Monday, March 16, 2009

A Kinder, Gentler People, Goddamnit!

What happened to Phyllis Burke? I'm rereading her book Family Values: Two Moms and Their Son (Random House, 1993), and anticipate rereading her Gender Shock (Doubleday, 1996). Both of these books had made me look forward to what she might write next. She has published nothing -- certainly no books -- since 1996, and I can't find anything about her online from the past dozen years, not even an obituary. She seems to have disappeared.

Family Values describes Burke's radicalization and involvement in Queer Nation San Francisco in 1990 and 1991, while she was pursuing second-parent adoption of her and partner Cheryl's son Jesse. She had been scared into the closet by Harvey Milk's assassination in 1978, but becoming a parent had given her cause to rethink her approach to life. One thing I especially like is that she mostly doesn't try to make her earlier closeted hangups into virtues as some writers do -- but neither does she deprecate her younger self with I-was-blind-but-now-I-see evangelism. This compassion carries over to her involvement in Queer Nation: she's nonplussed and at times turned off by the flamboyance and adolescent excess of QN's militance, but she's also attracted by it, and never loses sight of the humanity of people whose style is different from hers. (Though she agrees -- as do I -- with Cleve Jones "that Queer Nation did not seem to know their history" [136], a problem that still is with us.)

For example, she's "horrified" at first when she sees in a Pride Parade:
a man who looked exactly like a dime-store Jesus, except that his body was painted pink. He wore a loincloth fashioned from an American flag, and a crown of pink thorns. He was carrying a pink cross, with a green scroll across the top that said, MARTYR FOR ART. Behind him was a multicolored banner that stretched the width of the street. In bold letters it read, NOT SPONSORED BY JESSE HELMS. ... Pink Jesus had large, soft brown eyes, the eyes of a maniac or a theater master. It was impossible to tell whether he was brilliant or insane. Whatever he was, he was certainly an artist, meticulous in his preparations. As I looked closely at him, I realized that Pink Jesus was Gilbert Baker, the creator of the rainbow flag, which is flown internationally as the symbol of lesbian and gay pride. The rainbow flag had been a stroke of genius, but I did not think Pink Jesus was a good idea [36].
Her opinion of Baker and his theatrics changes as she gets to know him better and becomes more militant herself.

Burke also sketches a strong portrait of Jean Harris, then an aide to City Supervisor Harry Britt. (If you've seen Milk, many of the names in this book will be familiar to you. Gilbert Baker himself has a cameo part in the film. Harvey Milk's spirit hovers over the entirety of Family Values, as inspiration and as symbol of loss.)
Jean Harris can easily be mistaken for a man, which is part of her charm. She is the only complete cross-dresser in the history of City Hall, and I have actually heard her say that heterosexuality is a learned response. ...

"I wear a necktie because I want every man who sees to me to know I got the necktie on, I'm after their power, I want their money, and I want their women. Okay? And I will wear the necktie and wave it in their face," she said. "When I enter their offices, I'm not some girl coming in with sensible pumps on and a nice little dress to be a nice, sweet lady, and just sit down and try to get the boys to be nice to me. They know right up front, I'm a dyke, I'm tough, I'm here, I want to know exactly what's going on, and if you've got the power, I'm gonna try and take it from you."

... Perhaps my favorite moment with Jean was when she shouted into a microphone at the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, of which she was then president, "We're a kindler, gentler people, goddamnit." [106-107]
I love the way that Burke gently and humorously demolishes stereotypes of urban vs. rural, conservative parents vs. radical children, metropole vs. the hinterlands. When her mother back in Massachusetts asks her "if we were going to have the baby christened, I told her that I did not think it necessary to renounce Satan because I did not believe children came into the world with sin. She laughed and said that no one believed that anymore [if only that were so!], and she was asking only so she could know when to send birth presents. I told her I would christen him myself. Immediately" (29). And:
We heard from Shreveport, Louisiana, that they had held a Queer Pow Wow, and that New Orleans planned Queer Nights Out, plus their own shopping expedition. You could almost have expected chapters to crop up in Chicago and Boulder, Houston and Detroit, Cleveland and Atlanta. But Lincoln, Albuquerque, Tallahassee, and Salt Lake City? [117]
At the first domestic-partner registrations in San Francisco's City Hall on Valentine's Day, 1991, Burke observed the following couple, who might give pause to fans of Brokeback Mountain:
Two old fellows in their sixties, with rumpled baggy pants and John Deere hats, walked carefully down the stairs, their work-battered hands entwined, their eyes on their feet. They looked like they had just come off the farm. I looked beside me at Gilbert, who was now dramatically dabbing at his eyes with a white handerchief. "What's the matter?" I asked. "Weddings," he said, dabbing away, and although he was camping it up, there were real tears in his eyes [112].
(Incidentally, Burke had already mentioned that Baker was the only one present at the ceremony in a red ball gown. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.)

She also described her initial skepticism about the public ceremony for a status that, in 1991, had "no legal weight whatever in terms of health insurance, child custody, inheritance, or taxes" (104), but her cynicism crumbled as couple after couple used the event to declare their commitment publicly.
... I realized that I was crying. These were not people used to grand entrances, photographic flashes, televisions, and a crush of press. Yet these were people willing to perform this very public act, which had absolutely no material or practical gain attached to it, in order to affirm their love.
So far so good, though it should be remembered that among the first couples she describes were the vice president of the school board, Tom Ammiano, a longtime activist (and presently member of the California State Assembly), and his partner Mike Curbo. She continues:

Most of the people who descended these steps never have gone and never will go into the streets. They have never used and never will use the word "queer," or confront the Traditional Values Coalition or a President Bush who called them immoral and unfit to parent. They are our silent majority, and it was only in this way, only to express their love for each other, that they would perform such a public act [113].
This sentimentalizing of quietism and the closet rubs me the wrong way, and I know Burke knows better. I think more of these people should have gone into the streets, should have confronted the Traditional Values Coalition and George Bush. (Whether they call themselves "queer" or not doesn't matter to me.) Maybe they should have realized that by formally declaring their couplehood in public like this, they were doing essentially the same thing that Queer Nation was doing, to the equal fury of religious bigots. If they thought they were somehow different from the crazy radicals with their buttons and slogans, the Traditional Values Coalition would have set them straight on that point in a second.

Here's a 2006 TV interview with Gilbert Baker, the Pink Jesus of Family Values. It's interesting to remember that this (mostly) mild-looking fellow is the same person who shocked gays and straights alike with his street theater during the Queer Nation years. (You can almost see smoke pouring from his ears, though, as he listens to a bigoted Christian caller toward the end of the clip.)

Oh, and there's Burke's humor. While Cheryl was pregnant with Jesse, Burke was office manager at a law firm, one of whose owners was "the quintessential good old boy."
When I agreed to manage the office, the outgoing manager sidled up to me by the coffee machine and whispered, "Don't ever hire any gays, because Mr. O. hates them."

"Right," I said.

After about a year, unbeknownst to Mr. O., I had surrounded him with lesbians who were extraordinarily well paid. I did bring one identifiably gay male secretary into the office for a short period of time. Mr. O. came up to me and said, "If you want to hire a gay, go ahead. But you tell him I'm gonna call him names like 'fruit' if he stays here." Mr. O., who was rather plump, would stomp through the office, past this man's desk. As Mr. O. left the room, the gay man, who had a wonderful sense of humor, would look at me and gush, "I do love fatties!"

I drew the line with Mr. O. when he started making faggots-dying-of-AIDS jokes. In a fairly flat tone of voice, I told him that I had just lost a dear friend to AIDS, and I would appreciate it if he saved his humor for the Olympic Club.

When I announced to Mr. O. that Cheryl was pregnant and that she and I would raise the baby together, there was nothing in his mind to accomodate that thought. I could certainly not be a lesbian, as I did not have a mustache and I was Irish. [21-22]
So, Phyllis Burke, wherever you are, thank you for Family Values. And I urge all my readers to find a copy and read it, if you haven't already.