Dennis Seely’s home in Noe Valley, San Francisco on October 4, 1999
Dennis Seely and Gwenn Craig met in the Castro back in the mid seventies when a gay revolution was blossoming, about a mile from where I grew up. He grew up in Southern California, she in a black middle class family in Atlanta, Georgia. Dennis migrated to San Francisco in pursuit of Jefferson Airplane’s “white rabbit” (sex and drugs and rock and roll) and Gwenn came looking for the “counter culture.” Both are gay. Their shared experience spanned nude beaches and campaigning out of Harvey Milk’s camera store. During the interview both spoke often and with nostalgia of their friend Bill Krauss, who died of AIDS in the mid-eighties. “He embodied the idea of you want to change the system and you wanna have fun too,” Dennis said.
To an extent, Dennis directed the interview-dance, often juxtaposing his outrageous irreverance to Gwenn’s more quiet tenacity. I enjoyed listening and watching them play off eachother as they answered my standard set of questions relating to how they had become politically active, what inspired them, what advice they could offer those who want to change the world.
K: How long have you guys known eachother?
D: I would say since about 1976?
G: Yeah. I came here in ’75. I probably met you…’75 or ’76.
K: How did you meet eachother?
D: Through Bill Krauss, that’s what I think (G: Mutual friends). Bill Krauss, who was one of the first presidents of the Milk Club and then became Phil Burton’s legislative aide. And he died of AIDS early…He was kind of at the center and we kind of all met through him. But it was less political – you know we were hippies then. We used to go to the nude beach. We were all unemployed. Were you unemployed?
G: Um. I must have gone through some period of unemployment (laugh).
D: We had a lot of time.
G: I seemed to have a lot of time. But I worked like the 3:30 to midnight shift at Children’s Hospital. So I used to do a lot of stuff during the day. And I found out later everybody thought I just didn’t work…
D: Yeah back then the economy was such that you could live on unemployment in San Francisco..
K: So what can you tell me about eachother? I’d like you to describe eachother to me. So at least I can get some background that way. (They laugh.)
D: You go first and I’ll try to think. In what kind of sense?
K: In general. I don’t know anything about Dennis. What can you tell me about him?
G: Feisty, cranky, (laugh), funny, lefty, practically a communist except he wouldn’t belong to any party anyway. And..the last of the remaining people with values still left from the seventies, sixties.(D: Seventies sound like disco.). No, the seventies get a bad rap. Early seventies. (D: That’s true.)
K: So you’re not going to protest that (to Dennis)?
D: Oh no! Now her, I would say she’s kind of the exact opposite. She’s always friendly, never cranky. To describe her I would say she’s definitely on the left, but she’s much more traditional. She belongs to democratic organisations. But she’s always very good. She’s in the left of all those organizations. But she works with people that I would have to kill. (to the tape recorder): I don’t mean “kill” its a joke! (G: (laughing) But it would be wrong!) But she’s much more able to work with a more moderate kind of world. She’s more forgiving, slightly more tolerant.
K: So has this always been true, these characteristics, the way you are describing eachother, or has it evolved….?
G: Yeah, I guess it’s always true.
D: She was president of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, but that was when it was extremely left. (G: 81-83). I call her the dowager emperor.
K: So being president of the Harvey Milk Club, are you saying that’s kind of more traditional?
D: Well, that really isn’t. But my point was that she worked, she works within the system way more than I do.
K: How did you guys come to the city?
G: Well I’m originally from Atlanta, but I lived in Chicago for 6 years – that’s where I went to college….I came here and I didn’t know a soul. But in ‘75 you could come to San Francisco and just immediately get enveloped into the city.
D: And you knew that San Francisco was going to be what it was right. You specifically picked here…
G: Yes! I actually came a little late (laughing)…cause some of the things I was looking for were either over or they were ending.
K: What were you looking for?
G: Well the counter culture.
D: Drugs, sex, rock and roll.
K: Which counter culture?
D: Drugs, sex!
G: I wasn’t really into politics when I got here at all. So, the self-realization stuff…
D: Were you out of the closet by then? I was one toe out. And more out than I realized. ‘72. That’s when I came. I always have been at the end…but never at the beginning of any movement. Like the anti-war thing I was a little late, I was late for this and that. And I got that one almost at the beginning. I lived on Castro street. I lived upstairs from Harvey Milk. That was the only movement’ I’ve ever been at the beginning of.
K: You coincidentally moved upstairs from Harvey Milk?
D: Yeah. Just moved in on Castro street…I came here because we had a communal group of about 7 of us. There was a woman named Margaret, who was always ahead of all of us in everything – drugs, sex. And she went to Amsterdam. And she told us all about Amsterdam, how free it was, and how wonderful. Then she moved up here about 6 months before us. She said – you’ve got to come up here. There’s a political movement, there’s a sex movement, there’s drugs, there’s everything. So about six of us moved. First we lived on Page street, by the park, then we moved to Castro street.
K: What were the first political activities you guys got involved in ?
G: Probably for me it was district elections. And I really didn’t get into that very deeply. So the first thing that I really jumped into rather whole-heartedly was Harvey’s ‘’77 campaign. And, I was the get out the vote co-ordinator along with Bill – Bill Krause. And it was like “God, you’re political?!” Bill Krause and I who were very close friends then. We got to be friends before we realized that both of us had an interest in politics. So that sort of came up…”Oh, you care about that stuff?” – “Oh, you care about that?”
D: Counter cultural hippies who moved into politics.
G: Right. I mean we went out dancing together. That’s what we did. We went to the beaches together. So Harvey’s campaign I really got into very heavily. And then after Harvey’s campaign was over, the whole Anita Bryant thing had been happening. And that was really my deepest foray into it, when all that stuff was happening.
D: I thought the Briggs Initiative was yours…
G: I mean, I was a volunteer in Harvey’s campaign. One of those people who was coming around and hanging around in the camera shop from time to time, but not really like a regular….Harvey asked Bill and me if we would run the San Francisco campaign to close the Briggs initiative. So, we did. Even though Bill was really the only one who had real traditional campaign – I mean he knew what a precinct map was, that sort of thing.
D: I think you may have missed your first…the anti-war movement?
G: Well in college. Yeah, in college I did a lot of sit-ins (K: In Chicago?) Yeah. And did Operation Bread Basket…and dallied with being a Black Panther.
D: She’s too sweet. Too nice. I think I have a *much* more fascinating tale to tell. I went to Vietnam in 19’67 and my friend Margaret was beginning to be in the initial anti-war movement in L.A. and I just was hearing about it. But I didn’t want to. I lived in Gardena. Southern California is very traditional. You know, my father was a Marine – an ex Marine. There was no history of any kind of politics. They were democrats but that was it. And I didn’t want to say I was gay, cause I really didn’t know I was, so I ended up getting drafted. And I went to Vietnam. And while I was in Vietnam, Margaret used to write me stuff about the war. And then I started watching in Vietnam. And I started reading the Viet Kong’s literature, and I started thinking, you know they’re telling the truth, and the rest of this is a big old lie. So, that’s when I began to have some sort of political awareness that things I was being told weren’t true. And at the same time I was having tremendous sexual longings for the guys that were there, who were doing it, left and right, married, unmarried, they didn’t care, they were doing it. And I was afraid they were trying to frame me or something and get me to do it. So I never did, well – I did a little, barely, nothing. But at the same time all of this burgeoning sexual awareness was happening and I realized it was illegal. And there I was fighting for freedom and I didn’t have any, and I smoked pot and that was illegal, I didn’t have any. And I always remember this general saying to us “You people are here and you’ve been fighting for freedom.” And I thought to myself, I’m queer- I don’t have any freedom; I smoke pot – I don’t have any freedom; these people that we’re fighting against are just trying to kick us out. And then when I came home I started very heavily in the anti-war movement.…I came back to Los Angeles and met up again with Margaret. And then a bunch of conscientious objectors, which I never could get into, cause they were, like you, they were vegetarians, and they were all so sweet, and they would say, “Now in the courtroom don’t think any negative thoughts. Don’t yell at the judge.” And I was always like, ‘”Fuck you!” So…I got more involved in the more radical part of the anti-war movement where we were sitting-in and that kind of stuff. Then, I ended up in San Francisco. And I still kind of remained more political in the non-gay stuff like the anti-war movement. And then I met Harvey. And I kind of melded all of it together: gay liberation, women’s liberation, the anti-war movement, it all became like one thing. Which I still think it is today. No one’s free until we’re all free!
G: Alright, so *I*…(laughing)
K: I see, you guys are going to top eachother. All right. So Gwenn, take it.
G: I was thinking ’68 is whatmarked sort of a political epiphany for me. And it sounds like it’s around the same time – [to D] When were you in Vietnam? (D: ‘67-’68). My parents would always get involved in civil rights stuff. I was in Atlanta. I used to pass Martin Luther King’s house every day back and forth to school and Ralph Aberranthy used to have these teen parties in his basement that we would go to…I was born in ‘51. So in ‘68 I was watching TV. We always watched the democratic party conventions – and ‘68, watching the convention in Chicago, and watching them beat up the kids in the streets, (D: I was in Vietnam) and I was going to Chicago that next month – I think that was in August and I was getting to go to school, so I was really paying attention, but I was watching this thinking, but they’re beating *white* people up. They’re beating their own children. And I thought, something is going on here that is deeper than I realized. There’s something more to this than I realized. It’s not just about….(D: White kids were acting like darkies!) So I was fascinated. I had to figure out what this was about.
D: And mine was I heard White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane and I knew something was going on that I was missing.
K: So, ‘68, so then you were a freshman. Was that before Kennedy was shot or after?
G: Martin Luther King had already been killed. Cause we went to – you know they had a big march in Atlanta, I shocked my brother the other day when I said I remembered seeing his body. I said, yeah, didn’t you?…Kennedy was shot before the convention. So that happened over the summer too.
D: It was ‘68. It was before May. Cause I was in Vietnam and I remember that. I voted for Elridge Cleaver. I’m sorry to say.
G: George McGovern was the first person I ever voted for.
K: So did you ever flirt with joining socialist or communist parties, if you were that radical?
D: No. I never joined anything.
K: What about the Harvey Milk Club?
D: Didn’t join. I was an honorary member. Harvey said “You’re an honorary member then.” And I said, “OK.”
K: I’m curious, given that you were living upstairs. How did you eventually get involved? How did you go from being a non-joiner to being active?
D: Well, I’d really think its because Harvey wanted to have sex with me. So he used to flirt with me. And then the camera store…He had this camera store, but it was like a gathering place and everybody just went there and hung out and talked and rabble-roused. And I think with him, I just started hanging out, and then he said, do you want to be my…this is the thing he was always trying to help me get in the system. He’d say, “How’d you like to interview prisoners?” and I’d say, “Harvey I’m on unemployment, I don’t want to work, I’m a hippie.” And he’d say “Yeah but you want to be a part of the system, they’re not letting you in!” And I’d say, “No I don’t. I don’t want to be in. I want to be outside of it.” And he was always trying to help me get a job, or….
G: Harvey always had you roped into more than you were originally planning to do. When I first went to Harvey, I went there cause I’d gone to this meeting about what was happening in Dade county with Anita Bryant and everything. And I stupidly mouthed about, saying, “We need a very impressive media campaign – I think its going to really matter what we do with the media. That, I think, is the most important thing.” And they said, great, so why don’t you do that? So I left there as the Media Co-ordinator and I went home and thought, what the hell did I do. So, I knew that Harvey was a master at getting press. So I went to his camera shop and sat down and said, “Will you give me some tips?” And he took me in the back of the camera shop and spent about three hours, gave me the press list, gave me a map, here’s how you drive around the city to all the TV, radio, newspaper offices, you know and the most expeditious ways.
D: That was one of the weirdest things about that period was you could just do it (G: Yes! Yes!) You just did it.
G: Now when we had a killing…A guy by the name of Bobby Hillsborough was murdered. And Bill Krause and I were walking by Star Pharmacy – it’s’now Walgreens. And we saw a little sign that his friends had put up saying, “Our friend Bobby Hillsborough was killed. He was the victim of a gay bashing.” We thought this was terrible. We went running to the newspaper to see where was the story about it and it was like buried on page 43. Some little item. So we thought this was terrible, someone’s got to do something about this. So we went to my place and typed up this press release. “We blame the Anita Bryants and John Briggess” and we took Harvey’s map and we drove around to all these places, the TV stations and everything, and we would take it in and they would sort of pat us on the head and we’d leave [thinking]…they’re not going to do anything about this. And we went home, and the next morning my phone rang at 6:30 in the morning, it was a radio station saying “I want you to read your press release live on the air, we’re going live with the story right now.” And I couldn’t get off the phone for the rest of the day with press calls. I had to finally call people and say, “Could you come over and help me here? I’ve got my hands full.” And so my apartment became like this campaign center. But it was just us driving around with a press release. And it became page one in the Examiner. They offered this huge reward, they apprehended the killers and the parade that year was dedicated to his memory. And that proved to me two people who decided, well lets do something about this, could actually do something about this.
D: But also you’ve got to understand there was the history of demonstrations. You could on Castro street, and within an hour, get 40,000 people to march all through the city. March down the streets, all the way around. And Harvey would always say to me, “We’re marching these people so they don’t burn something. We’re going to wear them out.” We’d go all the way up high streets, down and around, screaming and yelling, it was quite fun…
K: Do you call yourselves activists?
K: No? Ok, yes, why?
G: I ran for the Democratic County Central Committee. And we had to have a ballot designation. And I didn’t really have one. So I put “community activist” cause that seemed to be the catch all for everybody who didn’t have anything. So, you know my work has never been my identity, certainly not my political identity, so when people would say, well what do you do, it was easier to say, well I’m a political activist. So that probably told them more than saying I’m a personnel administrator. (D: She was also a Police Commissioner under Agnos.) There were those years when I could say that. There were some years when I wouldn’t want to say that….
K: Why do you say you’re not an activist?
D: I don’t think I do enough to really be an activist. I don’t belong to anything. But I still wield influence in the community. I think of myself more as like a commie. I know what it is, I think what it is, also the hippie thing. I think I’ve always considered myself a bit outside of what’s going on. So, its not like I just watch it and don’t do anything. But I tend to keep, not a distance exactly, but….(G: You mean political activist sounds too mainstream to you?)…Maybe I am an activist. Ok, I’m an activist.
K: Wait wait wait. Why are you now an activist?
D: Well, what she was saying. I thought it was too traditional or something. I guess it isn’t…I’m more of a socialist. That must be what I am. Don’t you think an activist is more – they join more things, they do more things? I tend to not do that. I talk to people. I talk to people that I don’t agree with and I try to move them more to the direction that I think they should be. I don’t think that’s an activist so much as a blabber…whatever it is.
G: He’s not on the circuit.
K: OK, well when did you become an activist? Can you think of the moment that it started for you?
G: I think it started when I went to that meeting and mouthed off about the media campaign and they set me up as the Media Co-Ordinator. ..I’m less active than I used to be. But from that point on it was really a way of life. It was like every day there was something. Every day there was calls and this and that. I can remember it was nothing to come home and have 10 or 12 messages on the answering machine to go through.
D: I have a topper on this one. I have an answer on this one!
G: Yeah and that was ‘77 I think…
K: So that puts you at 22 years.
D: You basically meant when did you start having a political consciencsiouness…(K: You know that’s another question, but that’s legitimate. Go for that.) When I became an activist I was in Vietnam. It was 19’67. I remember this. I got a piece of Viet Kong propaganda that was thrown all over our base and it had a picture of a helmet and it had a daisy sticking up to it and it said “don’t be pushing up daisies.” And when you opened it up it said “The war is doing a lot for some people – corporations.” And then they named all the corporations. Westinghouse for the refrigerators that they used in Vietnam. They named every corporation. The ones that were making rubber for the tires. There was refrigerators, the trucks, and they said every one of these corporations is making millions and millions of dollars and you’re pushing up daisies. And I went around to everybody and I said “This is so true! Read it!” And they said “Shut up!” They said “You’re telling me our government would send us in here to die for no reason other than money?” And I said, “Yes!” And that’s when it started. And in Vietnam….
G: (interrupting) Well if we’re going to talk about consciousness I’d have to go further…(K: Go for it!) ‘Cause in college we were doing all this stuff. (D: You’re thinking about gay stuff mostly.) Maybe. Because it was sort of my full time identity. You know I was a student. We were always going to rallies. We were doing the sit-ins , we were going over to Operation Breadbasket. (D: And can I throw one thing in? Its always really irritating when you have these straight left, and the whole straight community, assumes that gay and lesbian people have only been involved in the gay movement as though we have no history. I heard a guy say at a meeting, “Oh while you were marching in the gay parade I was at…” and I think….a lot of us weren’t gay then. Or we couldn’t say it, so we were within a kind of unknown…)
G: Well the whole origin of the Harvey Milk Club, before it was named for Harvey Milk was the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club. And it was the first club to have ‘gay’ right in the title. And the reason they wanted that is because they said all these others, there’s like Alice B. Toklas, wink wink, nudge, nudge, if you know who Alice B. Toklas was, you’d know this was a gay club sort of thing. But the main thing was here were all these people who were involved in the housing movement, who were labor organizers, who were environmentalists, and all of these things. So they said we want gay right up in the name so that they know when we show up at the tenants rally and all that they’re know that gay people were here. And those people you’ve beenworking alongside us all those years as activists, are gay people. And yes, and Bill used to be angry about that too. Because he was also very involved in anti-war stuff. And these people would think, oh you’re only about gay, gay gay. And he’d say we have been doing other stuff for so long (D: bastards!).
K: I’m sort of surprised you’re not saying your consciousness was raised when you were growing up in the south
G: Well yeah. Definitely. It was all around when I was growing up. You couldn’t avoid it. My parents were active. My whole family was. I remember in high school [to go home] I had to walk past this restaurant where the KKK was picketing outside…..
D: Is this a true story that with you and Bill and everyone (you went into a restaurant where black people weren’t welcome)?
G: The only thing I can think of is when we drove through Texas and it was Bill and Jay. So here I’mwith 2 white gay guys and we turn into some town in west Texas. And go into this diner to eat. I’ve got like a tank top on, no bra. You know they’ve got tank tops on… And we walked in and everybody got quiet. Except for this one woman who hadn’t seen us. And they nudged her at that point and she said ‘Oh my god!’ and that was the last sound! And then it was like quiet. Everybody just stared at us the whole time. We ate as fast as we could and got out, went to our car saying, “Quick get out of here before they see the California plates!” But that’s the only story I can think of.
K: What year was that? More or less?
G: That was probably around ‘79, ‘80.
D: An activist, I think more of like one who does stuff you can see, touch, and know it exists. …I got into Freudian analysis for like 20 years. We met someone who was not licensed but who had a more Freudian view, which is a more sexual view of life which is a behavioural view. And that kind of pulled me away from the more political. Because someone said to me, you’re using the political to not have sex. Which was so true of me. I said it was because I wanted to meet people that thought like me. But all we ever did was yack at eachother, there was no sex.. You had to go to the bar for that.
K: But you’re not New Age.
D: No. But I am. I would like that world, I just don’t like the jargon that goes with it. Its too peaceful. Its too loving. See I believe…I used to feel bad about it. People would say “You’re so hateful. You hate this you hate that.” But I’m a very happy person. I consider myself. The reason is because I know what I hate. And the opposite is I know what I love. And there are so many things that make me happy. But so many things that irritate me. But I’m constantly saying “This sucks, that sucks.” And people go, “My, are you ever just happy?” and I say, yes, saying “that sucks” makes me happy. ..
K Can you change the world?
D: No. She’s going to do it.
G: In very small incremental changes, definitely. When I went to the 1980 Democratic National Convention, I sat there in my seat and I had a big sign that I’d made that said ‘black lesbian feminist’. And I held it up every time there was applause or something. And all these cameras would come…and it was on the front page of the Washington Post during that convention. And I think that that made a difference. I think that there are people who said ‘Oh my god!” and during the 84 convention I was interviewed on the Today show, they did a little piece cause they were here in San Francisco on the lesbian/gay community…And I got a call from this woman who was an old friend of my mothers and she said “I just saw you on TV. I just want to say whatever you do it’s ok with me!” We always felt that if we could just get out there, if people could see us for who we are, they could hear what we had to say. And they could see these people aren’t monsters, or what they’re talking about is reasonable, then we could change minds, and change opinions and all of it leads somewhere.
D: You changed my mind! I’ve got to modify it I’d say you can change parts of some worlds. You can change your own world, if you’re lucky enough. I feel I have made a tremendous difference in hundreds of peoples lives! I think I’m one of the people – and this is one that you didn’t say about me, but you said feisty – is I will say almost anything. I make it easier for other people to talk about themselves and not feel like they’re weird (G: too radical) because I will say almost anything. And I know for a lot of people that’s really been a good thing. And I know I’ve helped – you know we all came out of the closet, but a lot of us were slower. I brought lots of my friends out that I knew…Anyway, I feel like I’ve made a difference in my own life and my friends and the people I’ve helped, but I have not made a…
G: Small things do build up, they make a difference.
K: OK. So, if some, person comes up to you and they say “I want to change the world, what should I do? I don’t know where to start?” What would you tell them?
D: [whispers] I’ve got the answer.
G: Well you say your answer first.
D:I’d say change yourself. I’d say go inward for a while. Really look at what you want to change and make sure its changed in you, then go out…or I might say do it at the same time.
K: So why look inward first?
D: Well when someone says I want to change the world,a lot of times they’ll be really heavy into gay rights, or they’ll be really heavy into lots of different things, but really they’re battling themselves. Alot of those same people haven’t really freed themselves about sexuality. They think they’ve moved to another ghetto where they think they’re free, but they can’t go outside the ghetto, they couldn’t eat dinner at a straight restaurant. That’s not so true now cause there’s a lot more assimilation – I mean there’s a lot more mixing – than there used to be. But whenever I hear somebody that’s a real fanatic, well I know a lot of times that its something really in themselves…that kind of kept me less politically active too. Because there are a lot of activists I think are, even showing their humanity that way, they’d spit on you. They might be mean to their family but they love the world. That kind of thing. (To Gwenn) Say something positive and good!
G: I don’t think I agree that you have to change yourself. Maybe you have to start to change yourself . When I first started doing gay politics I was really just coming out. In fact one of the first things I said was well, you know, gee, I’m being quoted in the newspaper and I’d better tell my parents I’m gay. So, I wrote the big letter and everything and told them. And I thought that this was required, it was de corps, you know you have to come out to your parents. It was just a right of passage that everybody went through. And I was so – I felt betrayed when I found out that all these people who had been activists for decades longer than I had weren’t out to their parents.
D: But once again you showed the opposite. I said change yourself before politics, and you, because you got into the politics, changed.
G: Once again, all those little things, I think, help. If you find some organization that you at least half way agree with, and maybe at least go and help get something out the door. I mean not just a bunch of people sitting around the table month to month and just talking and never getting anything out – I hate those organizations. But if you at least print one piece of paper that gets out and goes to someone else who wouldn’t have read it otherwise…
K: How do you feel about being American?
D: I’ll go first cause I’ll be nasty and you will make it less awful. I don’t think of myself as an American though I know I’ve been brainwashed by American society. I have tons of views I wish I didn’t. But I was brainwashed. I know I’m a part of that world. But I have always thought of myself, since the drugs, the LSD, there’s people in every country, and a lot of them are exactly what that country seems like that culture is them. And then there’s this universal one that has views and opinions that people in every country have but they aren’t the prevailing view of that country. A world view. I really believe that.
K: What do you mean? World citizen?
D: Issues that have nothing to do with what country you’re in. Like I’ve been in Paris and I’ve met people in a restaurant that – we were sitting there talking and they knew the same thing I knew. They knew things about the United States, things about France, because their views were beyond whatever place they lived. It was kind of like we all agreed on stuff. I knew economically they thought like I did.
K: You don’t think of yourself as American?
D: No I don’t.
K: What about you Gwenn?
G: Well Dennis is a lot more anti-American than I am and he knows that. But I definitely think of myself as more like culturally American than anything else. And you know how they say if you go some place else and you realize how American you are – it really wasn’t until I went to Europe by the way – it was the first time I identified as an American because I was with non-Americans. I realized what made me culturally American. But, I would burn the flag, but it seems stupid, it just absolutely seems stupid to me (D: You would burn the flag[incredulous]! )No. But it seems silly to put my hand over my heart when a flag went up a pole and say – you know. I’m anti-patriotic. Definitely, but…the difference between the two of us is that I would stand and be mute probably when the flag went up totally uncomfortable…Dennis would probably sit there and make sure that they knew that he was opposed to all of this.
D: No no, I would just sit there…I think this is a wonderful juxtaposition of two totally different people who are so alike.
G: Its not like I’m morally opposed..
D: You don’t get that mad! She’s a nice person.
K: Have you ever been in a situation of conflict because of the beliefs that your espousing?
G: (laughing) I’ll say!
K: For example.
G: Well, we’ve had political arguments..
K: I don’t mean between the two of you.
G: Oh, you mean political conflicts with other people? Oh my god yes! (laughing) oh goodness yes!
D: You have to give one example.
K: At least one good example.
D: I have a real good one. It combines both sex and politics. And it lets me get another little dig at another thing most people don’t want to attack, cause I think Israel is a mess. Anyway, I was with a guy, we were driving around talking about socialist countries that we liked (K: Where were you?) Driving around from a bar. We were going to go home and have sex. But of course we started talking about politics, I never could keep my mouth shut and get laid before. And I was naming – I forget. And he said, and Israel. And I said I think Israel is doing some really ratty stuff to the Palestinians. And for some reason earlier in the conversation he had chosen to tell me he wasn’t Jewish, which I didn’t even ask him or care about. So once again I knew now that he was having a big struggle about his identity, because said “I’m not Jewish” but he was. And when we got home he said, “Well Israel is a socialist country.” And I said well to me you’ve got to treat other people…you don’t go in andoccupy just like we did to the Indians, you don’t occupy an area when other people have been there and then put them in camps. And all of a sudden he reached around and punched me in the nose. And we were in bed. We were in bed. And he punched me in the nose. He was this big old guy. And he said, “All we want is a little bit of land, but nooo! People like you!” And I said, “Well really now, I’m not like wedded to this idea.” Anyway there have been others…Big old riots and fights for political stuff.
K: That’s a good, subtle example.(G: Subtle!)
D: Well you said did you ever get in a violent conflict? Didn’t she say violent conflict?
K: I should have said have you ever found yourself in a situation of *major* conflict?
G: That was major! I never got punched in the nose.
D: Then there was another one. I was driving down the street, going home with a guy. It was district elections. And he had lived in Chicago and he said “I’m against district elections, in Chicago it really became pigs running the place which is what we had before district elections.” So I said “Get out of the car.” He said, “You’re not going to sleep with me because I’m against district elections?”I said “Absolutely. Scram.” Now that’s principled.
G: I can’t think of one anecdote.
D: You’ve been in fights!
K: It doesn’t have to be a personal fight. In fact that’s actually unusually personal…Like if you put your placard up at the democratic convention I can’t believe nobody came up and…
G: Oh definitely. Well the best part, and at the same convention, cause they didn’t really engage me, but we were also trying to nominate a gay man who was a delegate there as a vice presidential candidate, cause that gave us a way to get up on stage and make speeches, nominating speeches [1980 demo convention]. So the way you had to do it was by petition of the delegates, you had to get so many signatures from delegates to nominate a vice presidential candidate. So that was one of our main campaigns that we had going. Se we had all these petitioners walking around the convention getting delegates to sign on. And you would go to a delegation and pass you thing down and give it to the first row and ask people to sign it and ask them to pass it along. And, we always said that each delegation was just like the state. When you went to Kansas you felt like you were in Kansas, and when you went to Alabama you felt like you were in Alabama. And you went to Massachusetts and it was nice. But it was very amusing because you would pass it from person to person, and they’d take the petition and they’d look at it and they’d read it look down and think “who’s this?” So…holding up the sign was nothing. But having to actually go up to people and ask them to sign this thing, to nominate someone and say right there it was someone who was running on a gay rights platform there was a little bit more confrontation. But we didn’t have fights! I mean some people said some nasty things.
D: She hasn’t burned a flag and she hasn’t been in a fight.
G: I’ve been in fights. I’ve been in arguments. But I haven’t been in physical battles. No one’s punched me in the nose!
K: I have a good follow up to this one. Have you ever been arrested?
D: Not for political…?
G: No, they’d always tell me, “We’re going to have this thing, and people are going to be arrested,” and I’d pass.
D: But I have been arrested.
G: We don’t need to go there.
D: Oh, its nothing bad.
K: This one you’ll like. Do you have an ideology and what is it?
D: That’s hard. (K: Or a philosophy) Yes. I do have a philosophy. I’m going to have to say no cause I can’t think of what it is. What I believe, I don’t think lends itself to a – you know to just an easy statement. I try to have a philosophy that I believe basically that we’re under a system – politically, economically, mentally, the Judaeo-Christian culture that is extremely hostile to women and to gay people and to poor people. And I believe that you have to make changes to yourself so you can free yourself from all the negative stuff that that kind of society gives you, and I also believe you can make small changes among your closest world**. And that’s kind of the basis. Its like, I go to Las Vegas and I play poker. And I sit with people from around the world and around the United States that are so different from me and we connect a lot of times. And I try to figure out ways to make the difference between everyone less….does that make any sense? No. And yours will be more down to earth and tangible.
G: I think it can be summed up with the words, “But can’t we all just get along.”
D: You had all that time to think of something. Socially and politically, she hates to be in any conflicting or confrontational..
G: Well, I don’t know, but then I go around to these people, who, I don’t know, who are trying to undermine everything that progressives are trying to do. And I don’t feel that an appeasement strategy is at all viable.
D: But you’re not the kind that fights – who’d go out and say ‘you asshole ‘ that kind of thing.
G: Yeah. You would do that, I would just cut them cold. I now know that you are trying to undo everything that I feel is right and good, so therefor I’ll move on and only deal with those people who are on the same page. But, you’d actually engage.
D: Yeah, I would try to change someone.
G: And I’d give up on them. I’d say all right, moving right along..(K: (To D) To you its personal? D: yeah). But I despise hatred. I hate hatred. So anything that encourages intolerance and hatred. So poverty encourages intolerance and hatred. And all sorts of racial injustice does. And religious fundamentalism encourages intolerance.
D: Fundamentalism is the word of it all. It isn’t that they’re Catholics or their Protestants or whatever, its that they’re fundamental
K: There’s something you’re bringing up that makes me want to ask, what is it that fuels your activism? To what extent is it anger? What kinds of emotions are going into this?
G: Anger definitely fuels it. Something taps into my emotions as – this is wrong, this is an injustice, somebody’s been hurt here. You know if it moves me to tears it motivates me to action. Like I said, the Anita Bryant thing, I thought this was so unfair. How dare they say this about me and the people that I love. So, we’ve got to do something to stop this woman, and stop what she’s doing and what people like her are doing. And you know, if somebody goes in and shoots up a day care center, I think, well this is important. We’ve got to do something about this now. And so there’s just things in people that don’t allow you to just sit back…I would love to sit at home and watch my tv shows, but you know something comes up that says, we’ll now you’ve got to do something about this. So…
D: The game’s up.
G: And so you have to keep doing something about that. Or someone bad is about to get elected. I could sit back and say who cares. But they’re going to pass things that are going to affect me. And I’m going to know that if we could have gotten candidate X in instead of candidate Y it wouldn’t have been this bad. So, I guess I’m going to have to do something about this.
K: So what about you?
D: I think its a combination of repressed sexuality- I do! When you’re repressed you go push that energy somewhere else (G: So a lot of people who paint its cause they don’t love.) And a lot of people become very good do-good political work because they aren’t having an inward social life so they take it outward. But I also think my feeling of knowing how I hated myself when I was younger because I was gay, and that made me, when I realized, I realized who made me feel that way and what made me feel that way. And I turned it towards the society. I started looking at the way it treats – there are black gay people, but when I see how they treat black people as a group, I can see it because I know what they did to me, or I can see it on women because I know what they did to me and that anger is how I used to feel…I think that’s what pushes me. So that was a mechanical thing: “no sex, I’m political.”
G: And then you talk to someone else and they work you up into this whole (D: frenzy) frenzy of righteous indignation, and you think! I mean that’s what Bill Krause used to always do. I mean he would call and say, this is not right, look what they’re doing, and by the time I got off the phone it was like, yes what can I do? And drop everything! We must go to the front lines!
K: So why don’t you guys talk a little about Bill Krause. It seems like you…
D: He embodied the idea of you want to change the system and you wanna have fun too. You wanna get drunk sometimes and you wanna take drugs and you wanna have sex you wanna party and you want the world to be a decent place to do that stuff. Where you don’t have to see people laying in the gutter on your way to go have a drink or go to a nice place to eat. And he was like that. And he also was political and he was extremely handsome and he was charismatic and he was a very nice person.
G: Yes, he, I think it’s probably for the best that I knew him first as someone who wasn’t political because I knew that he was someone who believed first and foremost in having fun. And that was the goal to get to. That political activism wasn’t the end in itself. It was the thing that you had to do so that you could have the fun. I think what he really brought was a great deal more intelligence than anybody else around here because he was a historian. He was just on the verge of getting his PhD in history at UC Berkeley. He got sick first with AIDS before he could finish that – he was *just* short of being Dr. Krauss. So he could bring a sense of…
D: He would have been Pelosi. He was going to be groomed by Burton.
G: Right. Just when you’re thinking , this is something that’s never happened before, you could connect it to what *had* happened before. And it helped you to see things in the context of what actually was in play here. What had been in play before , how that had worked out….he was definitely instrumental in my political growth. And he was a bridge between my political friends and non-political friends.
D: We’d go to the nude beach and then we’d demonstrate.
G: Cause I was definitely going back and forth between the two worlds back then. I had all these friends [who weren’t political] and he knew those people.
D: That was the thing about the gay liberation movement. We’d been repressed for so long and not having fun, we were about to have fun and at the same time be political.
G: Fun was political. It was definitely very political that we were having fun.
K: Did the three of you hang out?
G: Sometimes. Bill and I sort of traversed different sets. People who were entirely political. People who were entirely non-political. Those who were like Dennis, who were sort of half in half out. People who were definitely very traditional – politicians, and people who were very counter culture.
D: That’s the difference. I was more counter culture and you were more political.
G: The Haight was dead by the time I got here. (K: What year did Bill die?) I think it was 85,86
K: Do you have any mentors? Any people who have especially politically been mentors to you?
G: Well, we’ve already talked about Bill Kraus. I think Harvey definitely was. Definitely. Strangely enough I think Phil Burton was a little bit of a mentor. I know a lot of people look at him as the epitome of machine politician. But he did good things. I met him when he was really fascinated by the new young radicals – new young Turks in the democratic party. And he was fascinated by this working gay movement – sort of caught up in it in a sort of romantic way, so he was doing some very positive things. We were all looking at him like: you’re the one who saved the national parks.He taught us a few things about using power politics to actually do good, almost socialist things like save parks. …
K: So what about you Dennis? Any mentors?
D: Yes I had one. And he was insane. The Freudian guy I was telling you about. Steve Duckwald. And he was totally untrained. Totally uneducated in the idea of the – (K: What do you mean he was untrained?) He was not a Freudian analyst. He was not a legitimate – he didn’t go to school. He didn’t have much of an education. But he brought me and my whole group out of the closet from a life in Gardena that was a mess. And he taught me not to put too much of my sexual energy into politics because it’s a repressive kind of thing. (Well I admit that I failed his philosophy.) But, he kind of helped me see the world as an outsider. And before I was always trying to get inside it. I tried to push and become part of it. And he told me that it was ok to be outside of it. And that you could even get a better view of it by being outside of it.
K: So you guys are in your hearts San Franciscans.
D: Oh yes.
G: Yes, always was. And I knew that I was out of synch in Atlanta Georgia. I knew something was wrong. And when I got to Chicago I knew I was closer but I hadn’t got there yet. And when I got here I said, yeah, this is where I was supposed to be.
D: …I always felt like this was really my home. It really feels like its my house. I like this area. And southern California too still.
G: And everything I’d always read about the history of San Francisco. When it first became a city, you know. These are my people.
[we ended the interview but we kept talking and…]
D: It was the election of Harvey. I really felt like things were going to change
G: That was the best time. That was when we really felt like we were actually in charge. The first time I went down to city hall…something Bill used to talk about. He used to talk about this edifice that you know, if you went in you had to be on your best behaviour. The first time we walked in when Harvey was there we felt like we belonged, we actually had the right to walk back into the offices. …You know we’d first show up and they’d say yes? And we’d say we’re here to see supervisor Milk, please. We belong here! Don’t give me that attitude.
K: How did you work with him? Did you formally work with him?
G: Harvey – the camera shop just moved to city hall. That was back when people used to hang out at his office you know. You’d go down…and then something would come up…oh, you know this bill is going on. You were involved cause you were talking about what was going on that day. And Harvey, for a little while had an office that people used to come in and hang out in. But nobody has that sort of thing going on now. It was like a center for activists to come…people would actually go to some phones and make some calls.
D: We used to just go to the meetings and yell at all the ones we didn’t like and boo..
G: See, and that made a difference. When you could be the people they were actually looking out on when they were taking a vote, and now its a whole different people who go down to city hall and they feel they have to vote a different way. And now its the building owners and managers associations….well there wasa lot more good lefties that used to go, cause we were working, like I said. And you’d sit in on board meetings. I remember a whole bunch of progressives turned out for Tom when he first became board president…they turned out people to come down for that. It made all the difference. That progressives had turned out. We were in the audience…it really does make a difference. They sort of think who care’s about this based on who’s in the audience that day. So unfortunately a little thing like going to a meeting, once again, makes a difference.
G: Well maybe it should be. But if you can’t be there now…it takes so much energy. So much energy. So when you see these people sitting out there in suits who you know are paid to be there, therein lies the difference. Chevron can actually pay people to sit in those seats.
© Kerry Nelson