Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Education of Harvey Milk

The New York Times this morning gives Gus Van Sandt's new movie Milk starring Sean Penn in the title role a rave review. And now, I'm dying to see it. I've always loved that documentary about his life from 1984, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk.

The real Harvey Milk campaigning in San Francisco.

Both the movie and the documentary concentrate, understandably, on Milk's life and pioneering work in San Francisco. But he had a fairly dramatic life before that here in New York. It might even make good material for another movie. While in New York, Milk was a largely closeted gay man working on Wall Street and in the insurance industry who avoided politics. His political education came in the form of a flaming passionate affair with the young Craig Rodwell, a very radically out gay man before the term "out" was invented. Rodwell regularly spent stints in jail and was frequently beat up in police stations because he always talked back to the cops. He stubbornly refused to accept the shame and secrecy that was the common lot of gay men at that time (late 1950s, early 1960s).  Rodwell had little patience for Milk's caution, and Milk sometimes found Rodwell's boldness alarming.  They fought constantly, and eventually broke up.  
Rodwell founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore in 1967, the first bookstore openly selling gay literature that was not a porn store. Rodwell also campaigned to have the Stonewall Bar closed down. It was mob owned, and stayed open because of police corruption. It was notorious for its filth; hepatitis was common among its regulars. He worked to a get a New York state law that forbade the selling of liquor to known sexual "deviants" repealed, the very law that created the corruption necessary to keep gay bars open in New York. Rodwell found himself caught up in the Stonewall riots of 1969.
It was Rodwell who taught Milk his politics, but Milk brought a generosity and pragmatism to politics that Rodwell lacked, and made it successful beyond all expectations.

Craig Rodwell in his bookstore about 1972

Rodwell is now largely forgotten except by a few historians. But, he played a very key role in the formation of Harvey Milk and of the modern LGBT movement.

A lot of the surviving Stonewall era activists complain about being forgotten and taken for granted these days.  Their complaint is just, but it's also a sign of success.  That younger generations take for granted things the earlier generations had to fight so hard for is a measure of real accomplishment.  Gay America, just like the rest of America, thinks history is bunk and a bore.  But as nasty old Freud always said, the past is there for us to trip over.  It is also there to encourage us.  It reminds us how far we've come, and shows us that even the worst obstacles can be overcome with courage, persistence, and solidarity.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

I always learn so much from you! Thanks for the backstory on Milk and Rodwell---fascinating stuff.

IT said...

Yes, we can't wait for the film, will go with our good friends (a gay couple). We sometimes laugh that people probably think we are two straight couples when we are out.

I was in high school when Milk and Moscone were shot. I have very, very vivid memories of those times, and the riots, and so on....really looking forward to it.

I just wish they had released it BEFORE the election.


IT said...

(I should add I grew up in the Bay Area so this was personal!)

FranIAm said...

I can't wait to see it myself. I have always loved Harvey Milk and I remember learning about his death and crying. I always knew a lot of LGBT folks so I guess that is how I knew of Harvey, me living in NY at that time.

Ah. The Oscar Wilde Bookstore. I have been there so many times, many, many, many times. It is a piece of history.

I am having trouble with my added brain - what was that other bookstore? I can't recall. It was in the village and then moved to Chelsea. Then it closed- that was sad.

What was it?

Anyway, thank you for this history lesson - I did not know much about Rodlwell.

it's margaret said...

I was living in San Francisco on that awful horrific day.... I have really mixed feelings about going to the movie.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I could swear that Frank Kameny got a 5 minute ovation at Creating Change a few years ago.

I remember hearing about the Milk and Moscone assassination shortly after I graduated from college - I was old enough to remember MLKJr and RFK assassinations clearly, and JFK assassination mostly for seeing adults look upset and astonished. I remember thinking that America was a scary place.


Anonymous said...

John d'Emilio wrote a short history of US gay and lesbian activism, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities.(or v.v.) Informative and well written.

Counterlight said...


It was A Different Light Bookstore. I worked there for awhile after it moved to Chelsea. I still have friends from those years. It died a long slow painful death, though I hear that the San Francisco store clings to life.

FranIAm said...

A Different Light! Of course!!

I love thinking that we might have met in passing. Isn't life amazing that way?

Random and yet - not.

Happy Thanksgiving Counterlight. I am grateful to inhabit a world that has you in it. Peace my friend!

Counterlight said...

What a lovely thing to say!

A very happy holiday to you, and my gratitude for all your kindness and support!

JCF said...

I, too, grew up in Northern California, so the Milk/Moscone murders (and the "White Night" riot that followed Dan White's wrist-slap for the murder, using his "Twinkie Defense") are personal.

Perhaps even more personal, though, is what happened to Cleve Jones (portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the movie) a few years later.

He moved to Sacramento---my hometown---and was an activist there in the mid-80s. While there, he was brutally gay-bashed, within an inch of his life. The crime got press---but nothing like it would today ("Metro" section of The Bee, not front page).

This happened RIGHT around the time I was Coming Out to myself (as bisexual---as I would ID for many years).

In even trying to talk about such issues to my parents (w/ whom I was still living at the time), I recall mentioning the Cleve Jones crime to my mom (who hadn't heard about it). "He was nearly killed, just because his attackers thought he was gay"

"Well, IS he gay?" my mom responded, crossly.

This is probably why I only came out to her, unconscious on her death-bed. :-(

Counterlight said...

I remember seeing Cleve Jones in 1989 when he visited Berea College in Kentucky at the invitation of the college. He spoke before a large, and very hostile, student assembly in Phelps-Stokes Chapel. I remember him remaining cool as a cucumber and not even changing the tone or volume of his voice as he spoke before an audience of booing and catcalling 19 year olds.