Thursday, May 21, 2009

Make Harvey Milk Day real

Today, May 22, 2009, Harvey Milk would have been 79. Just last November 27, 2008, we marked the 30th anniversary of the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in San Francisco's City Hall. Harvey was only 48 when he was assassinated.

Though he didn't live to see much real effect of the gay revolution which he had no small part in fomenting, energizing, directing, I am sure that if he were still alive, he would be thrilled to see the massive demonstrations across the country protesting the passage of Proposition 8 here in California. And he wouldn’t have settled in some comfortable role as a respected elder in the gay community. He’d still be organizing, raising hell, tempering passions, and crafting solutions in a skillful, resolute way to take on the religious faction that opposes the rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people to our full participation in the political process and civic life.

Though I met Harvey face to face many times, I don't know if I registered in his world. And that doesn't really matter much anyway. I liked him, and supported him in every election though I didn't get as deeply involved in politics then as I did after his assassination. But in the early 70's I wasn't totally out. This middle class kid was not entirely comfortable in the Castro, but I knew that it was as close to gay heaven as I would ever get and I was having a great time far from Connecticut and the Jesuits.

Harvey's desk in the camera shop was in such perpetual disarray that you might have wondered how he could track his customers' film, but he never lost any of mine. After we did business, I was always invited to sit on the famous red couch (it was a little more beat up than the one in the movie) and stay for as long as I wanted.

I felt welcomed and, when I spoke, listened to, but most times I sat and listened while Harvey spoke. And he talked a lot. In the course of an hour, as customers, political friends, kids from the street, other Castro merchants came and went, he might talk about the flood of gay kids looking for work, experimenting sexually, VD, pumping up rents, leaving litter (and doggie poop!), the unwelcoming attitudes of the old-line merchants. I remember one long conversation about the buffed guys who cruised half-naked on the corner of 18th and Castro in front of the old Hibernia Bank, which was known as "Hibernia Beach." They scared some of the Irish widows who still lived in the neighborhood. This was not a theoretical conversation Harvey had it with several representatives of these soft-spoken, and really pissed off, women. He was a master, listening carefully and answering every question honestly, but he didn't give an inch. I remember that the women left with some understanding of their new gay neighbors though not completely mollified.

He could laugh at any topic or take it with complete, serious concern depending on his audience. I had a sense that he was probing for the deeply felt needs of the neighbors who ultimately became his constituents. It was clear that he had thought long and hard about the issues, and he always linked your concern to the general good.

And no matter how far ranging his conversations, he never lost sight of his primary focus: that gay men and women were entitled to equal rights without having to masquerade or make deals that would push us back in the closet. Though there are many talented gay men and women who have followed him in San Francisco politics, I don’t think it was martyrdom that set the bar so high. He was a born politician and became a true master in a very short time.

On the marquee of the Castro Theater where the movie Milk opened last year, there was the image of a political button: "Never Blend In." I don't remember if I ever heard Harvey say those exact words, but I know that he embodied the openness about your gay lives that they express. It was the one of the reasons why during his lifetime some gay men didn't much like him: they truly believed that "blending in" was the only strategy that would allow them to lead the kind of lives they wanted for themselves. [For a very thorough treatment of "blending in" and how it affects our lives and rights as gay men, lesbians, bi and transgender men and women, I recommend, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino]

OK? Never Blend In! Don't go back in the closet! Just Do It!

And hey Arnold! Sign the legislation that would make May 22 “Harvey Milk Day.” As I wrote to you today when I signed the petition to make you act—don’t coddle to the narrow-minded citizens of your base. After your defeat at the polls two days ago, you could learn a lot from Harvey Milk. Think “pooper scooper.”

Join me and make you voice heard. Tell the Gov to honor Harvey on his birthday!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Gift of Tears

It is May 10th, 2009, Mother's Day, and I am re-posting this piece that I wrote two years ago about my mother, Leona Carroll Ireland. I dedicate it to you, Mother, and to all our mothers.

I woke up this morning missing my mother who has been dead now for several years. Given the contentious quality of our relationship for most of our 60 years together, I am surprised that oftentimes I find tears in my eyes when I think of her. I still remember phone calls where she slammed down the receiver, our long periods of not speaking, her steely resolve that I was going to get straight somehow, by the force of her will, and marry (being her son, that locked us in absolute stalemate for almost 20 years), her cold punishment for my seemingly uncooperative nature.

In the few short years before she died, I got really lucky, or was blessed, when I was able to touch the pain these behaviors were covering. That alone took away their power to hurt, and allowed me to experience a kind of love that I could not have imagined. This is what I write about this Mother’s Day morning.

There is a famous story in zen about a monk, Hsiang-yen, who, by most standards applied to monks, was a failure. He worked away in the monastery of his teacher expecting nothing - and he got nothing; he sat long hours in meditation - nothing; he did rounds of begging – right, again only scraps; he got thrown out of the hojo every time he presented himself before his teacher to check out how he was doing because he didn’t seem to be absorbing much. A hopeless case. So after many years of getting nowhere when his teacher died, convinced that realization was beyond his capabilities, he retired to a remote temple where he tended the teacher’s grave. One day, the story continues, as he was raking the stones in the orderly zen garden, (I like to imagine the ones you see in the fancy books with perfectly ordered lines in the rocks,) a small stone bounced off the garden wall with a Ping! Just that sound, and in a tumble his mind gulped in all his training in a single instant and he understood. He got his life.

Even someone who has never practiced long days of meditation can understand the appeal of this monk's story. Everyone I know has some dilemma like this in his or her lives. For me my relationship with my mother was a huge conundrum.

I have flown to Tucson to be with my mother after her first serious heart episode. It is decided that she get a pacemaker, and that the doctor electrically jolt her heart and, hopefully, restore a normal rhythm. Then the elements of a really bad melodrama start to unfold, my father’s disappearance for several days when he can’t take anymore, my mother brawling with her sister and a pretty buffed nursing attendant as she tries to put on her clothes to leave: she is going to go out into the street and hail a cab to take her home given that no one in her family seems willing to yield to her command and return her to a normal life. Eventually a really well trained and compassionate case manager is the voice of calm, and mother agrees to the procedure. The drama to follow can be a quick note in the margin: further refusal on the operating table; family crisis; harsh words exchanged in anger; the heart specialist looks like the 14 year prodigy, Doogie Howser M.D., on the TV (I’m not kidding. He really did look like a teenager). I started to laugh,…”this kid is going to thread electrodes through the arteries to my mother’s heart? What is she going to think?” She thinks he’s cute and refuses his treatment. Back to square one. That evening we will try again.

Before her surgery, she can have no food; even water is restricted. She can only have small ice shavings. I hold a plastic cup and gently spoon the ice shavings on her tongue. She chews, and sucks, and swallows with smiles. I hear the ice click against the side of the plastic cup as I scoop it up. I use every bit of all my long zen training just to be with my mother for what might be her last moments of life: just her, just this spoonful, just this ice, just my breath and hers, just her pleasure in ice and water. It is very sweet and I feel like the good son. If nothing else about zen, it does train you to be present in the moment. And that moment will have to be enough for this particular gay son after many long years of psychotherapy, feeling outcast and abused. Yes, I decide it will be enough.

The medical procedure goes as well as any scripted denouement on the Doogie Howser TV show. You couldn’t hope for more: the patient gets well; the family crisis is temporarily resolved when the stubborn mother agrees to go to the nursing home; the father returns, shaken, humbled but unharmed, forgiven and loved; the gentle sister has taken over managing the mother’s care. And I board Frontier Air for the return trip to San Francisco.

After the exchange of pleasantries, I discover that my seatmates are going to San Francisco to be reunited with their birth mother whom they have never met (how could I make this up?), and I tell them that I have been at my mother’s sick bed. We are in flight. Staring out the window as we flew over the Rockies, across the dessert and into the sky over Death Valley, I lapse into a brown study, and sit mesmerized by the wonder of the world. The flight attendant offers me a second Diet Coke with ice. My orphaned seatmates pass the offering across the seats. I take a big gulp and when I swirl the ice around the cup, it clinks against the edge. In an instant my mind tumbles and I am no longer "me" in a plane over Death Valley, but I am in my mother’s life (I mean really, not some theoretical proposition), all of it, her hopes her pain her struggles her fear her birth her death, and I burst into tears and sob. My orphan seat mate understands something about finding mothers: she just reaches out and gently touches my arm, holding me connected to the breathing world as my mind flies away (did I thank her enough?). Any trace of resentment, regret, bitterness, or recrimination about the way my mother treated me at any time in our lives together evaporates. She is just my mother, and I am finally able to enter into the mystery and wonder of being a son.

The plane lands in San Francisco. I mumble good-bye to my seatmates whose mother that gave them birth is waiting at the gate. I wish them well and I walk back into my life, praying that everybody be lucky enough to find out who their mothers really are, to be able to step into their lives, and to cry when they are gone.