Friday, March 17, 2017
When We Rise: The Stories of Some Who Paved the Way
My wife and I just finished watching the four night series When We Rise based on the book by Cleve Jones. Cleve Jones moved to San Francisco in the early 1970's. He worked to help elect Harvey Milk to the San Francisco City Council. Watching this series, particularly the first two episodes, was to watch events that I witnessed only through television. I was eleven when Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated. Here I share my memories and my story and the ways the work and lives of people such as Cleve Jones and Roma Guy shaped my life. The stories portrayed in this series were among the many that have and continue to pave the way, to show us and inspire us to make our world more just, more inclusive, more whole.
I was recently asked by my niece for a class she is taking when I first became aware of homosexuality and my memory is driving through the Castro with my grandparents and seeing two men with their arms around each other, their hands in each other's back pockets. In the series, When We Rise, as they show the assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, I remember exactly where I was that day. I was visiting my grandparents who lived in the Forest Hill District of San Francisco. I remember standing in front of the television and seeing Diann Feinstein announce the death of the two men and the arrest of Dan White. I remember seeing her barely containing the tears as she announced the death of the two men. I also had no idea until much later, how unique my experience has been. For me, certainly raised with strong moral prohibitions on homosexuality from my family, from the Roman Catholic church, it was coupled with a strong "live and let live." I lived on the Peninsula in Belmont, CA and San Francisco was "The City." My father was raised in San Francisco, third generation, the grandson of a Portuguese immigrant married to an Irish woman.
At the time, this kind of shooting was not yet a regular part of our news cycle. It was shocking that Dan White could just walk into City Hall and shoot the Mayor and a City Council member and walk back out. I remember Dan White's trial and the Twinkie defense. Even my Republican, Roman Catholic father was outraged.
My high school years were in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Every night there was a report - from the days when they had no idea what it was, how it was transmitted, to finally understanding what it was and that it was not just about gay men or HIV drug users but about all of us. I remember the decision to close the bath houses. I remember my father's disgust at promiscuous and anonymous sex that many gay men engaged in. I saw gay pride on television. Years before I would come out or even know someone personally who was LGBTQ, I thought well why do they have to have a parade and tell everyone, after all I don't shout about my heterosexuality (yes you can all chuckle here).
It was not until I went off to college, choosing to leave California first for Milwaukee, WI and then for Washington, DC, to find out that my experience of live and let live was not universal. My roommate freshman year was from St. Louis, MO, when we talked on the phone, she asked me "Are there really all those gays out there?" The question surprised me. Well yes there are gay people in San Francisco, but certainly not in my safe middle/upper middle class neighborhood on the Peninsula. In my second semester at Marquette I was taking an education class and part of the class was tutoring a student in reading. If I remember correctly she was in seventh grade but her reading level was somewhere around 3rd or 4th grade. Part of the assignment was to go and observe our students in the classroom. So I went to her public school to observe her in math class and I believe an English class. While I was waiting, I sat in the Faculty room at the school. The night before the movie An Early Frost had been on television. The movie is about a young man who has never come out to his family and now needs to come out because he is dying due to complications of AIDS. Two of the teachers in the room were talking about the show. One of them said they could never accept their son if he was gay. She would reject him. Now here I am, sitting in the room, not knowing these people, 18 years old and I am thinking "how could you think that?" How could you reject your child, your son, the child you carried for nine months in your body, you nurtured and loved and cared about and then reject him because he was gay?" This went against everything I believed. Truly I was not in San Francisco any more.
It was not until I went to Georgetown in 1986 that I actually came to know gay and lesbian people personally. I lived on the same floor and became friends with the man who was President of the Gay and Lesbian group at Georgetown. I had a close friend whose coming out journey I accompanied who later would point out to me, that he did not think I would have a relationship with a man until I explored how female identified I was/am. It sort of took me aback. A close female friend came out as bi and introduced me to the brand new book, Bi Any Other Name by Lorraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu. I finally came out in the early 1990's as bi. I didn't tell my family. I did tell my friends. I was out in some ways and not out in many others. Bi people were not, and too often are still not, very welcome in the LGBTQ community. For some, bi was a step on the way to finally accepting that one was lesbian or gay. People who identified as bi were seen as too afraid to come out all the way. When Donna and I started dating in 1994, she received a great deal of grief from lesbian friends with "Been there, done that" being the most common response. Now that I was dating a woman, coming out was more important. I joined a coming out support group at Whitman Walker Clinic. It helped to have a place to talk about coming out, about what dreams I felt I was losing, and learning to really accept this new piece of my identity.
I always knew I would not be rejected by my parents - I didn't think they would meet the news with excitement and joy but I had the privilege (and it is still a privilege) to know that I would not be rejected. I have to say I went through my own version of being a radically out person, wearing buttons and t-shirts that proudly proclaimed to the world that I was part of the LGB community (T was not yet part of the alphabet). I was working at the Washington National Cathedral in the worship department when we held a service in celebration of the 1993 March on Washington. I saw the final full display of the The Names Project Quilt on the Mall. Walking among those panels, each one roughly the size of a coffin (a detail not mentioned in the miniseries) is a holy and sobering experience. These were young people that died, some were children, some were in their young adult years. The love poured into each quilt is evident.
In 1996, Donna and I had our commitment service. At the time, there was no state that we could get legally married, a couple where we might get a domestic partnership and it was the year that President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). At our service, Dr. Mary Hunt, preached that "the President did not believe in marriage for women such as us." I thought I would see marriage equality in my lifetime although I thought it would take a lot longer.
As the mini-series unfolded it reminded me of where I was and what I was doing. Donna and I decided not to join the throngs at San Francisco City Hall when Mayor Gavin Newsom issued marriage licenses. We wanted to be legally married on the same date as our commitment service. The state would not dictate to us our anniversary. We did finally legally marry on June 22, 2008. We were among the 10,000 or so couples who got married between the time that the CA Supreme Court knocked down the proposition banning gay marriage and the passage of Prop. 8 which amended the California Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Marriage equality opponents wanted to stop the weddings taking place during that window in 2008 - they failed. They wanted the marriages nullified when Prop. 8 passed - they failed again. Of course the day after we got legally married we moved to Williamsburg, VA where our marriage and our relationship had absolutely no legal status except that we had carefully protected our relationship with our daughter. Our only legal relationship was as Mollie's parents. We celebrated with joy when DOMA was finally defeated and California couples could marry and then again when finally in every single state and territory in the United States our marriage was equal to all others.
I am so grateful to the many people who made all of this possible. I did not put my life on the line, I did not get beaten up or stabbed, I did not lose my family. I do know that their kicking that closet door off its hinges made it possible for me and so many others to come out. I know their example helped me be willing to be publicly out, and publicly out as a queer person of faith. I do not believe that I would have the family that I have today if it were not for these people who believed that they were here to do great work, important work. So thank you Cleve Jones, Roma Guy, Diane Jones, Ken Jones, Cecilia Chung. With the exception of Cleve Jones, I did not know your names and your work until this series. Thank you for your work that made my life as a queer person, as a woman, as a mother, much better. Thank you for reminding us that there are not separate fights but only one fight for justice and inclusivity. One fight to ensure that every single human being truly has those inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Thank you for reminding us that what unites the fights for the lives of men, women, trans, queer, gay, lesbian, poor, black, hispanic, asian, is really one fight for the worth and dignity of every single human being - without exception.
Most of all I thank you on behalf of my amazing daughter Mollie who grew up secure that our legal rights as parents were protected with both of our names on her birth certificate. She was able to witness our legal marriage in 2008. She has marched in San Francisco Pride, she has friends who are queer. This past summer as Mollie participated in the wedding of her godfather, the man who had been the President of the Gay and Lesbian group at Georgetown so many years ago, to an equally amazing man; our daughter was surrounded by a queer family of adults who took such great joy in who she was becoming and she, in turn, was reminded of her own belonging in and to that community by birth regardless of who she chooses to love or how she identifies. So, Cleve Jones (and all those activist role models), thank you for reminding her that the work is not done, that her "...generation has its own epic confrontations it must face."