The Storming Bohemian Punks The Muse: Covid 19 Edition #17 – “The Rumors of Armegeddon Are Greatly Exaggerated”
Written on 6-25-20
Life goes on as usual, and it stops as usual too. Life and death and progress or the lack of it are not all about COVID-19, Donald Trump, or police brutality.
I opened the news today to learn that Harry Britt, gay rights activist, and former San Francisco Supervisor has passed away at 82.
No doubt, his legacy, like all legacies, is mixed. I didn’t know him well, but I well remember his name.
Back in the 1970s, when the modern gay liberation movement was in its halcyon infancy, the names of our leaders were everything to me. Some have passed and some are very much alive. Without any hesitation or reference, I can draw a stream of them to consciousness, almost all of whom I met and admired, some of whom I knew very well, some of whom were famous or would be, none of whom were perfect: Harry Britt was on the list. And Harvey (who needs no last name), and Morris Kight, Ivy Bottini, Harry Hay, John Burnside, Don Kilhefner, Del Martin, Tony Sullivan, Richard Adams, Phylis Lyon, Pat Rocco, Frank Kameny, Frank Vel, Stephanie Allen, Jim Kepner, Troy Perry, and more, many more, whose names don’t “pop” into my mind as easily.
It is a long list, but anybody can see it is woefully inadequate Where are the many women? Where are the transgender persons? Where are the POCs? They were there and in the fight. But it was an imperfect and segregated movement, full of rancor, full of racism, full of foolishness but, nevertheless, effective. And everyone, without exception, believed that they, at least, were 100% righteous. We were rag tag for sure, messy at best, full of ourselves, but we got the job done.
Still, there is not a single person on this list that I could not call out and try to take down for an endless litany of litmus tests, from racism to sexual predation, to classism, to intellectual snobbery, to animal abuse, and so on and on. And I include myself, of course. And most of us, I suspect. And, likewise, there is not one who does not fill me with admiration and love. This last point is more important than the preceding one.
In the early days of the modern movement (the 1970s). we were as much outsiders as it was possible to be. Gay activism did not mean electoral politics. (By the way, please note that gay activism predates the 1970s by at least a century. We have ancestors, and they were passionate and committed. But my memory, like yours, does not extend beyond my youth, and even the best efforts of our historians cannot name all the names. It has always been so. But I digress.)
Harvey Milk, a more conventional man than history gives him credit for, was the first to cross the threshold into something like legitimacy with his astonishing election to the San Francsico Board of Supervisors. He rode in on a wave of counterculture from which the seas of society have yet to stop roiling.
Harry Britt was one of Harvey’s chosen successors to the supervisorial position in the event of assassination. (Harvey anticipated assassination and left instructions for the event. Typically, he proposed several possible replacements of which Harry was one.)
Britt was the movement’s first mainstream politician who focused on building coalitions. He was loved and loathed, like all the rest. And he got things done. He made it possible for an openly gay professional politician to function in public life. He, perhaps more than any other figure, laid the groundwork for Pete Buttigieg’s run for the presidency. He cannot be underestimated.
Really, you should know about him.
Meanwhile, back in the bunker, I watch with astonishment as Covid-19 continues its path of destruction, as yet unable to overflow the banks of denial. (Go ahead, wince.)
I do what I can to support the Black Lives Matter Movement. But I can’t do enough.
I know I am old and I like it. I try to play the part of wise elder. The shoes don’t quite fit, but I do my best to walk in them.
We all do our best. Keep at it.
The rumors of Armageddon, as always, are greatly exaggerated.
(Cartoon Credit: James Lorenzato aka Argyle C. Klopnick. Previously published on The Rumpus.)