DAN NICOLETTA: HARVEY MILK AND THE CASTRO OF THE 70S
34 years ago Harvey Milk ushered in great political change by becoming one of the first openly gay elected officials in the US, and did so with a definitively gay agenda. Thanks to Gus Van Sant's recent movie MILK, it's a story that's finally being told to a much wider audience. To honor both the man, the film, and the upcoming book "Milk: A Harvey Milk Pictorial Biography", we asked photographer Dan Nicoletta, a friend and photographer of Harvey Milk and the Castro of the 70s, and of today, to dig into his personal archives and share some less-publicized images and stories with us. -Editor
Now, 34 years later after my rite of passage into the Queendom of Queerdom, I wonder what stands the test of time, which ideas remain essential and which cease to have gravity? Through Gus Van Sant’s film MILK, my work has made it’s way onto people’s radar and the results run the gamut. The most telling moment was when a 20-year-old boy living in Orlando called to thank me for helping to make the world a better place - he had just snuck out of the house to go see MILK. I veered the conversation to the notion that he too could make a difference, and then he shyly vanished. Harvey’s mythical boy from Altoona still exists. The Orlando boy reflects a broader reality, and that the film does reach and inspire is the one of the great successes of the project. It carries forward an essential theme of Harvey’s - the right to love who you choose, visibly, without fear of harm.
Many of us were the embodiment of the boy from Altoona, Pennsylvania, spoken about in Harvey’s "Hope" speech. When I came to San Francisco in 1974 and landed on Castro Street, I barely had my toe in the waters of being out. Goofy and wet behind the ears would be an understatement. It helped that a stroll down Castro Street to buy a loaf of bread was a kissing and hugging fest - there was little room for uncertainty. Ebullience was in the air, and my last traces of self-doubt were replaced by more glittery ways thanks to the environment we were co-creating, and I documented my wonderment the whole time.
The era started as laconic times of pot luck dinners, the Stud Bar and Sylvester’s music, but it rapidly transformed into a epic opera in 1977 after Anita Bryant and her legions decided that a life of same-sex pro-sexuality had to be stopped - and they would stop at nothing. But once provoked, neither would we. We had lived in the shadows of hate for too long. In retrospect I am grateful for having experienced self-loathing first-hand because the echo of that self-knowledge, though but a vague memory, informs my enormous respect for the LGBT civil rights movement. I feel outreach remains an essential challenge of the movement. We have a tremendous responsibility to engender a sense of self-worth, vitality and safety in the cities and in the hinterlands - and we all get to invent what that looks like in 2009 and beyond.
(top of the page) Harvey’s ashes wrapped in Doonesbury - his favorite cartoon. The bear bubble bottle was a nod to Mr. Bill, a silly skit on Saturday Night Live, and the grape Kool-Aid was an irreverent nod to the People’s Temple mass suicide when more than 900 Bay Area Temple members died in a murder suicide ritual just two weeks prior. On December 2, 1978, 30 or so of Harvey’s pals sailed out to sea on a 50-foot vintage sailing vessel named the Lady Frei, and just past the Golden Gate Bridge we gave him a canon salute and scattered his ashes, along with the grape Kool-Aid and peach colored roses. The roses were in honor of his favorite opera, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.
(above) Castro Street cruising, August, 1976. This was after the Castro Street Fair, though on many an average weekend day, certain portions of the street would be lined with guys cruising for camaraderie and sex. It was convenient living only a block away. Guys would file down the denim on their jeans so their crotch bulges would show off better. Thus the humble beginnings of the distressed denim look.(above left) Gay Freedom Day, 1975. I think this is Johnny Bonk’s butt. Christopher, aka Amour Starr, is on the sidewalk below. Their galaxy was a Castro neighborhood household called The Bourgeois Palace. These were some of the most inventive drag queens with the biggest hair and headdresses, and they were defying the more classic notions of drag, to pass as women. Their predecessors The Cockettes had disbanded by this time, but they still peppered the scene and their influence was lasting. I built my career chasing certain of these queens around like a little puppy dog, always trying to get the definitive shots of these fabulous and known community personalities. How fleeting fame is and yet how enduring the rite of passage remains. The players change but the ritual of discovery and exhibition is still essential.
(above right) Castro Street Fair, August, 1975. Artist Violet Ray’s moving art piece. Violet plunked this sun-tan lotion billboard piece down all throughout the fair that day and people used it for photo ops. Exhibitionism was king.
(above) Harvey Milk shares the daily comic strip with friend Denton Smith, Spring 1976. Denton and I have remained emotionally connected all of these years. There are some of us that had a special place in Harvey and Scott’s hearts, and the shared knowledge that we were close to the heart of things continues to gives us strength and comfort in ways that are unmatched.
(below top) Castro Street Fair, circa August 1976. Taken from Harvey and Scott’s apartment above the camera store at 573 and 575 Castro. Harvey and his lover Scott Smith helped start The Castro Street Fair in 1974, and by the 1980s the fair grew a few more blocks down Market Street and the side streets, attracting thousands of people to San Francisco for their vacations - and it still does. The various fairs have been dubbed “The High Holy Days”.
(below middle) Etta James at The Stud Bar, circa 1976. Note the boy in the foreground sucking down poppers - kids, don’t try that at home. Etta James and poppers what else is there to say? The Stud was and remains a favored grassroots boho watering hole. It’s where I instinctively went the night that Harvey was killed.
(above) Me in the Fall of 1976. I was determined to make a mark in the world as an artist. Before I started working at Castro Camera I could barely afford a few rolls of Tri-X and beers at the Stud Bar, but the scarcity didn’t phase me, we all loved being in San Francisco and we never worried much about what our next adventure would be. Of course getting asked by Harvey and Scott to work at Castro Camera was one of the great chances of my lifetime. Castro Camera was an amazing experiment. The gay film festival essentially started out of there, I met a lot of the freelance photographers in town there, and my political activism began there. Harvey registered me to vote - I said sure, not because of any sense of activism, but because my friend had asked me to do it. I in turn registered hundreds more.
(above top) November 8, 1977. Harvey Milk running towards supporters that were gathered in front of Castro Camera on the night of his victorious election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors as one of the first openly gay candidates in the world. For years I was annoyed that someone stepped in front of me just as Harvey jumped off of his motorcycle an ran towards the crowd, but now I love that this is out of focus… this was quite possibly the best night of my life…
(above bottom) November 8, 1977. Harvey Milk addressing the crowd outside his Castro Street Camera Store on the night of his victory. This is the moment that follows Harvey jumping off the motorcycle. It was a night of revelry and joy. We had attained the seemingly unattainable.
(below left) December, 1977. Harvey Milk clowning around at Castro Camera. Someone gave him this battery operated hat with an emergency light in case he ever needed to get the attention of his fellow Board of Supervisors. He would turn the light on and feign beseeching Madame President’s, Diane Feinstein, attention. He was ever the class clown and humor kept us buoyant during the hard times.
(above right) April, 1978. Audience members at a free Angels of Light show, Sci-Clones. Left to right: Esmerelda’s daughter Lavender, John Apple, Beau and Miss Tiddy and others. The audience was as much a part of the show as what was happening on stage. There was a segment of the Angel’s following that partied hard. Acid and pot were augmented by angel dust, heroin, speed and MDA. Those party-boys fascinated me - they were stunning and always loaded. Sadly, many didn’t live long. The show was an amazing sci-fi epic drama featuring music by members of the celebrated band Tuxedomoon. Check out their book.
(below left) Puss print pajama party, May 1978. I left early but I hear that several quaaludes later it got pretty touchy-feely for those that stayed for the sleepover. There were a lot of my friends from the Angels of Light Theatre milieu there, and early rumblings of the Radical Faeries too. Teddi Matthew is in the left foreground - he was a lovely and brilliant activist and can be heard in the groundbreaking documentary film Word Is Out.
(below right) Divine terrorizing the Trockadero Dance Club, October 29, 1978. He had just thrown an entire cake into the audience, nailing many, and was on his way to the other side of the stage to tear down the Trock’s other white and silver faux palm trees. I guess he didn’t like the decor. This was just after his starring role in John Water’s, Female Trouble.
(above) The legendary North Beach Black Cat Bar performer Jose Sarria, Supervisor Harvey Milk and beloved drag Diva Mavis at the Emperor and Empress Coronation Drag Ball, October 28, 1978. They are presenting a check from an anonymous donor to purchase uniforms for the first ever Gay and Lesbian Freedom Marching Band. After Harvey was elected, there was roaring applause for him at these drag balls. He had always respected the old school drag scene, and they were a significant dimension of his constituency. His election was a reflection of their growing power in local politics, so they loved it when he showed up to pay his respects.
(above left) May 21, 1979. A demonstration protesting the manslaughter sentencing of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone’s killer, Dan White. Seven years for the murder of two city officials. Known as the “White Night Riots”, this is on the Steps of City Hall just before the demo erupted into rioting. That night was the closest thing to martial law that I have ever experienced. I walked home that night through back streets, afraid of being victimized by roving police officers
(above right) White Night Riots, May 21, 1979. A row of 11 or so parked police cars burned that night - they were an easy target once the rioting started. People milled around mesmerized until the civic center area was cleared by formations of riot cops grunting unearthly, unforgettable sounds, in unison.
(above) San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade, June 1980, from then Mayor Feinstein’s balcony. (1982 brought the addition of “Lesbian” to the name of the event, and 1997 saw the addition of “Bisexuals” and “Transgender”.) This was the year a carnival mid-way was booked for the festival. That thrilled the carny in me, but many felt this was the beginning of the Disney-fication of the movement, which by and large did not keep them off the merry-go-round.
(below left) Dan Nicoletta today.
(below right) The Harvey Milk City Hall Memorial Sculpture by Daub Firmin and Hendrickson Sculpture Group. Unveiled in City Hall, to much fanfare, on May 22, 2008, Harvey’s 78th birthday. Curation and fundraising for the project took over four years, partly due to the pre-MILK film cultural disconnect that existed about Harvey’s legacy - even in San Francisco. I was part of a consortium of devoted people who would not rest until this memorial was completed. It is the shining beacon of hope that we imagined it would be, in the breathtaking building that directly inspired Harvey’s own sense of hope. To know and taste this first hand requires your own pilgrimage to the ceremonial rotunda where the sculpture is permanently housed. And don’t forget to walk up the grand staircase to get to the sculpture... Harvey would insist.
All images © Dan Nicoletta
Also check out "Milk: A Harvey Milk Pictorial Biography", foreword by Armistead Maupin, introduction by Lance Black, the screenwriter of the film "MILK", and a "making of the movie" section produced in conjunction with Focus Films. It features many photographs by Dan Nicoletta and other notable photographers of the era, and also includes historic photos from The Milk-Smith Collection at the Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library. Published by Newmarket Press. First printing of 5,000 copies in the US only.