November 1978: The Agony and the Irony
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Published in: March-April 2024 issue.

VALENTINE’S DAY, 1978. The Castro District of San Francisco was buzzing with an infectious, sexy energy. Since last November, the gay community has been on a high after Harvey Milk won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—the first openly gay man to be elected in a major U.S. city. Like so many gay people, I was downcast and pessimistic during the Nixon years. Harvey changed all that. Nevertheless, ahead of us were considerable headwinds at the state level.

            I drove to the Castro District to meet my friend Steve and catch the special Valentine’s Day show at the Elephant Walk. This popular bar resembled an orange-and-white-striped circus tent and was always jam-packed with exotic night people. A pink flyer was taped on the front door: “Sylvester—One Night Only!” and “need we say more, girls?” Steve was energetically waving at me from the bar. Threading my way through the crowd, I smiled at my friend with the impish eyes and well-groomed hair, cut short but not butch. Alongside him was blond spiky-haired Orvis, his current flame. I trailed after Steve and Orvis to a table near the stage. While downing a G&T, I scanned the room for other lesbians. Single again, I thought: who knows? Maybe tonight.

            After we ordered a second round, Steve grinned as three guys sat down behind us. I turned around, instantly recognizing the face. It was Harvey Milk! After Steve and Harvey gave each other a bear hug, Steve introduced me. Harvey smiled and tapped my shoulder: “Emily, please get out and vote this November. We’ll need everyone with us to stop Anita and the Briggs Initiative.”

            Totally apolitical, Orvis had a perplexed look, so I filled him in: “Briggs is a gay-bashing California state legislator who’s sponsoring a ballot initiative that effectively bars us from teaching in public schools. Anita Bryant is the TV mouthpiece of Florida orange juice and the founding creep of this crusade to carve up our civil rights.”

            Harvey hoisted his beer bottle over his head, declaring: “California’s going to come out!” His table companions cheered, as did everyone at the surrounding tables.

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Emily L Quint Freeman is the author of the memoir Failure to Appear: Resistance, Identity and Loss (Blue Beacon Books).