The Castro began life as Eureka Valley. A rail line built in 1887 made the area more accessible and a population boom took place. Working class families of Irish, German, and Scandinavian heritage began buying land and building large Victorian houses to serve several generations of their families. Denizens shared a Catholic background and a love of bars – the area had many. This era continued more or less unchanged until after World War II.
“White flight” cleared out the area in the 1950s as families moved to the suburbs. Meanwhile, gay folks had already begun settling into San Francisco, a phenomenon that dates back to before the war. Some were servicemen and women who had been discharged. Many found SF a place of tolerance. Even though California like virtually all states at the time had anti-sodomy laws, San Francisco was like, ‘eh,’ a level of tolerance most folks did not experience at that time. By the 1950s, the City had a growing population of white-collar gays and lesbians. Early guppies. And like all good guppies, they wanted to buy housing. So when “White flight” commenced, a population sat in the wings ready to buy. So began the stereotype of gays improving rundown neighborhoods and increasing property values. Being fabulous pays dividends.
Though the queer community in SF began flexing its muscles as early as the late 1950s and 1960s – back when Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the Daughters of Bilitis and legendary drag queen José Sarria (aka, the Widow Norton) dared to run for the SF Board of Supervisors – acceptance and respect took time. Tolerance only went so far. In this case, no farther than the closet door.
Dan White, the murderer of SF Mayor George Moscone and SF Supervisor Harvey Milk, as Paul Krassner notes in Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials Plus…, represented the stay-in-the-closet-and-keep-quiet segment of the population. He was a young dude when elected to the Board of Supervisors, only 31 years old. But he came from a conservative Catholic background. He was once a police officer then a fireman for the City of San Francisco before going into politics. Both the police and firemen’s unions heavily supported his candidacy.
White, who seemed to like to quit things shortly after starting them, resigned from the Board of Supervisors a short 10 months after being sworn in. Then, he decided he wanted his job back. Moscone initially considered reappointing him, but then was talked out of it by Harvey Milk, among others. So were sown the seeds of bitterness.
Krassner covered the Dan White trial for the SF Bay Guardian. The murders happened not long after the Jonestown massacre. Indeed, Krassner states that San Francisco District Attorney Joe Freitas thought that a People’s Temple hit squad had done the deed. That wasn’t the connection, though Krassner points out other interesting connections between these two seminal events in San Francisco history.
Many who have taken to the streets recently to protest the killing of unarmed black folks by the police have charged that prosecutors will time and again side with the police, thus never charging them with a crime or treating their abuses seriously. We saw it in Ferguson, Missouri and again New York City. By Krassner’s account, such a cozy relationship played a heavy role during the Dan White trial.
The day before the trial began, the Assistant District Attorney slated to prosecute the case was standing in an elevator at the Hall of Justice. He heard a voice behind him speak his name.
‘Tom Norman, you’re a motherfucker for prosecuting Dan White.’
He turned around and saw a half-dozen police inspectors. He flushed and faced the door again. These cops were his drinking buddies, but now they were all mad at him.
Norman had crossed a line: he did not show deferential, blind allegiance to the police, a complaint we’re hearing a lot these days.
In reality, though, his former drinking buddies were being drama queens. Norman presented the prosecution’s case against Dan White so poorly and handled the trial so haphazardly, that the police needn’t have worried. Among other flaws, Krassner points out that Norman failed to highlight indications of premeditation in Dan White’s taped confession. White stated that he decided to see Milk only after having seen Milk’s aide in the corridor. White’s aide Denise Apcar, however, testified that he told her that he wanted to see both Moscone and Milk. Also, Apcar, who drove White to City Hall, let him out at the front entrance. But White went around the corner to go in through an open basement window, to avoid metal detectors. He was packing heat, after all. Krassner identifies obvious clues for premeditation in the case that Norman, for whatever reason, couldn’t.
By contrast, the defense was able to use White’s taped confession to their advantage, presenting their client as a scared but otherwise good little boy who had done something naughty. Writes Krassner:
When the tape was played in court, some reporters wept, including me, along with members of White’s family, spectators, jurors, an assistant D.A. – who had a man-sized tissue box on his table – and Dan White himself, crying both live and on tape simultaneously.
The truth revealed itself for those, like Krassner, who noticed. White’s own wife testified, via a psychiatrist, that her husband had a poor sex drive. How common is it that the weak envy the strong, to the point of wanting to destroy them? Krassner makes this observation. Moscone was perceived to be a lady’s man, with a penchant for African-American ladies. And Milk, of course, was gay. Gays have lots and lots of sex partners. Just ask one. So sexual inadequacy may well have fueled his rage, particularly since he blamed both Moscone and Milk for keeping him from being reappointed to the Board after he resigned.
It was later in the trial that the defense decided to switch reels a bit and declare that their client had a compulsion to eat a lot of sweet stuff whenever he felt stressed, thus causing him to behave in irrational ways. Krassner wrote in his notes “Twinkie defense” and a meme was born. Schmidt, the lead defense attorney, would later deny referencing the famous confection during the trial. But Krassner notes that his psychiatric witness Martin Blinder did. Thus, Dan White became a scared but otherwise good little boy who did something naughty because of a sweet tooth and a sugar rush. Ultimately, the jury bought it. They convicted the naughty little boy of voluntary manslaughter.
Krassner lived near Castro and Market around the time of the trial.
I met Harvey Milk when he ran a neighborhood camera shop, and I watched him developing into the gay equivalent of Martin Luther King. Had he lived, he might have been elected the first gay mayor. But he already envisioned the possibility that he would become a martyr.
The rage expressed at Dan White escaping a murder rap for killing a gay icon was off the chain. Krassner hadn’t intended to cover the aftermath of the trial, what would become known as the infamous White Night Riots. He had been home chilling when a friend called to urge him to go to City Hall, where an angry gay community went on a rampage, smashing police cars and creating havoc. Krassner went. He later called this one of the six dumbest decisions of his life. His description of the police, barricaded inside of City Hall witnessing the chaos, was chilling. Someone waited until the police were fighting mad, and then set them loose. They hit anyone who moved, including, unfortunately, Krassner himself. He attributes his limping walk to the beating he received that night.
Just over a decade later, in October 1989, the SFPD would reenact the White Night Riots in what became known as the Castro Sweep. And I was there. It started as an innocuous ACT UP march from Civic Center to the Castro. It turned into a police take over of the Castro, with police quarantining people inside their homes, inside the bars, inside Different Light, while they marched down Market and then Castro and beat people. I was on top of a newspaper stand, screaming at them to stop beating a friend of mine. An officer calmly asked me to get down, so I got down. He was one of the few cooler heads in the police crowd that evening. Later, as I was walking to the Castro Muni Metro station, one or two officers charged at us, and we ran into the station. Fortunately, they did not pursue us any further. Someone claims that someone on the police force said, “If we can get ACT UP in the Castro, we’ll have won the war.”
And what war would that have been? The war against queer folks? Were they still angry about Dan White? Did they blame gay people for his fall from grace and suicide? Krassner wryly observes that prosecutor Tom Norman “should’ve been grateful the jury had not declared the George Moscone and Harvey Milk were killed in self-defense…” The police clearly had a lot of “blame the gays” attitude, an attitude likely shared by the homophobic Dan White. It’s an attitude that states, in effect, just stay in the closet and you’ll be OK.
Krassner connects the Patty Heart trial and Dan White trial by noting their different outcomes. Patty received a 35-year sentence and was held responsible for her crimes, despite her having been kidnapped, coerced, and brainwashed. Dan White, on the other hand, received only a 7-year sentence for having committed premeditated murder without having been coerced or brainwashed. After reading Krassner’s book, one could say that the establishment achieved the outcome it desired most in both cases.
The “Plus” in the book title refers to two other chapters. One is an interview with Krassner by Terry Bisson. I liked this chapter a lot and in many ways I wish I had read it first. It has a lighter mood than the two main chapters dealing with the trials, making it a good warm up act.
The next chapter deals with singer/songwriter Michelle Shocked’s performance at Yoshi’s San Francisco (now known as The Addition) in March 2013. Shocked paused her show to adlib about Christians and gay marriage, stating that the beginning of gay marriage in California would bring about the end of days, in the view of many who follow her particular form of Christian belief.
Yoshi’s shutdown her performance prematurely and closed the show after many in the audience walked out. She subsequently lost several gigs after that. Krassner asks the question, “Is Michelle Shocked homophobic?”
The backbone of this chapter is a discussion Krassner had with Shocked on a radio show about the incident. He suggested that perhaps she expressed her satirical observations about born-again fundamentalism and gay marriage to the wrong audience. Having lived in the Castro, covered the trial of gay icon Harvey Milk’s assassin, and suffered crippling abuse at the hands of the police after that trial, Krassner was keenly aware of this community’s sensibilities and history of oppression. Shocked pushed back, saying that she strove to “confound an audience that has grown so self-righteous that they needed a little prick.” Well, maybe.
Good satire, as Krassner writes in this chapter, reveals a “metaphorical extension of the truth.” If Michelle Shocked meant to use satire to confound a self-righteous community, then I don’t think she did an effective job. The only bit in her rant that smacked of tongue-and-cheek was when she asked an audience member to tweet out that she said “God hates fags.” That, to my mind, wasn’t a serious request. The rest of her rant, however, just came across as muddled and confused, like she was in conflict about the issues herself.
But is she homophobic?
Krassner answers this question with nuance at the end of the chapter, a demonstration of the power of satire, an art form he has clearly mastered after many decades of practice. For those who enjoy nuanced observations, and in particular have an interest in 1970s San Francisco history, I highly recommend picking up this book.