Harvey Milk's Last Month, and Last Boyfriend

November 26, 2008

In celebration of the opening of the new movie "MILK", we are excited to share this amazing piece by Steve Beery. Steve was a writer and gay activist who died of AIDS in '93. He met Harvey Milk when he was 25 years old and Harvey was 48. Harvey was a daddy who definitely appreciated younger men. This piece was provided to us by Armistead Maupin (my wonderful husband), who met Steve at Harvey's memorial service and remained his closest friend until his death.

My Month with Harvey

by Steve Beery

I was suffering from a typical San Francisco ailment – costume claustrophobia. My tights were riding up, my fake-satin cape was itchy, and beads of sweat were rolling down behind my eye mask. I was dressed as Robin the Boy Wonder at the 1978 Beaux Arts Ball, and I was being unmistakably cruised by a man I knew but had never met.  The man was Harvey Milk, the first openly gay city supervisor – a man I respected and admired.

We’d smiled and nodded on Castro Street several times that year.  I like Harvey’s wide-open grin, and I’d wondered whether the attraction was mutual.  Now it looked like maybe it was. Nervously I straightened my cape, checked my trunks, adjusted my gloves. The supervisor, at ease in his rumpled grey suit, extended his hand and uttered the corniest pick-up line imaginable. “Hop on my back, Boy Wonder, and I’ll fly you to Gotham City,” he said, almost keeping a straight face.

The line was corny, but effective. Harvey had a gift for persuasion, a way of making you believe he could do anything. We swapped phone numbers and got together the next night.  The thing that impressed me most was his laugh, explosive and uninhibited; that, and the slightly daffy look in his eyes, like an overgrown kid’s. At 48 he was nearly twice my age, but full of boyish mischief.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Harvey was a nut, a screwball, a wild card. He was also a satyr, a gleeful disciple of Eros who’d found a way to marry his essential craziness to a set of well-ordered work habits. He insisted on being on call to his constituents 24 hours a day. No problem – from towed cars and trash pickup to tree pruning – was too small. Despite his hippie, flower-power, Summer of Love experience, there wasn’t an ounce of “California mellow” in Harvey. His native New York aggression, undiluted by the amiability of Castro Street, was always spoiling for a fight.

I was surprised, on our first date, to find out how strong he was.  He didn’t have a gym-toned body; he was built more like a big bull, rangy and muscular.  Within his first two minutes at my apartment he picked me up and dumped me unceremoniously on my bed.  He liked to do things fast, at double speed. He walked fast. He talked fast. He even ate fast.

At home with him in his apartment on Henry Street, I tried to get him to relax, but Harvey wasn’t himself in repose; he needed the excitement of a new crisis.  In the evenings, I like to puff on a joint, but generally he’d decline; this and the ponytail were aspects of a former life the ex-street freak had sacrificed to public service.  The only time he was completely off the job was in bed, and there – when he wasn’t sleeping – he displayed the same enthusiastic abandon.

People who think all gay men are fussy about décor should have seen the way Harvey lived.  His bed was a mattress on the floor, seldom made up, and the room was a tangle of unfolded laundry.  Only those clothes he knew he’d be wearing to work the next day warranted a hanger. He thought it was hysterically funny that as supervisor he’d attend parties wearing his “one good suit” and rub shoulders with the Pacific Heights millionaires.  His bathroom was a mess and the kitchen went largely unused.  Night after night, we ate at the Hong Kong Restaurant on Church Street, where the food was cheap and plentiful. I didn’t want to keep house for him, but the need presented itself.

In the mornings, Harvey would drive me to my job out on Geary Boulevard, where I was working my first 8-5 at a credit agency. After dropping me off, he’d go home and climb back into bed. We stayed up late, and since he no longer had his camera store to worry about (he was living on his meager supervisor’s salary) he could sneak in some extra sleep in the mornings before getting down to city business.  Usually we’d sit in his Volvo outside my office and make out for a few minutes while my co-workers filed past and looked in at us. Harvey loved it. Anything to shake up the straight people.

Straight people, hell. He’d do anything to shake up anybody.  One day he called me at work. “I’m reading the most God-awful boring garbage bill and I’ve got a great big hard-on. Why don’t you take the afternoon off? Come down to City Hall and get under my desk.”

“Harvey!” I pretended to be shocked. He loved putting me in the position of being the sane one and having to rein him in. “Save it,” I told him. “Save it for tonight.”

“Save it! Save it!” he said, laughing. “I’ll have another one by tonight anyway. I really think you ought to come down. It’s a big desk.”

“I know how big it is, Harvey.”

Still laughing, he rang off.

We were driving along Dolores Street on our way back to his place after dinner – I remember watching the palm trees pass in the darkness – when he first mentioned the death threats he’d been getting in the mail. One letter he described outlined a kidnapping and days of torture; the plan was to keep him prisoner, and to cut him, bit by bit, for weeks. When I registered alarm, Harvey threw back his head and laughed. “I can’t take it seriously,” he said. “It was written with a Crayola crayon.”

To Harvey, such risks were just part of his job. The man who walked down the middle of Market Street every year in the gay-pride parade knew he presented an easy target for fag-bashers. I didn’t admit it to him, but I felt afraid for both of us in his bed that night.

Proposition Six

In that first week of November, California voters had been asked to consider an important gay principle. Proposition Six was an initiative that would have authorized the firing of gay schoolteachers statewide. Here was scary evidence that Anita Bryant’s anti-queer crusade had gathered some steam.

Walking my precinct as a volunteer, going door-to-door in predominantly conservative Cow Hollow, I’d been gratified by my neighbors’ responses. Nearly everybody mentioned that they’d seen Harvey’s TV debate, in which he’d eloquently and hilariously trounced the measure’s backer, state senator John Briggs.  Harvey was getting the message out that it was okay to be gay and to work in a classroom. I was proud of him.

Sure enough, the vote was decisive. To celebrate, Harvey’s aide Anne Kronenberg invited some of their co-workers over. Harvey brought me as his date and introduced me for the first time to his “office”.  We ate some homemade pumpkin pie and chatted about election returns with Jim Rivaldo and Dick Pabich, old friends of Harvey’s and longtime Milk campaigners.

That night at Anne’s, the conversation came around to Bette Midler. Harvey told me he liked one of the routines from her live album, her story about seeing a bag lady wearing a fried egg on her head. “You can call it a fried egg, you can call it anything you like, “ the routing concluded. “But everybody gets one. Some people wear it on the outside; some people wear it on the inside.” Harvey said that was what humanity was all about, finding a place to laugh in the middle of tragedy. It was like laughing at this own death threats.

Meanwhile, back on Henry Street, the worst had happened: Harvey had discovered I was ticklish. I was no match for his tickling wiles; they were lethal and subtle, with the precision of a rattlesnake. Sometimes a hand laid innocently on my knee or around my waist would turn into… a tickle! And he’d have me helpless with laughter.

But for all his love of control, Harvey also liked to relinquish it from time to time. In bed, he liked to be manhandled. He kept an assortment of marital aids in a box in the bedroom closet. These kinds of toys were new to me. Harvey showed me how they worked.

If he was going to coach me in being aggressive, I decided I’d make him relax. One evening I took him to Arena, my favorite South-of-Market leather bar. He told me he never went to bars, and I learned why; he was besieged by constituents in boots and chaps, and instead of the two of us having a quiet beer together as I’d imagined, he had to play supervisor all evening. I promised him I wouldn’t make that mistake again.  As it turned out, I didn’t get the chance.

“Nothing’s going to stop us now”

The trailer for Superman was in the theaters, assuring audiences we’d believe a man could fly. It reminded me of Harvey’s opening line the night we met, and we made plans to see the film when it opened in December. The day before Thanksgiving, Harvey jotted down the addresses of the friends who’d invited me over and told me he’d try to stop by. I wanted him to have a homemade turkey dinner on Thanksgiving, but I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t make it. The startling news from Guyana had just broken, and city leaders, many of whom had curried favor with Jim Jones, had a lot of thinking to do.

When we got together the next evening, Harvey didn’t talk much about Jonestown, though, predictably, he was already making sick jokes about Kool-Aid. I remember he remarked vaguely that some civic shit was going to hit the fan. I didn’t press him on it. About another event, though, he was jubilant. Dan White, Harvey’s conservative opponent on the board, had unexpectedly just resigned, leaving a clear path for Mayor Moscone and the liberals to effect some serious change. “Nothing’s going to stop us now,” Harvey crowed.

That Friday night we got in bed and, for the first time, we drifted off to sleep without our usual preliminary gymnastics. But some time in the night we reached for each other, and our cuddling turned into the gentlest kind of lovemaking. On Saturday morning he had work to do. I left him with the assurance that one or the other of us would call. The following Monday, around 11am, I was at work when somebody who’d been listening to a radio announced the unbelievable news to the office. Harvey and the mayor were dead, shot and killed in City Hall by one of the supervisors.

It was impossible to take in. Some people sat at their desks and continued working; others were visibly upset. Some of my co-workers knew I’d been seeing Harvey; they’d seen us in the mornings, kissing in the car. My face felt hot. I went into the men’s room and cried. My boss came to my rescue. He drove me home and told me to take the next day off. At home, beside the phone, was a message my roommate Charlie had taken. Harvey had called that morning, with plans to get together that night.

I didn’t want to stay home alone. I needed to keep moving. I walked from my apartment on Union Street towards Civic Center, and I was surprised to see complete strangers crying on the sidewalk like I was. The knot of police cars I saw as I approached City Hall finally seemed to give the report some validity. I decided not to try to push my way in.

Candlelight Memorial

I walked for blocks in the cold November wind. I thought about that note by the phone. I thought about Harvey’s rumpled bed, no doubt lying unmade this very minute. I realized we’d never gotten a picture of us together. Somehow, I ended up back at my apartment.

Late that afternoon my friend Marty called; Marty had been Batman that night I was Robin. He’d heard that a makeshift memorial service was being thrown together in the old Gay Center on Grove Street, and he offered to take me down to it. At the service, a handful of people who’d been close to Harvey, the co-workers I’d had pie with at Anne’s just a few weeks earlier, hung their heads quietly before a hastily assembled altar. We were all still in shock; there hadn’t been time yet for the reality to hit us. Afterwards, Marty handed me a Quaalude. Grateful at the chance for some sleep, I took it and got into bed. I didn’t know thousands of people had illuminated Market Street with a spontaneous candlelight memorial until I read it the next day in the papers.

Saying Goodbye

The worst part was thinking about Harvey’s last minutes: Dan White standing over him with the gun, ugly with rage. It was too gruesome, too hideous to comprehend. Nearly as bad was hearing about the hearty reception White’s old cop buddies at the Northern Station had given him when he turned himself in. Clearly, there was no justice, no sense, no logic in the world anywhere. If these were the people entrusted to protect us, then what was my duty? An ex-cop had just killed the man I’d been sleeping with. Should I try for some kind of vigilante justice? Should I resort to those kinds of tactics?

The answers to these questions were no clearer to me two nights later at Harvey’s funeral in the Opera House. That day, I worked up the nerve to dial his office number. I asked to speak with Anne. “We’ve been trying to get a hold of you,” she said. “You’re one of the chief mourners. Sorry, none of us knows what we’re doing yet. Come on down, we’ll seat you.”

Sitting alone that night in the Opera House, I said my goodbye to Harvey. The room was swollen with emotion. Speaker after speaker remarked on the shared loss, the outrage, the helplessness. When somebody mentioned how unfair it was for such a good man to be shot on his office floor, I broke down completely.

A Proud Alliance

I attended another service later that week, at the Temple Emmanuel. But these farewell rituals, the ones we’re always told are “for the living” were doing little to settle my emotions. I felt angry and empty, as if my better instincts had burned away. What good was gay politics if years of hard work and organizing could be blown away in a minute by some redneck with a revolver? That comment of Harvey’s about finding laughter in tragedy returned to me’ this time, it left me with a bitter taste. Finding a place to laugh seemed unthinkable.

I never saw the apartment on Henry Street again; other, older friends had come in to take care of things. I plowed back into my memories of our month together, trying to make some sense of it. Why had we come together for such a short time? What lesson was I to learn?

On our first date, I remembered, Harvey asked me if I was proud to be gay. Apparently it was something he wanted to know about you right away, because your answer told him whether he was going to have to spend time educating you or whether certain basic assumptions could be taken for granted. I knew myself well enough to tell him I was proud.

I’d come out five years earlier – to myself, to friends, to the people I worked with. But I hadn’t taken the crucial step of telling my family back home. The more I thought about it, I realized the step beyond the Castro Street ghetto lay in Harvey’s commitment to the act of coming out. He’d argued that we should announce ourselves constantly, to everyone from family, friends, and casual acquaintances to bosses, clients and managers.

As Harvey saw it, the whole point of being gay was the challenge it presented.  Either you were comfortable enough with your identity to take it out into the world, or you were living a lie. He’d set an example of confronting prejudice instead of hiding behind a “private life.” He showed me that as long as we remained invisible, we had no integrity, no honor, no voice.

Harvey had said in one of his speeches, “I’ve never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy. I’ve considered the movement the candidate.”  And I remembered his other favorite line: “Come out, come out, wherever you are.” A proud alliance of open gay men and lesbians… That would make the difference. That would be one idea no one could kill.

Armed with new resolve, I started a letter to my mother and father in Michigan. I hadn’t written in over a month, and I had a considerable amount of news. I couldn’t help feeling that, somehow, somewhere, I was getting one last tickle back at Harvey.
 

Tags: Gay History, Daddy Celebrities
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Comments

I just returned from viewing the film “Milk.” Whew! What an emotional ride!

I was also 25 in 1978, and I moved to San Francisco in the Castro in January of that year. Seeing the film reminded me of those exciting and also tragic times. I worked in my small way to defeat the Briggs Initiative (Prop. 6), and I was present at the victory party where Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone spoke briefly to congratulate us on our communal victory. That was the last time I saw them alive.

I went to the corner of Market and Castro the night of the assassinations with 30,000 others, and someone was playing over a loudspeaker the recording Harvey had made to be played in case he was killed by an assassin. I couldn't hear all the recording, but everything seemed confused and hopeless at that time. I walked carrying a candle from the Castro to City Hall, and I noted that the film depicted this march exactly as it happened, with thousands of people marching in near pindrop silence. Our hearts were too heavy with sorrow even to speak in whispers.

When we reached City Hall, we were greeted by the warm, life-giving voice of Joan Baez in person. She sang “Amazing Grace” and then lead us all in singing “Kumbaya.” Her voice healed my heart just a little, and I was able to go home after the rally feeling I could go on.

The day the verdict in Dan White's trial was announced I remember feeling very sad that justice had not been done. I did not share the anger of those who rioted at City Hall, however. Later when I learned Dan White had committed suicide after being released from prison after serving only five years, I felt the circle had finally closed and justice had prevailed.

Harvey Milk is certainly a martyr for the cause of gay rights, a secular saint who sacrificed everything to help our people everywhere. His message to come out is as relevant today as it was back then, and we still have much work to do to defeat the bigots who clothe themselves in the guise of religion. Every day kids who will discover their gay identities are being emotionally abused in churches and other religious organizations in the name of God.

I advocate gay adults who experienced such abuse as children to share their stories and start educating the public about this life-threatening problem. Child abuse is a crime, and there is no statute of limitations on child-abuse reporting. If education alone doesn't work, I advocate charging preachers of anti-gay hate with child abuse, forcing them to spend millions defending themselves in court. It's time we speak up for our gay youth still trapped in abusive environments. If we do not speak for them, who will? Freedom of religion ends where abuse of gay kids begins.

I created a group on Yahoo where I invite those who experienced anti-gay hatred in their religious upbringing can share their stories. The link to that site is as follows: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/StopAbuseOfGayKids/

Harvey Milk's last boyfriend was killed before him.His name was John Lira.

To the Anonymous poster who thinks that Jack Lira was Harvey's last boyfriend.
Educate yourself and don't make statements about things you obviously don't know about.
Billy Wiegardt was the man who dated Harvey after Jack Lira. After Wiegardt a man by the name if Doug Franks dated him. As stated by his closest friends. Harvey's personal life was a little chaotic.
So, Unless you had a personal view into Mr. Milk's personal life keep you're incorrect statements to yourself!

I just cried a bit.

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