Thursday, January 5, 2017

On History.

I came out on a Friday in a written post in this very space, and a wave of sweet support started rolling over me almost immediately. My journey along the emotional spectrum of the moment also started pretty immediately: euphoria and elation and liberation, back to dry-mouthed fear as I had to tell a few people in person, forward into anger at myself and the world and the person I'd never gotten the opportunity to be for the first 27 years of my life, over to anxiety that I'd never be accepted by people who had figured themselves out sooner and been brave enough to live authentically in less welcoming places, back to elation, over to...

By the following Monday, I was overwhelmed. I couldn't settle enough to start thinking about what it now meant to be me. My Out Self and I had only just met, and I wasn't even close to being able to see her clearly yet.

I got on the bus with every intention of going to my office in the Sunset and instead found myself walking down to 575 Castro Street, once the home of Harvey Milk's Castro Camera and now the central storefront and action center for the Human Rights Campaign.

It was quieter than I have ever seen it since, but I suppose it was before noon on a Monday in March. Still, there were a couple of people occupying the lone cashier's time, and I walked through the small store, taking in the rainbows on every wall and feeling an immediate punch in the heart because those rainbows were now...not mine, that wasn't the right word for it. Me. They were me.

In the back, a memorial placard for disco queen and activist Sylvester marked the beginning of the Rainbow Walk - a "Walk of Fame" of LGBT+ icons that was just recently completed. I picked up a pamphlet about the project, happy that it was happening and a little ashamed that I didn't already know about it.

When I finally made my way to the register, I was the only one left in the store, save for one other man lingering near the front. The cashier was an older gentleman, kind and soft-spoken, and when he asked me if I wanted to become a member, I said yes. As he took my information, he told me to choose a baseball cap or a water bottle as a gift. I made a joke about my head being too big for most caps and opted for the water bottle. We laughed. And then, very suddenly, I told him I had just come out.

Without hesitation, he stopped, looked me in the eye with a big smile, and said, "Well, welcome to the club!" The other man in the store came over and offered his congratulations, and my new cashier friend let me know that it was his husband.

"Where are you from?"

I hesitated at the question. As I've mentioned, an early fear of mine - one that I may never get over entirely - was that I would be judged for being a San Francisco native and still deeply closeted. But I answered, and the man told me we were from the same neighborhood. More than that, we'd gone to the same grade school, albeit many years apart.

We continued to chat, and as I took my bag, the cashier asked if he could give me a hug.

"Your official welcome," he said, "And your head's not that big. It's just got to hold your big brain."

I left, a little dazed, but also a little more centered. It was the first time I had stood as myself with complete strangers, stood to be counted with members of my community, and it had felt so correct. I still had a lot of work to put in, just in terms of figuring out what owning my identity meant to me (honestly, I don't know that I'll ever be done with that work), but I had started.

As it turns out, the HRC shop had given me an extra gift that would help me immeasurably with that work. At the bottom of each receipt is a coupon for a few dollars off admission at the nearby GLBT History Museum - a museum I, again, am embarrassed to admit I did not know existed. As important as it was to me to be a good ally, I clearly was maintaining some distance. Denial is powerful like that.

Yet that same sense of having been an ally, and a lifelong San Franciscan on top of that, convinced me before my first visit that the museum would not be all that enlightening. I was up to date on current affairs, and I knew my city's history. I knew about the activism of the 70's, about Harvey Milk's life and murder. I'd grown up during the height of the AIDS crisis, confused and desperately trying to understand why it was a word we only whispered, and why so many people were so angry and sad and afraid and moving away to "climates that were better for their roommates' health," in a very Catholic world that did not want to answer my questions.

So yeah. I knew a few things, or whatever (oh, my sweet summer child...).

What I did not know was just how unprepared I was for the impact of the little museum space on 18th  Street.

I don't know that I can properly describe what it is to stand in front of pieces of your history and really recognize and feel them as yours for the very first time, especially when so much of that history is so recent that it feels as though you could just reach out and touch it. In this city, even with everything that has changed, you still can in some instances.

And I don't have to describe that to a lot of people. Ending segregation and securing more rights for women many things that we'd believe to be so far away really just happened? How many actual years had to pass before we started telling ourselves that we did it, we ended racism and sexism and all the other -isms so it's cool, we don't have to pay attention or try anymore? 10? 20? When does history start to feel so far in the past?

I've gone back to the space on 18th Street many times, and I never fail to feel the pull and weight and life of what lies within, no matter what the exhibit. That's part of it, I think - life. The museum isn't a monument to the past - that's part of it, but there's also so much dedicated to the present and the future. Our history - the community's history, my history - is alive. The names and the faces of those who fought and risked and often lost everything to be themselves and make things even a little bit easier for those who would come after them are so young and so close, and so many of them would and should still be here were it not for violence and criminally ignored disease.

Coming out, and stepping in, and stepping up meant letting that in. It meant making that mine, to the degree that it can be mine, and feeling and facing the good, the bad, the ugly, and the hopeful.

Never was that made more clear than on the visit in which I stood in front of the clothes Harvey Milk was wearing the day he was murdered in City Hall.

It was a simple and respectful display, a dark box whose contents were illuminated only when the viewer stepped close enough to clearly intend to actively engage with the exhibit. Soft lighting brought the suit into focus - the damage and the stains neither hidden nor glorified - while a piece of the (in)famous recording Milk made in recognition of the strong possibility of his assassination played.

The good, the bad, the ugly. And the hopeful. I stood there for a good long while, overcome, because a person I had never and would never know had stood up, years before I was even born, and taken action - at the risk and eventual cost of his own life - that had made my life better. He was aware of and accepted that risk and did what he felt he could and should do.

You don't do that without believing, firmly and unshakably, in the possibility of more. Of better. If not for you, than the next folks. And the next.

That feeling is not quiet, and it is not complacent, and it does not erase or justify what should not be. But it is one way forward.

History and hope. It was then, and it's now, and we will make sure that it will be.

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