Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Not a Son of San Francisco

I just read Lillian Faderman's Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death, published in 2018 by Yale's Jewish Lives series.  It's a smooth read, less detailed than Randy Shilts's The Mayor of Castro Street (St. Martin's Press, 1982), but with a longer perspective.  Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated more than forty years ago, and a lot has changed since then.

I only read Shilts' book once, decades ago, and don't remember much about it, so this is a point he may have covered; but as the series name indicates, one of Faderman's concerns is Harvey Milk's Jewishness.  Though he was mostly non-observant, he reveled in his New York Jewishness (see Faderman, page 4) and often drew explicit analogies between being Jewish and being gay.  I also knew how controversial he was as a San Francisco politician, often with good reason as Faderman shows.  But consider what you might call the gay Democratic establishment in San Francisco, notably the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club.  It doesn't make much sense to refer to the Toklas club as the Old Guard, since it was founded in 1971, two years after Stonewall and only a couple of years before Milk began running for public office in San Francisco; but their mentality was clearly Old Guard.

Faderman says a couple of times that "major politicos of the gay establishment continued to regard [Milk] as an interloper with a New York accent and a kind of pushiness that they they also associated with New York" (122).  The members of the San Diego Democratic Club "found him loud, 'New-York-in-your-face,' presumptuous, abrasive - a know-it-all who had the audacity to speak for all gays" (189).  I might be overstepping to detect anti-Semitism in this reaction, if only because some of Milk's enemies, such as David Goodstein, were also Jewish, but it seems that most of them were A-gays who thought it was tolerable to be a Jew as long as you had class.  And I couldn't help thinking, as I read this material, of similar criticisms of Bernie Sanders today.  Despite Sanders's long political career, he's still seen as a presumptuous, abrasive, know-it-all upstart by 'respectable' people.  Just a thought.