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EXCLUSIVE: Armistead Maupin on Harvey Milk's Last Love


We couldn't be more pleased to feature two excerpts from the just published MILK: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF HARVEY MILK. Tomorrow, one by Milk screenwriter and Oscar nominee Lance Black. But first, author Armistead Maupin offers not just another look at Harvey Milk, but also another man. Maupin is, of course, best know for his Tales of the City.

Towleread Foreword Armistead Maupin

It’s not hard to imagine the joke Harvey Milk might have made about being the subject of an “oral history.” He was a bawdy and unembarrassed guy—“sex-positive,” as we now so tiresomely call it—so he never missed a chance to send up his own libido; he was part satyr, part Catskill comic, and both instincts energized his political career.

Maupin I can’t say that I knew Harvey well, but we were brothers in the same revolution. In the late 70s while he was campaigning for supervisor in the Castro, I was across town on Russian Hill cranking out “Tales of the City” for the San Francisco Chronicle. Since both efforts were predicated on the then-radical notion that queers deserved a voice in the culture, Harvey and I often found ourselves on the same bill, headlining events that ran the gamut from pride marches to “No on 6” fundraisers to jockstrap auctions at the Stud. We had come of age in a time when homosexuality was not only a mental disease but a criminal offense, so to be oneself and make lemonade from such long-forbidden fruit was exhilarating beyond belief.

Ridiculous as it seems to me now, Harvey and I had both been naval officers and Goldwater Republicans. Like so many gay folks who defected to San Francisco in the early 70s, we’d finally had enough of the shame and secrecy that had stifled our hearts to the point of implosion. Now we were catching up on everything we’d missed, the full fireworks of adolescence: the free-range sex and clumsy puppy love and the simple, giddy freedom of standing-on-the-corner-watching-all-the-boys-go-by.

Harvey was fond of saying that he never considered himself a candidate, that the gay movement itself was the candidate. I’m not sure he believed that completely—look at him on the back of that convertible—but it does show how brilliantly he understood the nature of the army he’d assembled. This really was about us: the clerk at Macy’s, the dyke cop on Valencia, that old tranny singing torch songs in the Tenderloin. It was a movement born of our long frustration and the comforting interconnectedness of everyone who had chosen that moment in history to tell the truth; it was born of a love that could finally speak its name.

Let me tell you a story.

In the last month of his life, Harvey Milk met a cute twenty-five-year-old named Steve Beery at the Beaux Arts Ball in San Francisco.

Continued, AFTER THE JUMP...

BELOW: Harvey Milk on the steps of San Francisco City Hall at his swearing-in ceremony. This scene is depicted in the movie. Just as Harvey was getting ready to be sworn in, and it started to rain, he said, "A few weeks ago, Anita Bryant blamed the drought in Northern California on the gays. Who's she going to blame the rain on?" (c) Jerry Pritikin 1978


Steve was dressed as Robin from the “Batman” comics, so the supervisor introduced himself by tossing out an effectively hokey line—“Hop on my back, Boy Wonder, and I’ll fly you to Gotham City.” On their first date Harvey asked Steve if he was happy being gay, because Harvey, always on the run, wondered exactly how much on-the-job training would be required. Steve took this to mean that Harvey saw him as serious boyfriend material.

Beery I can’t say for sure how many times they got together—half a dozen at the most. On the mornings when Harvey slept over, he would drive Steve to work at a credit union on Geary Boulevard and they would make out in Harvey’s Volvo in full view of Steve’s co-workers. Sometimes Harvey would call Steve from City Hall and playfully petition for a blow job at his desk. They had made plans to spend Thanksgiving together, but a last-minute crisis at City Hall—reports of the mass suicides at Jonestown—kept Harvey working late again. On another occasion Steve recalled Harvey shrugging off a grisly death threat that had arrived in the mail. “I can’t take it seriously,” he said. “It was written with a Crayola crayon.”

Their last night together was the Friday before Harvey was murdered. Steve remembered it as a night of leisurely cuddling that turned into the gentlest sort of lovemaking. On Monday morning, Steve got the news from a coworker who’d heard it on the radio. His boss took pity on him and drove him home, where Steve found a note from his roommate saying that Harvey had called that morning with plans for getting together that evening. Numb with disbelief, Steve walked all the way across town to City Hall, where throngs of other people sobbing in the street finally made the tragedy real for him. He didn’t try to push his way past the police barricades; he had come into Harvey’s life too late to be part of his official history. He had just been in love with the guy.

When Steve worked up the nerve to call Harvey’s office, Harvey’s aide, Anne Kronenberg, arranged for him to attend the memorial service at the Opera House. “We’ve been trying to reach you,” she told him. “You’re one of the chief mourners.” Arriving alone at the memorial service, Steve found a seat next to mine and asked if he could take it. He was crying, so for most of the service I held the hand of this stranger. His face was blurry with grief, but I could see what Harvey must have seen: a bright, inquisitive, tender-hearted soul. For the next fifteen years Steve would be my closest friend, forging a life for himself as an activist and a writer. Like so many of the young men who marched in Harvey’s army, he never quite reached middle age, never got to pass on his wisdom. AIDS robs us of more than life; it erases a universe of collective memories and hard-earned experience.

Maybe that’s why we’re having to learn to kick ass all over again. The generation that knew nothing of Harvey Milk before seeing the movie that bears his name was jolted into a harsh new reality when California voters decided to strip gay people of their right to marry. To us old-timers the argument for Proposition 8 was a blast from the past, a throwback to the evil theocratic Save-the-Children bullshit that Anita Bryant was spewing over thirty years ago. Why, then, was our response so maddeningly weak-kneed and closeted? Why didn’t you see images of gay people in any of our ads—or even the word “gay,” for that matter? Are we that ashamed of ourselves?

The answer is no, thankfully; most of us aren’t. And a growing number of young people have lost patience with the black-tie silent-auction-A-gay complacency of the organizations that claim to be fighting for our rights but don’t want to ruffle feathers. These new kids are friending each other on Facebook (whatever that means) and taking to the streets on their own. My husband and I met a few of them when we picketed the Mormon temple in Oakland last month. They have love in their eyes and fire in their bellies and a commitment to finish this fight once and for all.

Harvey would have loved them.

Armistead Maupin
November 2008
San Francisco


Excerpted from MILK: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF HARVEY MILK, published by Newmarket Press, Copyright © 2009 by Armistead Maupin. All rights reserved.

Steve Beery photo courtesy of Armistead Maupin.

Photographer Jerry Pritikin has a new blog.

Special Thanks to Focus Features.

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  1. Wow, thank you Armistead. I'm sitting here crying. You've always been such a powerful voice for us all. We've lost so many - I'm just glad you're still here.

    Posted by: Tom Clark | Feb 20, 2009 6:33:53 PM

  2. A wonderful read! I've always loved Armistead Maupin, and this article gives a glimpse as to why: a compelling story, illuminating an unknown chapter in our history, which further humanizes not only Milk, but us all...

    Posted by: Kergan Edwards-Stout | Feb 20, 2009 6:59:51 PM

  3. OMG, after reading that, I'm crying too. I had to close my office door.

    Posted by: Tony in West Hollywood | Feb 20, 2009 7:09:45 PM

  4. "that old tranny singing torch songs in the Tenderloin"

    *sigh*. You are indeed fabulous, Armistead. Too fabulous to be using slurs against transgendered folk.

    Posted by: JohnInManhattan | Feb 20, 2009 7:17:41 PM

  5. Just the Best!

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Feb 20, 2009 7:30:40 PM

  6. Beautiful and sad in so many ways. We were lucky to have Armistead writing our lives then and now. Thanks for sharing this. And his ending point about honoring Harvey by never closeting ourselves (no matter what polls and target audiences may say) cannot be made enough.

    Posted by: Ernie | Feb 20, 2009 7:53:47 PM

  7. What a sweet, wonderful piece! Thank you, Armistead Maupin!!

    Posted by: peterparker | Feb 20, 2009 8:07:39 PM

  8. Living in San Francisco, Maupin crops up regularly in the press. Sometimes it's easy to get used to his presence, and so much of what he talks about is related to Tales of the City or his hot younger boyfriend. But this piece elevated my respect for him immensely...I'd become a bit jaded.

    John In Manhattan, I'm not sure that I understand your complaint. Most of the trannies I know call themselves trannies, and many have performed at bars in the Tenderloin. What's the slur?

    Posted by: Paul R | Feb 20, 2009 8:24:21 PM

  9. Re: "that old tranny singing torch songs in the Tenderloin"

    JOHNINMANHATTAN, I usually thing you're right on, but this time I have to disagree. Given who wrote this and the context, I just can't see his description as a slur against trannies. Maupin has done more to expose the mainstream world to the humanity of transgendered folk than anyone else on the planet.

    Posted by: David R. | Feb 20, 2009 8:35:30 PM

  10. Sigh. I can't wait for the MILK companion book i ordered... so that I can see the non fiction version of things.

    Thanks Armistead for collapsing two more miscompacted things in the movie :

    “I can’t take it seriously,” he said. “It was written with a Crayola crayon.”

    Attributed to the Scott Smith (James Franco) character and as I recall played much earlier than it would appear happened in Maupin's telling...

    he had come into Harvey’s life too late to be part of his official history.



    He had just been in love with the guy. When Steve worked up the nerve to call Harvey’s office, Harvey’s aide, Anne Kronenberg, arranged for him to attend the memorial service at the Opera House. “We’ve been trying to reach you,” she told him. “You’re one of the chief mourners.”

    Also morphed into the Scott Smith (James Franco) character...

    God damn this well intentioned movie fuck so much with the facts.

    This last boyfriend would be better in the movie than Jack Libra, who cinematic though he was ate up too much time in the center of the movie that could and should have been used at the end to tell the story of Dan White's trial and the resulting riots ..

    Or on the two other people Dan White planned premeditatedly to kill: state assemblyman Willie Brown and Supervisor Carol Silver.

    Or even on the contentious relationship he had with Dianne Feinstein (whom Harvey called her -- to her face -- the Wicked Witch of the West. In real life, Dianne wanted Dan White back on the board so badly she arose from her sickbed with dysentery, six months after being widowed, to write Moscone a letter (fwd'd to Jerry Brown) imploring him to reappoint White. (Admitted in Dianne's official biography.)

    Is it too much to ask why the movie chose to be so fast and lose in a movie that makes MILK frankly a narcissitic obsessed asshole for most of its screentime?

    Posted by: tomalhe | Feb 20, 2009 9:18:43 PM

  11. Daniel Nicoletta worked in Harvey Milk's camera store in San Francisco from 1975-1978 and was present for the events depicted in the film 'Milk.' He is one of the founders of the Frameline Film Festival and has been a photographer since the 70s and his work has been essential in the visual documentation of the LGBT movement in San Francisco.

    Michael Flanagan is a librarian, archivist and writer who has lived in the bay area since 1980 and has known Dan Nicoletta since the early 1990s.

    In this podcast they discuss issues raised by both the film 'Milk' and the book 'The Mayor of Castro Street' involving Harvey Milk and the era in which he was supervisor.

    The podcast runs 1 hour 9 minutes in length.

    Recorded on Feb 15, 2009 in San Francisco, CA

    Posted by: John Trudell | Feb 20, 2009 9:26:30 PM

  12. Tomalhe, movies protraying history or biography often have to exclude events or combine characters to avoid confusing audiences and advance plots. Though the film is based on a real man and real events, it remains a work of fiction.

    Posted by: Paul R | Feb 20, 2009 9:42:46 PM

  13. How inspiring!
    My partner and I are elders in the Tribe and know at times you have to kiss ass and times you have to kick it. We lived through the time as young adults when being Gay was a Crime and a Disease- we have come a long way.

    We appreciate the assessment of the current Organizations that sanitized the Road to Equality where a movement turned into a market place. Where organizations appear to be Career Network venues where rocking the so called boat is tabu. My answer to that is that gay people are only Rocking the boat in an attempt to get in the boat after being thrown overboard.

    So don't start sqwakin' when we start the boat rockin'.

    Posted by: JerryK | Feb 20, 2009 10:18:27 PM

  14. Armistead, you gave solace to this lonely confused teenager, almost some 30 years ago. I was only faintly aware of Harvey Milk at the time, painfully aware of Anita Bryant, and wrestled endlessly with my own demons. You gave me hope with your "Tales".
    A unique voice, a sage, a mentor. Thank you....I'm so glad we have you with us.

    Posted by: Hdtex | Feb 20, 2009 10:28:55 PM

  15. As a 51 year old man that's the most hopeful thing about Gay people I've read since the AIDS crisis. It's always about the young people and thank God that is true again!

    Posted by: Pugzz | Feb 20, 2009 10:52:43 PM

  16. What a way to wake up with your coffee!

    Great read.

    I ventured to San Francisco in 1976, a young man of 19. Rented a roach infested studio on Steiner and spent a summer of unabashed exploration

    "Rockets red glare", 200 years, and my freedom in the "gay mecca".

    I remember, vividly, The Castro and Mr Milk's camera shop. Walking past it hundred of times but never passing through the threshold.

    My great loss, I would have met a man of history.

    Posted by: Jim/Charnlotte, NC | Feb 21, 2009 8:25:35 AM

  17. Thank you, again, Armistead Maupin, for wonderful read -- touching, challenging and inspiring. I am 51 years old adn remember falling in love with Tales of the City because they dared to suggest that I might find love and happiness as an out gay man -- an option I had not thought was open to me growing up in western New York State. To this day I still quote from Michael Tolliver's "letter to mama": Being gay i the light and joy of life. Thank you forever.

    Posted by: Martin Daly | Feb 21, 2009 10:09:03 AM

  18. What we lost in the Epidemic was our most gregarious class, our most entrepreneurial class, our most adventurous class, our most successful homosexual class. I don't think homosexual men had had the opportunity to develop like that in hundreds and hundreds of years. I was so looking forward to growing old with them, sharing their experience, their wisdom. It's a very different future, the one I have now, than the one I expected then.

    Posted by: BILL DION | Feb 21, 2009 12:07:01 PM

  19. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Beautiful piece of writing. Beautiful story that's finally being sung.

    Posted by: Tim Silva | Feb 21, 2009 12:13:11 PM

  20. God fucking dammit. I really didn't want to cry on my birthday but then I read this fucking piece of beautiful writing. Maupin touches my heart with just about everything he writes.

    Posted by: The Milkman | Feb 21, 2009 1:17:30 PM

  21. Maupin touches on a much under appreciated aspect of the San Francisco of the 1970's -- that the best and the brightest gay men flocked here (and to New York, New Orleans, Miami, Atlanta and Silver Lake, among other places, to forge gay centers and build their lives. They did incredible things for the communities the overtook, and lived large and very much in the moment. Its hard to imagine (and even for those of us who can, to remember) how aids rattled that phenomenon. IN many cases, the most vibrant gay citizens of course had equally vibrant sexual lives, so there really was an odd correlation between their accomplishment and their deaths. Of course, the haters held them up (since they were often among the most visible) as examples of what was wrong with us, whereas we held them up as dying heroes. But if you want to know why some older gay guy in SOHO, or the Castro, or the French Quarter, or Coconut Grove looks a little displeased to see baby carriages and normalcy land like a killer fog on the gayborhoods, it is likely because they recognize that the vitality still in evidence in these towns is largely due to the pioneering gays who recast them in the 1970's. If you weren't there to see it, you cannot imagine how exhilarating it was.

    Posted by: Flora And Fauna | Feb 21, 2009 1:43:52 PM

  22. Probably lost to too many readears in its eloquence, and it seems, perhaps, lost to Army himself, is that the Dyke Bee of this new, young movement he praises, Aimless Amy from Seattle, is, in fact, against the very kind of demonstration against Mormon hatred and theocratic thuggery that he spoke of attending.

    Hopefully, the ones with "fire in their bellies" he met will soon force a coup de crap and take the reign/reins away from Amy and her similarly ballless, witless allies across the country which, with their candlelit "let's be polite little boys and girls" events and childish postcard campaigns, ad infantilitum, are simply the hipper than thou equivalent of the impotent/don't rock the boat old tuxedo-clad crowd in denim drag.

    Seeing them now, Harvey would be outraged.

    Posted by: Leland Frances | Feb 21, 2009 2:44:53 PM

  23. I'm not sure I can ever forgive the Jury that went with the 'Twinkie Defense' '. I remember it well, as one who was a tween and just barely cognizant of the movement. I never apologized or offered any response to those who found a 15 year old gay identified kid. Think skinny jeans ala '70's Disco, punk rock studio 54, Bowie and Patti Smith. The world was my oyster, then came the down side , we were all doomed to perish in early 1982(I was 22) at the hands of a ruthless virus. then in 1983 to really end the party Quaaludes were abolished as some sort of heretical purge, not to mention all the car accidents. Oh well. It seemed easier to be gay before gay turned into an adjective for lame. Lame indeed what have we gained from 1982 until today?

    Posted by: richard s | Feb 21, 2009 5:11:24 PM

  24. Bill Dion:

    The early eighties was fraught with fear and death.

    The loss of men was at an incredible speed.

    I would raise my head from my pillow to greet the new day. Only wondering if the cough I had was just that, or a vibrant man spiraling to a certain death.

    I had moved from NYC to AC, only to witness, on a smaller scale, the epidemic.

    It ruined the Atlantic City gay community.
    Which was vibrant when I came out in 1974.

    But we here, "queer", and I've a story to tell

    Posted by: Jim/ Cnarlotte, NC | Feb 21, 2009 5:23:59 PM

  25. I was crying as I read this.
    Thank you for that, Armistead & for all your wonderful writing that has been such a major part of my life.
    I am so thankful that you are still with us!

    Posted by: Stephen | Feb 21, 2009 5:51:09 PM

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