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Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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The Mayor of Castro Street
« on: January 12, 2009, 06:46:50 PM »
The book club start date will be Monday, January 12.

The forum Librarian will kick off the posts.

 :)
« Last Edit: January 13, 2009, 12:12:23 PM by tellyouwhat »
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Offline michaelflanagansf

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #1 on: January 12, 2009, 06:51:44 PM »
This is our schedule for the book:

First week - Chapters 1 through 6 (in my book pages 1 - 94)
2nd week - Chapters 7 through 11 (in my book pages 95 - 185)
3rd week - Chapters 12 through 16 (pages 189 - 295)
4th week - Chapters 17 through notes (pages 299 - 380)

That takes us through the 1973 campaign for supervisor in the first section, from there to his successful win as supervisor in the second section, his life as a supervisor and the fight against prop 6 to the assassination in the third section and the aftermath as the fourth section.
I do my thing, & you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other - it is beautiful. If not it can't be helped.

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Offline dejavu

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #2 on: January 12, 2009, 08:06:44 PM »
The book club start date will be Monday, January 19.

Ellen, is this still the correct date?  I had thought it was January 12.
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Offline michaelflanagansf

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #3 on: January 12, 2009, 11:19:46 PM »
As I have the questions ready I'm going to post them here - if you'd rather we wait till next week to answer them let us know, Ellen:

Questions for 'The Mayor of Castro Street: the life and times of Harvey Milk' by Randy Shilts, first section ppg. xi - 94.

A few thoughts for those of you joining us for the first time here - the way I construct my questions I'm just hoping to 'hook' you with these questions.  You don't have to answer all parts of any questions - you don't have to answer all questions.  If something interests you, please go with that.  We are reading this book to get your thoughts and to enjoy reading this together.  Please enjoy yourself while reading and discussing!

1.)  In the Author's note for the book Randy Shilts says 'There are times, rare times, when the forces of social change collide with a series of dramatic events to produce moments which are later called historic.'  If we assume the Shilts is correct (and I do) concerning Harvey Milk, do you think that without films like 'Milk' and 'The Times of Harvey Milk' that Harvey Milk's story would be remembered by those other than political activists and advocates of LGBT rights?  Do you see evidence of his being remembered in your community? Why do you think this is?

2.)  In terms of the structure of the book how do you feel about Shilts showing us the last day of Harvey's life in the prologue of the book?  Is this an effective enticement for you to continue reading, or would you rather that he kept this information till the end?

3.)  How do you think Harvey's encounter's with the law when he was a young man (as a 17 year old picked up at a cruising area in Central Park and as a college student picked up on a disorderly conduct arrest in Albany) affected him?  Do you think that this encouraged him to stay closeted?  Do you think it kept him from integrating the various parts of his life?

4.)  What do you think about Harvey's later assertion that he had been dishonorably discharged from the navy, although there is no historical evidence of this?  Why do you think he said this?  Was this just for political gain?

5.)  One of the things that both his friends from Long Island and the people he went to college with in Albany say is that they wish he had gotten back in touch with them later in his life.  Why do you think he didn't?  What do you think this says about the way heterosexuals and homosexuals related to one another in the 70s?  Do you think things have changed?

6.)  Harvey had an interesting group of boyfriends: Joe Campbell, Craig Rodwell, Jack McKinley, Joe Turner and Scott Smith.  Why do you think he ended the relationship with Campbell?  Given McKinley's, Campbell's and Rodwell's suicide attempts, do you think that Harvey was attracted to damaged men?  Why?  What do you think of Harvey's note to Joe Campbell after his suicide attempt?  Do you think that Craig Rodwell's political activism had an affect on Harvey's view of homosexuality?  Why do you think Harvey moved to Texas with Jack?  How do Harvey's plans regarding his love life compare with his later political plans (in other words, did he have the same foresight?

7.)  Harvey remained closeted to his family throughout this period.  Yet given that his mother was doing things like knitting sweaters for Joe and Harvey, do you think she knew?  Given the advice Minnie had given Harvey about homosexuals in New York City, do you think it made sense for him not to talk with her about this?  Does this early closeted behavior seem out of character for Harvey - and when do you think he changed to become more open?

8.)  Shilts says "Suicides were a common postscript to the raids and subsequent exposure as a homosexual.  The suicides, like the enticement to danger, only served to prove that homosexuals were a self-destructive, unstable lot, a cancer on the social body.  These were certainly not the kind of people who should be permitted responsible positions in society...." (pg 18 in my book).  How do you feel about Shilts' moral editorializing in the context of the story?  Is it intrusive or instructive?  Does it put too much of Shilts' own opinions into Harvey's story?

9.)  In the 60s Harvey moved from being a Goldwater Republican to working with the musical 'Hair' and becoming a hippie.  To what do you attribute this change?  Was Harvey just becoming tired of the inconsistency between his working 'straight' world and his love life?  Did the death of his mother allow him to change in this direction? 

10.) On page 34 Harvey tells Jim Bruton that he'll never make it to fifty.  This is a recurring theme in the book.  What do you make of this belief?  Do you think that Harvey had some sort of foresight - or do you think Shilts makes too much of this notion?

11.) Shilts talks both about Jim Bruton and another 70 year old man who he interviewed for the book who wanted to remain anonymous even though his lover was dead.  Does the difference between the anonymous man and Bruton (and Harvey) seem to be simply one of personality - or is political (or perhaps class related)?  Do you see this notion coming down to our own day with those who believe 'it's nobody's business but ours'?

12.) Harvey becomes involved with theater people and the plays 'Hair', 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and 'Lenny' and this led to his moving to San Francisco for the first time.  How much of an affect do you think this had on Harvey's life and on his views?

13.) From early on Harvey was extremely affected by the holocaust.  Do you think that this identification with the oppressed is a direct connection between the early life and the later life of Harvey Milk?

14.) Were you surprised to find out that Jose Sarria ran for supervisor in 1961 as an openly gay man?  Did chapter 4 give you a better idea of the world that Harvey moved into?  Were you surprised that activists were already organizing in 1964 in San Francisco?  Is it surprising that Jim Foster, David Goodstein and Rick Stokes - who were the 'old guard' in comparison to Harvey - were considered 'young turks' by their peers?  What did you find most interesting or informative about this history?

15.) What did you make of Harvey's jokes about shootings to San Francisco Tomorrow in the 1973 campaign? [pg 70]  Do you understand why people thought of him as an unpredictable crazy at this point?  What do you think motivated him to run for office?  What do you make of the turf battles between Foster et al. and Milk - was there a substantial political difference between them?  Do you think that Harvey was visionary or egocentric (or something else) in his assertion that there should be a gay supervisor in 1973 (as opposed to Foster and co. who said it wasn't time yet)?  Do you think that Sarria (and the drag queens) endorsement helped or hurt Harvey?

16.) What do you think of Harvey's notion of politics as theater?  In his early political career do you think that this notion helped him or did it marginalize him?

17.) Given the difficulties that Harvey had with gay politicos early on are you surprised that he was able to get endorsements from labor?  Were you surprised at the partnership he formed with Allan Baird?  Did you know about the Coors boycott?  Does Harvey's actions with labor unions show that he was more than a one issue candidate and that he could have boader appeal?  Do you think it was important for gays to be able to get jobs in unions at this point?

18.) 'Some people call me the unofficial mayor of Castro Street,' Harvey said.  Do you think it matters that nobody knew who 'some people' were?  Do you think that (as Shilts says) this made good copy showed a sort of native political intelligence in Harvey?

19.) Harvey moved from an insistance on fidelity and monogamy in the days of Joe Campbell to a notion of 'free-love' in the days of Castro camera.  What do you think of this?  Do you think that this was simply his reaction to the times?  In the long run would this have had a negative effect on his political career?  Do you think he would have re-embraced monogamy had he lived to see the rise of AIDS?

20.) What do you think of the development of the Castro Village Association?  Do you think that this sort of organization had an impact on the neighborhood that the Castro was becoming?  Given that Polk street was an equally popular gay area at the time do you think that this sort of organization had an affect on making the Castro the center of the gay community?  What long term effect do you think this had?

21.) Were you surprised at the police harrassment on Castro street in the 70s?  Do you think that this was a conflict between the Irish-American culture that had been in the neighborhood before the gay influx?  Do you think that Harvey and Allan Baird were idealistic in thinking that the Castro should be equally welcoming to gay and straight people?

I do my thing, & you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other - it is beautiful. If not it can't be helped.

Fritz Perls - A Gestalt Prayer

Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #4 on: January 13, 2009, 12:13:14 PM »
yikes, that was my error, the start date is yesterday!

Talk!
sometimes I think life is just a rodeo the trick is to ride and make it 'til the bell --john fogerty

Offline Ellen (tellyouwhat)

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #5 on: January 13, 2009, 12:22:13 PM »
I'm going to answer Michael's first question.

I was trying to remember the whole Anita Bryant prop 6 vote back in the seventies -- and even the murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor Mosconne.

I was barely old enough to vote at that time.  I lived in Los Angeles, the assassinations seemed like San Francisco news.

As far as prop 6, I think most everyone, even my parents -- regarded that as a "witch hunt" type vote and voted against it.  Weirdly, today she (my mom) has been brainwashed by the Christian right and would probably vote in favor of it.  Back then, it seemed like there was a sincere effort by most people to keep religion out of public decisions.

Honestly, Michael, I was not aware of the assassinations being related to gay rights.  We were so pummeled by assassination news, it seemed horrible the mayor could have been murdered by Dan White, and in my world the supervisor seemed like a footnote.

So honestly, that is why I think some of the gay rights events are not remembered by the mainstream, even mainstream news didn't publicize much whether it was a "gay" issue.
sometimes I think life is just a rodeo the trick is to ride and make it 'til the bell --john fogerty

Offline dejavu

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #6 on: January 13, 2009, 01:44:08 PM »
Oh, good!   ;D  I'm going to post my first two answers that I was thinking of this morning, then I'll be taking a break.

1.)  In the Author's note for the book Randy Shilts says 'There are times, rare times, when the forces of social change collide with a series of dramatic events to produce moments which are later called historic.'  If we assume the Shilts is correct (and I do) concerning Harvey Milk, do you think that without films like 'Milk' and 'The Times of Harvey Milk' that Harvey Milk's story would be remembered by those other than political activists and advocates of LGBT rights?  Do you see evidence of his being remembered in your community? Why do you think this is?

That struck me as a rather lofty sentence from Shilts, so first, for definitions.  I am interpreting Shilts to mean that the forces of social change include the movement toward gay rights, gay political influence and personal coming out, as well as the corresponding opposition which this stirred up (covered later in the book).  One dramatic event which we have already foreseen in the book is Harvey Milk’s assassination, which tells us (if we didn’t already know) that he eventually became a San Francisco supervisor.  Certain things about his life and death became historic, in my view, because of the uniqueness of how and when they occurred.

I can speak for myself in saying that at the time of his death, I was living on the opposite coast and also not paying attention to anything having to do with gay rights.  (I had known gay people in Denver who had moved to SF in the mid-1970s, but had lost touch with them by then.)  Yet I did hear of the assassination at the time, and I vaguely remembered Milk’s name when I went back to visit San Francisco and the Castro area last year.  But I think my vague recollection was just a result of remembering the news stories from the time.  I have to say that I never saw ‘The Times of Harvey Milk’ (until a link was recently posted here), or read the book when it came out, so those things weren’t responsible for keeping the memory alive for me.  I read some other books about gay issues (including some of Randy Shilts’ books) during the 1990s, but the Milk book (and prior movie) never made it onto my radar screen.  And I don’t recall coming across his name even in the “Lesbian and Gay” section of book catalogs.

When I’ve seen the new movie ‘Milk’ recently, it’s been with largely straight audiences.  I can tell they’re very affected by the story, but I don’t know whether they knew who he was before seeing the ads for the movie.  I did remember a little – remembered the news coverage at least -- and that was one reason why I wanted to see the movie.  But I didn’t know many of the details of his life.  I remembered that the press had emphasized the idea that the “first openly gay” politician had been shot:  that made it a novelty situation, more sensational, and that let the word spread around the country to a greater degree. 

I also suspect that among straight people who don’t have any personal connection to gay people, the event may be remembered more (prior to the release of the ‘Milk’ movie) because the San Francisco mayor was killed.  In that way, I think the movie (and any new attention it brings to the book) is doing a great service by educating people who didn’t know, or had forgotten, about this man.

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Offline dejavu

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #7 on: January 13, 2009, 01:45:40 PM »
2.)  In terms of the structure of the book how do you feel about Shilts showing us the last day of Harvey's life in the prologue of the book?  Is this an effective enticement for you to continue reading, or would you rather that he kept this information till the end?

I liked way the prologue was set up.  It shows us the Who, When and What of that last day, but leaves the rest of the book to answer the How and Why.  The rest of the book answers the questions of “Who was Harvey Milk,” “Why did he matter,” “What was happening in his social and political setting,” and so on.

We need some clue from the beginning as to why this book is important.  Since it’s a biography, the reader wants to know something of who they are reading about.  And that last day of Harvey’s life, unfortunately, went a long way towards making him famous among people who otherwise would not have paid attention to him.

Also, the ‘hook’ of the prologue gives Shilts time to present Milk’s life in a relaxed fashion, going into his early days of school, college, various careers, and various boyfriends.  Harvey was, according to a term Shilts used, a “drifter” for his first forty years.  I think it would be hard for a reader to continue wanting to read about this drifter, before he became successful in politics, unless they knew something of the dramatic climax of his life.

Had he not been assassinated, of course, he may have done some outstanding work in politics which would have made people more interested in his biography for loftier reasons.  But, unfortunately, that chance was lost at the time of his death, so the assassination itself becomes his grandest – and most theatrical – moment.

« Last Edit: January 13, 2009, 04:06:11 PM by dejavu »
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Offline Jenny

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #8 on: January 13, 2009, 01:53:38 PM »
Re Q. 1: I see no evidence of it being publicized in any way in my community. When the assassinations occurred I remember the headlines, and the names, but I'm not sure how aware I was that Harvey Milk was gay. I remember Anita Bryant and her crusade, but I couldn't have told you the specifics of Prop. 6. It was San Francisco news, and here in NJ it barely registered. I do remember Dan White's trial, the Twinkie defense, and a general sense of outrage that he basically got a tap on the wrist for what were clearly two murders, but I don't remember reading much about the White Night riot, though at the time I probably at least knew it had happened. Milk and The Times of Harvey Milk are crucial to keeping his memory alive.

As to why that is, well, I have a few ideas. First, of course, is that outside the gay community, gay history is pretty invisible. People in general don't know how many gay people are in the population, how many they know, and how much they are still hunted, discriminated against and socially ostracized. I knew about the police persecution of gay men and lesbians in the '50s and early '60s because I lived in NYC and my parents were in the theater; I had no idea that it was that bad in the 70s, particularly in San Francisco.

 Second, I had a picture of gays based on transvestites, effeminate gay men and butch lesbians. I think many people do, and many harbor a lot of disgust and contempt for these clearly "unnatural" men and women. I didn't, but I didn't see them as "just like me", either. Younger people with access to the internet are, I hope, less ignorant.  I did know about prejudice against gays and the much greater incidence of heavy drinking, depression and suicide among gay male teenagers and gay men in later middle age, because I wrote about it in my junior year in college, comparing the stigma attached to the stigmatization of black men. That was in the year after psychiatrists and psychologists removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and declared that it was not a mental illness. The AIDS crisis was a wake-up call; that's the first time I really remember being aware of "in your face" gay activism.

Third, I think Harvey was right. If gays aren't out and LOUD, as well as proud, a large segment of the straight world, and especially straight men, will ignore and deny their existence. Straight men are so conditioned to reject any hint of same sex attraction that even thinking about gay men makes them look the other way. When they do acknowledge gay men, it's in order to ridicule them and prop up their own masculinity. And they're afraid of being put in that category of "failed" men; so afraid that, if they themselves have had any interest in a male friend, for example, they have to reassert their identities by upping the hostility into overt attacks, some of which are physical and can be lethal. Straight men still run most of the political world in this country, and lead most religious bodies. I don't mean to include all straight men, of course; I know many who don't fit this model. But they are most often men who have known gay men for a long time, who interact with them professionally on a regular basis, and who were taught from childhood that there's no excuse for treating them as less than equals.
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Offline dejavu

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #9 on: January 13, 2009, 02:55:34 PM »
I knew about the police persecution of gay men and lesbians in the '50s and early '60s because I lived in NYC and my parents were in the theater; I had no idea that it was that bad in the 70s, particularly in San Francisco.


Good point, Jenny.  Living in Denver in the early 1970s, I knew some gay men who felt they wanted to get away from there just because the atmosphere was stiffling; they couldn't really be themselves, and were finding it hard to form romantic attachments.  Among straight grown-ups, I was aware of a lot of fear OF gays (as persons who hung out in the parks, and so on) but was not aware of police persecution of gays themselves.

One young gay friend did go away to NYC and came back in a much more "activist" frame of mind; he went from being just "one of the gang" of the kids I'd gone to school with, to talking about "my people," meaning other gays in general, nationwide.  I don't know whether he encountered police persecution in NYC; I always assumed not, since that would have been after Stonewall.  But there was something lacking for him in NYC; he came back to Denver and eventually moved to San Francisco because it offered a promise of a better life.  So I also had no idea that police persecution was that bad in San Francisco at a time when he would have been there.
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Offline dejavu

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #10 on: January 13, 2009, 03:00:11 PM »
Honestly, Michael, I was not aware of the assassinations being related to gay rights.  We were so pummeled by assassination news, it seemed horrible the mayor could have been murdered by Dan White, and in my world the supervisor seemed like a footnote.

Ellen, I wrote my answer to Q1 this morning, before reading your post.  It's interesting that we seem to agree on this:  in the nation at large, among straight people, the event which really grabbed people's attention was that a big city mayor had been assassinated.
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Offline dejavu

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #11 on: January 13, 2009, 03:21:49 PM »
3.)  How do you think Harvey's encounter's with the law when he was a young man (as a 17 year old picked up at a cruising area in Central Park and as a college student picked up on a disorderly conduct arrest in Albany) affected him?  Do you think that this encouraged him to stay closeted?  Do you think it kept him from integrating the various parts of his life?

On the one hand, Harvey had been trying to stay closeted long before these encounters with the law.  For example, he knew enough to keep his mother from finding out what was really going on when he went into NYC to the standing section at the old Met.  After she sat him down and explained homosexuals to him, he had even more reason to keep quiet.  And, he found it fairly easy to remain closeted, because, unlike a couple of boys in his high school class, he didn’t seem “obvious.”  He blended in by pursuing “ordinary” masculine interests, like sports, even though his own awareness of his secret kept him mostly a loner.

On the other hand, I’m sure that those encounters with the law brought home to him the reality of what could happen if he wasn’t careful.  He probably thought about how upset his mother would be if he were ever arrested and his family found out.  The book mentions that on several occasions he wished to integrate the various parts of his life -- which would have meant “coming out” so that family, friends, employers, and so on would all be aware of the whole truth about himself, not just the parts that he thought they would find acceptable.  But he never did that, for many years, because it didn’t seem worth the price of possibly losing their acceptance of him completely.

The encounters with the law probably had another effect on Harvey, as well.  They gave him a taste of the kind of harassment which other gay men were experiencing.  This probably influenced him to go into the polical arena where he could help other gays by becoming a champion of gay rights.
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Offline dejavu

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #12 on: January 13, 2009, 04:21:48 PM »
4.)  What do you think about Harvey's later assertion that he had been dishonorably discharged from the navy, although there is no historical evidence of this?  Why do you think he said this?  Was this just for political gain?

Randy Shilts seems to have investigated this as thoroughly as possible.  He presents Harvey’s assertion about a dishonorable discharge, but he also says that Harvey was discharged in the usual amount of time.  The fact that he wasn’t discharged early leads credence to the idea that there was nothing unusual about the discharge.  It sounds like pretty solid proof that it was a normal honorable discharge.

Pages 78-79 talk about Harvey’s rational for making up a story which he later admitted wasn’t true.  On the one hand, he was a visible public figure, and by saying that HE had been dishonorably discharged, he could bring attention to the thousands of invisible men who actually had been dishonorably discharged.  This seems like a noble mission, intended to help publicize the injustices of other people.  However, in a manner which seems typical of Harvey’s sense of humor, he also makes a joke about his motivation and reveals that he was seeking some personal political gain, after all.  “Maybe people will read it, feel sorry for me, and then vote for me.”

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Offline Nikki

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #13 on: January 13, 2009, 04:31:36 PM »


1.)  In the Author's note for the book Randy Shilts says 'There are times, rare times, when the forces of social change collide with a series of dramatic events to produce moments which are later called historic.'  If we assume the Shilts is correct (and I do) concerning Harvey Milk, do you think that without films like 'Milk' and 'The Times of Harvey Milk' that Harvey Milk's story would be remembered by those other than political activists and advocates of LGBT rights?  Do you see evidence of his being remembered in your community? Why do you think this is?


I agree with Shilts, these forces of social change introduced a new way of thinking about a lifestyle which was unheard of by many in the US mainstream.

No, I don't believe many folks other than political activists and LGBT advocates would remember Harvey Milk's story, nor would they have cared. Many young people who have come of age now don't remember any of these events covered in Shilts' book.  I remember hearing about it from the press and TV  coverage.  While it was shocking, and because of the nature of the crime -- the sudden brutality of the murder of Moscone and Milk -- it eventually died out.  Most of the gossip related to Milk's sexuality was covered in a rather prurient way.  While homophobia was never far behind the story, there was some mutterings about "he had it comming" or "that's what you get for being..."  I remember press coverage of Diane Feinstein announcing the murders, and how she stepped bravely into the fray. 

 How could anyone realize then that the gay revolution in SF was to herald a new civil rights movement which ultimately spread across the country, or that the iconic Milk would become the  force behind the gay movement.

IMO the book and film have probably done a lot to introduce a new population to what it meant to be gay in SF, how hard it was for gay people to exist, and what an activist like Milk alone could do to advance a cause.  It also helps that Sean Penn, an excellent actor, played the role of Milk

The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft.

If he does not force his attention on it, it might stoke the day, rewarm that old, cold time on the mountain when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong.

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Offline Nikki

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Re: The Mayor of Castro Street
« Reply #14 on: January 13, 2009, 04:57:17 PM »

2.)  In terms of the structure of the book how do you feel about Shilts showing us the last day of Harvey's life in the prologue of the book?  Is this an effective enticement for you to continue reading, or would you rather that he kept this information till the end?



I think it's a very effective device for inducing the reader to pursue the story of Milk.  Since most people already know the ending, either by previous knowledge, the film, the book, or press coverage of all of these, it's not as if the author was giving away a mystery.  I like the way Shilt's incorporates the descriptions of the murders and the aftermath, "forty thousand tiny flames..." as well as the reactions of Harvey's boyfriends to the murder, and their remembrances of Harvey.  The prologue is interesting, concise, and dramatic.
The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft.

If he does not force his attention on it, it might stoke the day, rewarm that old, cold time on the mountain when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!