people come to see it. They are entertained by the past, in an old space. The love the stories.

And that fact, their joy, that finally quiets the ghosts for a time.

 

 

 

 

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the Gay Library

I’ve been researching LGBT history for several months now. I read biographies pretty constantly, generally chosen at random–in fact, I’ve read about 100 of them now, and I’m consistently inspired by the stories that I learn. It was a few years ago when I started realizing that LGBT people show up in nearly every story, nearly every facet of society. Natalie Wood was surrounded by gay friends, Oprah Winfrey had a gay brother, Richard Nixon interfaced with gay reporters and politicians, J. Edgar Hoover himself was believed to have been gay and a cross dresser. Facts kept showing up again and again and again.

In many cases, the stories of LGBT people were ones I should have been taught in school. Bayard Rustin, a prominent leader in the Civil Rights movement, was gay. Barbara Jordan was a black female lesbian senator in Texas, and she investigated Nixon after Watergate. Sally Ride, first woman in space, was gay. Playwrights, singers, artists, performers, activists, world leaders. All names that I knew, just never taught that they were gay. These stories needed to be told.

And so I launched a YouTube channel, after months of planning and research. Every name that I looked up taught me about another 3 or 5 or 10 people I needed to research. I compiled lists of hundreds of names. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, allies and enemies, and the history around them, including works of fiction and government policies. I started sharing the stories online, one per day with enough to last years. The research was all out there, I just had to dust off the right resources, one at a time, to make it happen.

So when I went to Los Angeles, for a little head-clearing adventure away, I learned of an entire library devoted to LGBT topics, and I knew I had to see it. Yet another long bus ride across town (the transit is not great), I finally wound up on the campus of USC (University of Southern California) and entered the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

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ONE magazine was formed by a group of brave queer activists in 1953 and ran for several years, making information available to the public about LGBT lives, theories, and studies, beginning to normalize LGBT lifestyles in the public eyes years before it was customary to do so. The magazine eventually closed down, and now the Archives were named for it, complete with a large framed wall piece with all of the magazine’s dozens of covers featured.

The space inside was small and very well organized. Shelf after shelf, row after row, all dedicated to LGBT books. Periodicals, art books, coffee table pieces, biographies on famous LGBT individuals, LGBT fiction, erotica, novels and short stories, almanacs, research compendiums. Upstairs were framed photos celebrating past activists from the area.

I talked to the woman at the front desk for some time, asking about the history and organization of the place, and told her of my current projects. She was kind, interested, and helpful in orienting me to the space.

I walked down the long rows almost lovingly, overwhelmed by the entire space. I contemplated my upbringing, not even knowing the word gay, and when I did learn it, I knew it was something bad and immoral, something to be scorned and avoided. But to be here, seeing it all archived, compiled, celebrated… it was thrilling, moving, and awe-inspiring.

I pulled out books at random, scanning through their contents and enjoying every word. I chose a few and spent a few hours perusing. There wasn’t nearly enough time. It would take a lifetime to read every book. I purchased a few small ones that I could carry home, thanked the librarian, and headed outside, where I sat in the sunlight and thought of this part of the world’s history that has become a new quest, grateful to know there are resources out there I wasn’t aware of previously.

Rock Hudson liked blonde boys

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Rock Hudson grew up when men were men.

And he liked men who were men.

Masculine men. Blonde, blue-eyed military men. Men with strong chests and big shoulders, big biceps and strong backs, thick legs and firm butts. Men who could drink themselves under the table, who liked steak and potatoes, and who looked incredible without ever having to set foot in the gym. Men who could hack down a tree with an axe. Men who pursued women, yet still liked men on the side. Men with power and ambition, and who knew how to get ahead. Men who held a cigarette between their index finger and thumb and smoked the masculine way. The straighter and more masculine the man, the more Rock Hudson wanted them to be gay.

When Roy Fitzgerald first became Rock Hudson, the stage name slected for him by an older gay Hollywood agent Henry Willson who knew good looks when he saw them, he was a fish out of water. He had fooled around with boys in the Navy, but it was all very hush-hush, and Hollywood was full of gay men. He realized he turned heads. Even with his ill-fitting clothing (he was 6 foot 5) and his body odor (he refused to wear deodorant, considering it effeminate), he approached Hollywood with a wonder. How had he gone from small-town America with a doting mother and an abusive stepfather to a world like this?

And after he became an international movie star and sex symbol, he had a big house on a hill and a fast car and the men were suddenly everywhere. But he realized rather quickly that being a movie star can be intimidating to others. Men were shocked that Rock Hudson actually wanted to be with him, and they got shy when things turned sexual.

Though he may not have started with one, Rock Hudson developed an ego. He expected people to take notice when he walked by, wanted their attention and applause. He settled down a few times with a few different blonde boys, men who were the right balance of physically perfect, driven, masculine, playful, and devoted to him. Men who were discreet in public, and affectionate in private.

He even married a woman once, Phyllis, just to see if he could. And he loved her, he did, but there were men out there, so many men.

Ego seems to come at a price, however, for when someone feels they are the most important person in the room, those someones tend to doom themselves to quite a bit of loneliness. No one can match the ego, and so no one can feel the void. And so there was the sex, and the alcohol, and the nicotine, and the cocaine, and the trips around the world. But the void just kept screaming.

A few years into making movies, Rock Hudson had to realize that there was always a next day. After months of being paid a million dollars to laugh with Elizabeth Taylor or to strong-arm Doris Day, there were the quiet months at home before the next movie came along. In the 1940s and 1950s, there were the sex symbol movie stars, and the character actors who supported them. And then a new era came along, when the character actors who weren’t sex symbols started getting the top billing. The public suddenly wanted to see Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, not Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.

And the void got louder and still couldn’t be filled.

And like any human, Rock Hudson was complicated. He was giving and kind, young at heart, insatiable. He didn’t trust easily, and when he did he trusted well, yet broken trust could be impossible to regain. After a few years in the business, he could brilliantly convey emotion on the big screen, yet he couldn’t share his feelings even with his lovers and closest friends.

Rock Hudson lived his life in the closet, denying rumors of his attractions to men right up until the very end. In the last months of his life, as he lay weak and dying from AIDS, he wanted his story to be told. He hired a biographer, he encouraged his friends to be open with their hearts and stories, he came out publicly as homosexual, though he had denied the same claim for decades before it.

And at the end, at the age of 59, he was weak and small, though still 6 foot 5, and he went out of the world as quietly as he had entered.

In the end, like so many stars, he got what he wanted… he made sure the world would remember Rock Hudson, the identity created for himself.

But I would much rather remember Roy Fitzgerald.

Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide

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Sally Ride loved science more than anything.

And when her parents fostered a sense of purpose in her, during her upbringing primarily in California, Sally knew could do anything she wanted, at a time when many women did not realize their potential. In fact, after she made history by being the first American woman in space (two Soviet women beat her to it), she devoted decades of her life afterwards to inspiring middle school age girls to love and be inspired by science.

And when Sally recognized that girls are vastly under-represented in the fields of science (including math and engineering), she realized that 13 year old boys who get a C in science are told they can grow up to be anything, and that 13 year old girls who get an A in science are encouraged to be nurses and housewives.

And when Sally herself realized she was willing to live up to nothing less than her potential, while hitting tennis rackets on a nearly professional level, she put herself through college, excelling in a field dominated by  men.

And when NASA, after decades, finally opened up its recruitment to women, Sally applied, and moved to Texas to train as an astronaut. She worked tirelessly, using her analytical brain to solve complex problems, practicing for untold hours until she was skilled and it all made sense.

And when Sally was selected to be the first woman from the program to launch, she herself became an international celebrity, something she was quite unready for. In fact, Sally was a very private person. She had never even told her husband Steve, at the time, about being a lesbian, about falling in love with a woman in college. For, like so many others, it took her time to sort out her feelings from the expectations of her culture.

And when, for months before and after the launch, Sally endured exhausting questions from reporters: What makeup will you wear in space and If the pressure gets to be too much, will you just weep and They are working you so hard, you have no choice but to submit, I guess it is like being raped, you might as well just lay back and enjoy it and do you worry that the flight will harm your reproductive organs, and Johnny Carson made jokes about her bra on television, and Billy Joel immortalized her name in the song We Didn’t Start the Fire, tucking her smoothly in between Wheel of Fortune and heavy metal, suicide in his complicated lyrics, Sally smiled, nodded, quipped back, and asked the reporters why they weren’t asking these same questions to the male astronauts on her team, a team of equals.

And when Sally received her NASA uniform, she had the tag read, simply, Sally, not Ride or Dr. Ride, just Sally. 

And when Sally chose to be an astronaut, and her sister chose to be a minister, Sally’s mother joked that at least one of her daughters would make it to Heaven.

And when the Challenger exploded, and later the Columbia, Sally worked tirelessly until she found out why, exposing corruption within the industry that had resulted in the deaths of her peers.

And when Sally fell in love with Tam O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful and independent woman she had met years before, she quietly left her husband and moved in, telling no one, even her family.

And when Sally got cancer far too young, she suffered quietly, telling no one except her closest loved ones until the very end. And when Tam planned a memorial for Sally, and wondered how she should define their relationship, Sally thoughtfully considered coming out of the closet finally, but worried about its impact on NASA.

And when Sally died at age 61, and Tam told the world about their decades long relationship finally, the critics came out of the woodwork. The homophobic were outraged that a lesbian was such a public name. And among the LGBT community, they berated Sally for not coming out as a gay icon years before. And Sally’s family grieved on their own terms.

And when Sally’s name was used on scholarships and elementary schools and even a mountain range on the moon, Sally must have smiled, somewhere somehow.

Because Sally Ride loved science more than anything.

 

Why Barbara Jordan is My Hero

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On July 13, 1976, a New York Times article read:

“It is a classic American success story: A poor child of extraordinary intellect, driven by parents who sought a better life for their offspring; an ambitious student who turned to the study of law because it seemed to provide the key to influence; a young politician who, not despairing after defeats in two attempts for public office, was elected on the third try; a state senator and then a member of Congress, who sought out and gradually won the confidence of the powerful and who was not beneath compromising and making deals to win some of that power.

It was, in short, the road to success that white men had traveled since the country was founded.”

A few months ago, I had never heard of Barbara Jordan. I started doing daily posts on an LGBT history site that I created, and one day I came across Jordan. I clicked on a few links and watched her powerful and moving speech at the impeachment trial of Richard Nixon, where her mix of clear-headed and unbiased focus, social justice, and powerful oratory skills stirred my soul, and then I saw her moving speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention and had to sit down I was so impressed. Then I learned that both speeches are considered in the top twenty of best American speeches given in American history. So I quickly sought to learn more about her.

Born in 1936, Barbara Jordan grew up in the poor sections of Houston, where segregation ensured lower education standards, poverty ran rampant, and unadulterated racism often resulted in lynchings, violent mobs, and unfair legal sanctions and punishments.

Barbara’s hero was her grandfather, her mother’s father, John Patten. Despite a meager upbringing, Patten married and had a family, and opened a candy shop, establishing a business with which he planned to provide for his family for their entire lives. When a young black man robbed Patten’s store one night, Patten grabbed his gun and chased the man into the streets. When white policemen saw Patten with a gun, Patten put up his hands to surrender, but one of the officers shot him in the hand. Patten was later put on trial, where the police claimed Patten had shot at them multiple times, and an all-white jury convicted Patten to ten years in jail. Patten served 8 years in filthy, undernourished conditions. He lost his business, and one of his children died while he was gone. Upon his exit, he began peddling junk, and he taught his favorite granddaughter, Barbara Charline, how to work hard and how to stand up for herself.

Barbara witnessed the impacts of racism and segregation on a daily basis growing up, but she was able to view the entire system with a keen mind. She excelled in school, learning how to emphasize her talents and challenge her shortcomings, and pushed herself through Harvard Law School. Settling back in Houston, she began running for public office, and quickly learned how the local white politicians wanted to take advantage of her talents and race to further themselves. She lost two elections before staking her own claim and digging in on her own terms.

Over the following years in her terms of government, first in the Senate, and then in Congress, Barbara developed the unique ability to stand firmly for African Americans, and for women, while maintaining alliances with the white politicians around her, particularly one with Lyndon B. Johnson during his time in office as president. She was sought out hundreds of times for public speeches, was considered for the vice presidency by Jimmy Carter (though she ended up turning down an offer in his White House unless he offered her the position of Attorney General; he didn’t), and had a group of national followers who wanted her to run for President, but she felt the time was not right.

Jordan had the unique capacity to remain in the moment, something I strive for on a daily basis. She could take insurmountable tasks, like researching and dusting off old policies and procedures, without the benefit of the Internet, and spending weeks and months compiling notes to form clear-headed arguments. She addressed her needs, formed boundaries, celebrated life, valued her friends and loved ones, and maintained a balance of self-care, career aspirations, and personal relationships. She lived, and she lived large, and she lived well.

Barbara died just short of the age of 60, after a years long battle with multiple sclerosis and, later, leukemia. At her side until the end was Nancy Earl, an educational psychologist, a white woman, and Barbara’s best friend, lover, and partner for 30 years. Barbara lived in a time when she could not come out as lesbian, and likely had to introduce the love of her life as her “roommate” or “friend” in public. They weren’t allowed to marry, but they lived as if they were. Earl and Jordan loved each other deeply and fully. They owned a home together and traveled together, an interracial lesbian couple in Texas, keeping their home life a secret from the public. This both delights me and makes me sad.

Barbara Jordan was the first southern black woman elected to the House of Representatives, the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after the Reconstruction, the first black woman to address the Democratic National Convention, and the first black woman to be buried in Texas State Cemetery. Since her death, Jordan has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has been put on a postage stamp, has been placed in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and has had numerous schools as well as a main terminal in the Austin airport named for her.

Barbara Jordan broke down barriers for women, for African Americans, and for LGBT people, in the face of oppression and impossible obstacles. Her skills and talents led her to rise above. Now envision a world in which all are given equal opportunities for success, when systems of oppression and privilege are not in place to hold others back. What have we missed out on because we favor the majority and make it easier for them to succeed?

I am proud to call Barbara Jordan a personal hero. My world is better because she lived.

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