Today—May 22, 2020—would have been Harvey Milk’s ninetieth birthday. Harvey was forty-five when I first met him in his camera store; I was nineteen. Harvey was murdered when he was just forty-eight, and I’m now sixty-five. While time marches on, Harvey will be forever forty-eight.
Reading filmmaker Matt Wolf’s recent thoughtful essay for Criterion inspired me to write about my own experiences as a participant in some of the very scenes Wolf cites from my film. Sometimes my role was activist, sometimes filmmaker, and sometimes both.
I moved to San Francisco from the east coast in 1975. I was nineteen years old, just coming out, and in search of something . . . someplace, still unknown to me. For sixty-five dollars, I purchased a “seat” on the Green Tortoise, an old Greyhound bus with seats removed and replaced with a wooden platform topped with foam rubber pads covered in Indian print bedspreads. The bus departed from Duane Street in lower Manhattan, then an industrial wasteland; five days later we arrived in San Francisco. The hippie underground railroad.
Crossing the Bay Bridge at night upon arrival, seeing the city all lit up for the first time, I indeed felt like I was busing into Oz. For this boy who had never traveled west of Philadelphia, Dorothy was no longer in Kansas.
My first few months in San Francisco were occupied with doing various subsistence-wage jobs—I pierced ears at Beadazzled, a bead store at the cable car turnaround on Powell Street selling puka shell necklaces to tourists; did temp work for Grandma’s Helpers, a gay cleaning service; cater-waitered at conventioneer events with famed local stripper Carol Doda as the headliner. Imagining myself an artist in search of a medium, I took a couple of film classes at San Francisco State, where I made an experimental Super 8 mm film of my boyfriend bathing in a Victorian bathtub intercut with our cat cleaning herself sitting on a windowsill.
At about the same time I answered a classified ad for a production assistant in a local magazine. (This is how people actually found jobs back then.) The ad read: “we are seeking a non-sexist gay male to work on a documentary about gay lifestyles, no experience necessary, just insane dedication and a cooperative spirit.” And thus began my professional filmmaking career, setting the foundation for Wolf’s observations.
Behind the ad were filmmaker Peter Adair and his sister Nancy. For years Peter had been working on an idea to do a film about what it means to be gay in America circa the early 1970s, made from the perspective of gay and lesbian filmmakers in the early days of what was then called “gay liberation.” Four of us (Veronica Selver, Andrew Brown, Lucy Phenix, and myself) eventually joined Peter and Nancy, and together we six became the Mariposa Film Group, the entity responsible for making what would become the landmark 1977 LGBTQ documentary Word Is Out, a series of interviews with twenty-six men and women from across the United States about their experiences of being openly queer. It was shown in theaters and on PBS, a first.
For me, as a young person finding my way as a professional filmmaker and as a gay man, Word Is Out was the perfect synthesis of subject, medium, and community, and my three-year experience working on Word Is Out would inform and shape my approach to filmmaking over the next several decades.