Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Evening of 15 February 2008

How delightful on my way to a discussion at the LBGT Historical Society on Mission Street to see and hear this wonderful man playing electric violin:



A panel had been arranged to lead a discussion about how gay life has differed for older and younger men.




To my mind, at age 70, the young gay men did emanate the difference of those who have grown up since gay life has emerged from its hidden, underground existence previous to gay liberation -- the knowledge that gay people exist was at large in their world; they seemed confident young men accustomed to assuming political responsibility.  So many changes in the world, including the Internet, have changed the process of "coming out."
 
The older gay men described a more tortured process of coming out, decades ago when we grew up being taught that being gay was criminal, subject to imprisonment, or it was defined as a mental illness.  All of the older men on the panel were frank about their personal confusions and dead-end searches in their first days as gay men.  

Harry Britt was the last on the panel to speak.  He is a venerable figure in gay history, of course, as he was appointed to Harvey Milk's position on the San Francisco Board of Supervisor when Milk was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, by Supervisor Dan White.  Harvey's cohort, said Britt, included the effeminate men and the butch women because they "fit in" society least, and so they were the most ready for revolutionary change.  


Britt was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1980, 1984, and 1988, and served as President of the Board from 1989-90.  He ran unsuccessfully for the 5th Congressional District of California in 1987, narrowly losing to Nancy Pelosi, and was also unsuccessful in his race against Mark Leno for the California Assembly in 2002.  Currently he teaches at New College, San Francisco, which is in financial troubles in 2008.  

No matter what the differences for the young or the older gay man, Britt said, "What we have in common is our alienation.  What makes us different is how we process that alienation."  In his own case, confronting the fact of his homosexuality, "I thought I needed to learn a new [political] language.  Then I realized that language did not exist, that we would have to create it."

For a moment I dipped into one of those useless questions, as Harry spoke, thinking:  Why should gays have to NOT be alienated from other gay people?  Are "straight" people concerned with NOT being alienated from all other "straight" people?  But minority groups are always caught in strange nets like that, which cannot be avoided, although it is very odd.  


Harry did a brief review of the three decades of gay life ending the last century; how, after Stonewall officially launched what had just been an idea before then -- Gay Liberation -- the Castro became one big long party. One of the older men on the panel had come to the San Francisco just before then as a political activist but saw that there was no choice but to join in the party or watch it, as politics was not on anyone's mind--everyone supposing that "freedom," as a final state, had arrived. Then Britt described how the party ended, with the devastating effect of HIV/AIDS, leading to the more moderate style that seemed evident in the young gay men on the panel.

I felt that Harry missed an opportunity when asked how gay men and lesbians had traveled on separate paths, and it reminded me that I have wanted to contact Tom Ammiano to ask him to make some proclamation of the heroism of lesbians during the AIDS crisis. I heard plenty of anti-women comments among gay men in the days before AIDS, but lesbians became an army of supportive caretakers as their gay brothers sickened and died. Their support has not been properly celebrated.

One question that was floating through the discussions was how the older gay men had had great difficulty finding mentors in their youth to guide them, and where do young gay people find mentors now? (Are they better off without them?)

As discussion was opened to the audience, it was a little disappointing to hear the old oppositions between older and younger gay men, and how each side found it difficult to bridge that difference. The older ones, of course, felt the history they represent is not respected by the young, while the younger men said they supposed the older men just want to have sex with them. Historical struggles were recalled that the older men felt were being forgotten, invoking the names of brave crusaders (who suffered for their struggles, but endured), such as Harry Hay. Britt mentioned Hal Call who published the periodicals of the Mattachine Society; he was one of those who created one of the various collections of books and materials now congregated on the shelves and in boxes in the Historical Society's rooms behind us.

One of the older men seemed bitter not for social or political problems but from his own psychological problems that made him condemn any efforts to communicate, saying that no younger gays share his interest in a particular activity. Although older gay men are apt to discount younger gay men complaining that older gay men are only interested in them sexually, one young man gave a convincing speech about not feeling respected as a person, and certainly there are enough older men (of any sexual persuasion) who are apt to become obnoxious in their attraction to younger men or women. An older man expressed difficulty with getting younger people to attend his group that is intended to promote intergenerational contact. Some young men said they preferred to hang out with other young men as they have the common interests and concerns of their generation.

I was feeling frustrated at hearing the same stances I had heard over the years, and it was the last half hour before they would break into a social time, while I had to take off for an event at El Rio restaurant, so I wanted to say a few things that had been building up in me, and finally got my turn in the audience to speak: "I have several things I would like to say. I would like to say that when I first came to San Francisco [1959] I used to go to the building at the end of this block [I don't know if anyone there knew the actual location] and walk up a few floors where I could sample the library Hal Call had created there. But I would also like to say that I don't see how you can have a group to create, self-consciously, communication between the generations. I have been in an intergenerational writing group for a couple decades now, and I think you just have to follow your interests and there you will meet others of different generations who follow that interest. Also, for older guys who feel their history is being ignored. I used to feel annoyed because I was part of a gay liberation movement in the 1960s -- Does anyone know about Sherwood Forest [headquarters of those early days of gay liberation] in Berkeley? -- We had kiss-in's and were chased around by the police and did a lot of the groundwork for Gay Liberation -- but Stonewall obliterated that history. But why waste time being resentful about a forgotten past? If you feel your history has been neglected, write it up, and give it to the Historical Society. Why go on living in the past?... Ah...there was something else I wanted to say, but I can't remember what it was."

"That's all right," said someone on the panel, "there will be time."

But I had to leave for El Rio soon after that. A man standing by the door said, "I like what you had to say." Then I remembered the other thing I wanted to say: "And I wish young men would stop hitting on me."

But I have missed so many of Elisa Welsh's performance, and I like her singing and the songs she writes, and tonight it was to be a benefit for Code Pink. I managed to get to El Rio on Mission by the middle of the first song of their set. I am glad that there was this reason finally to go to El Rio. It held that wonderful new generation that I first recognized as something new at a grand "Power to the Peaceful" concert in Golden Gate Park last summer -- They look to me like a new and different kind of human, and I could tell that there was no division between heterosexual and homosexual (and bisexual) young people in El Rio in the first room alongside the long bar; it was clearly their celebratory Friday night. Beyond that was a large back patio where someone was cooking over a grill. I could not see anyone I knew from Code Pink, and finally I realized that in this maze of rooms, I had to go further to the room with a stage where Elisa and her cohort were performing.
A lot better photographs than mine were taken by a professional:
http://bryanharrison.net/photos/pages/index.htm/

Jim McLaren and Bryan Harrison performing



Elisa Welch sang some wonderful old songs, but also some of her own, including one she wrote for those camped out at Camp Pelosi (outside Nancy Pelosi's home, resisting her stance that "the question of impeachment is tabled") to sing during their vigils there, and I hope it will also be sung in peace marches:  WAKE UP.  She gave me permission to print the words here (at the end of this entry), but it will not have the same power as when Elisa and her friends are singing it to Elisa's tune; then you cannot help but join in.*


Renay Davis had a chance to take a break from political action...



Nancy Mancias looked so cute dancing (This is sounding too much like society column chatter), and I was glad to have the opportunity to tell her that the most delightful moment in recent political events was when, shouting against the war at Huckleberry's -- that is, Huckabee's -- appearance in San Francisco, and she was carried off, draped over some guy's shoulder, still facing the crowd, and she was still shouting against the war...



*WAKE UP
  [Words & Music by Elisa M. Welch, copyright August 2007]
[Chorus]
[Call]:  Wake up!
     [Response]:  Wake up!
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!

[Verse]: Wake up and smell the coffee my friends
Shake up the status quo and put this madness to an end
We have let it go too far it's time to stop this stupid war
[Call]:  It's up to you.
[Response]:  It's up to you.
[Call]:  It's up to me.
[Response]:  It's up to me.
[Chorus]
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Verse]:


Take up the olive branch and drop the sword
Make up and stop your fighting and you'll reap the right reward
We must learn to live together in this little world, you see
[Call]:  It's up to you.
[Response]:  It's up to you.
[Call]:  It's up to me.


[Response]:  It's up to me.
[Chorus]:
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!
[Call]:  Wake up!
[Response]:  Wake up!


[Bridge]:
What's it gonna take?  Do I really need to scream?
What will finally wake you from this endless dream


[Verse]:
How can you let this lunacy go on?
There's a junta in the White House and it's time to get them gone
Yes the answer's in our reach and the answer is IMIPEACH
[Call]:  It's up to you
[Response]:  It's up to you
[Call]:  It's up to me
[Response]:  It's up to me
[Call]:  It's up to you
[Response]:  It's up to you
[Call]:  It's up to me
[Response]:  It's up to me

1 comment:

kimy said...

what a interesting, informative, and yes empowering post of the two events. thank you for sharing your observations.

if you haven't written your memoirs of the movement in the 60s (and the sherwood forest era I hope you will - if you have, let me know the title of the book!

sorry you had to leave so quickly after your turn to speak at the glbt event - and missed whatever discussion was generated!

love your response to the 'complaint' of the 'young' men - cracked me up.