7 Movies That Explore San Francisco’s Gay History

So we just found out that the feature-length version of Travis Matthews’ sexually explicit queer-relationship drama, I Want Your Love, is finally done and will head out on the LGBT film festival circuit soon.

Set in San Francisco, Love is the City by the Bay’s answer to John Cameron Mitchell’s New York-centric Shortbus: A serious film (read: not porn) that features actual sex acts as a matter of…

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  • David Ehrenstein

    These are all good films, especially We Were Here which examines the AIDS epidemic with a depth and sensitivity I haven’t seen in any other account on page, stage or scren.

  • Alfonzo

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for including the Cockettes in this list. I actually thought I would be complaining about the fact that it wasn’t included. Bonus points for Tales of the City (the original serires that aired on PBS). I can’t not add the fact the I preferred the original Michael Tolliver and Mona Ramsey (who has recently appeared on Showtime’s Shameless).

  • Pocket Otter

    In all due respect to Milk-ophiles, the movie “Milk” sucked. The doc “The Times of Harvey Milk” however is top-notch and must-see.

  • Ray

    The Cockettes his a great movie. They were hilarious.

  • Chad

    Pocket Otter has it correct, “Milk” sucked and completely revised history showing Harvey as being monogamous and not a chickenhawk into underage Teenage boys which is sick, yet “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk” does not gloss over his promiscuity or the fact that he was a nasty chickenhawk and into underage teenagers.

  • dvlaries

    Tales of the City was also honest about the unapologetic drug use of the time, and it deserves points for that too. The original cast was peerless and irreplaceable: Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Donald Moffat, Marcus D’Amico, Paul Gross, Chole Webb, Thomas Gibson, William Campbell, Barbara Garrick … just heaven.

    All of the romances were great, but I thought the senior one of Anna Madrigal and the dying Edgar Halcyon towered above all others. Critic Tom Shales thought of Madrigal’s apartment house itself as a character, “a human ant farm of staircases” going this way and that. Like a delicate, intricate spider web, Maupin spun intriguing and intersecting stories that will forever rank him among the greats.

  • Michael Bedwell

    The Milk biopic is curdled with multiple distortions—when it’s not outright lying—about people and events.

  • Jerry Pritikin

    When it comes to the movie MILK, it is a recreation of events, however some events never happened, and timeline and locations were changed for the movie. However because of the movie, millions of people, young and old, gay and straight, here in America and around the world have been introduced to Harvey Milk, and that era in S.F. in the gay rights movement. I recommend a great web-site that is dedicated to the evolution of the Castro from a changing S.F. neighborhood into America’s gay mecca… take a peek at it is a collection of images and stories by the pioneers in our movement that are the real thing and not a recreation. For my collection there

  • Lefty

    @Jerry Pritikin: Yes, excellent post. I like all the films here that I’ve seen. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I still haven’t seen Tales of the City yet – bit before my time – but it’s certainly top of “the list”.
    Thanks, Dan.

  • WillBFair

    I never read Tales of the City. It’s actually too realistic. I lived in town during those years, and we said and acted what they did in the books. No reason to read a novel that you’ve already lived.

  • Michael Bedwell

    @Jerry Pritikin:

    I’m all for positive thinking, looking for what one can find good out of something bad, but the Milk biopic “recreated” or MADE UP so much that it approaches science fiction.

    1. They did not NEED to erase the FOUR out gay elected officials—including two elected to STATE office not just a city position—who came BEFORE Harvey to dramatize his unique contributions.

    2. They did not NEED to paint gay competitor for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rick Stokes as a spineless Kapo. Stokes had been involved in out gay politics LONG before Harvey—founding the gay rights group in Sacramento when Harvey still lived in New York City and was campaigning to elected Right Wing Repug Barry Goldwater, and had been forcibly put into a mental hospitaland given electro shock “therapy” to try to “cure” his homosexulaity while Harvey’s greatest shock was not getting all the tricks he wanted.

    3. They did not NEED to portray San Francisco gays as having no political influence before Harvey arrived. Not only had there been at least four groups with clout, Jim Foster, cofounder of the Society for Individual Rights and the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club—and demonized in the movie for daring tell Harvey he couldn’t instantly become “Pope”—had been the first out gay person invited to speak to a Democratic National Convention—a year before Harvey ran for office for the first time. WHEN is it justified to disrespect and distort the reality of others just to make your subject look better?

    4. Nor do they make clear that Harvey ran for office that first time NOT because he wanted to fight for gay rights but simply because he was pissed off that he had to prepay a sales tax on his camera store.

    5. It was NOT NECESSARY for them to paint the battle against the anti gay teachers intitative, the Briggs Initiative, as being an expected loss right up until the last minute when, in fact, the polls were neck-and-neck by then. NOR portray him as having single-handedly won the election when, in fact, the real turning point was the heinous former CA governor Ronald Reagan being convinced to publicly oppose it by gay activist David Mixner.

    Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

  • Robyn

    So, does that mean that Scott and Harvey weren’t, like, true love, say, in the way of cathy and heathcliffe, or jane eyre and Mr R? geez, I’m gutted. I liked the film. It made me think, and gave me some knowledge of Harvey Milk, being ignorant and all that. He seemed a cool guy to me, or am I getting him mixed up with Sean Penn who spends a lot of time with Chavez. Is Chavez gay or am I getting him mixed up with Sean Penn again. I liked the Franco bits in the film. Wasn’t he that Spanish dictator bloke? Did only straights like me, then, like Milk?

  • Drew

    If Milk had survived his assassin’s bullet, he would have likely been infected with HIV, and given the mortality rates of the 1980s, would have died. And this would have left the gay community without their new “patron saint of Homosexual Coupledom”.

    I lived in SF from 1969 to 1974, so I was there during the “installation” of the Castro area. Before that, the gay neighborhood had been Polk Street, which afterwards became the place for those not middle class enough to be accepted by the Castro (sound familiar? Christoper Street to Chelsea?).

    Even the gays who lived in the Castro wryly observed that the establishment of a gay mecca there was a ruthless gentrification of a neighborhood. When there was bashing, it was more likely to be the actions of resentful Latinos who were being pushed out of the adjacent Mission neighborhood by decorator gays who’d bought their formerly cheap homes and changed the neighborhood. My friend Stephen was bashed like that one night when he was coming home drunk from cruising. It was a Latino gang, not a resentful working class Irish person, as the film hints. The story of the Castro is the story of a middle class subculture. Van Sant’s account is devoid of class consciousness in the most callous of ways.

    I’ll tell you how “oppressed” gays were at the beginning of that neighborhood: the costume that was “de rigeur” was a pair of jeans that you prepared for strolls on Castro by inserting a cucumber into the crotch area and painting the material over it with bleach, using a brush. It was supposed to look like your enormous dick had worn away the denim in that area. We’re talking about a Saturnalia here, not industrious community groups struggling for the common good. All we were struggling for was dick and poppers.

    As the movie shows, but fails to comment upon, the Castro was extremely segregated–no women, and almost a total absence of Blacks. At the moment that Sean Penn’s Harvey is mourning the death of a victim of gay bashing, there were probably about a dozen blacks and Latinos who had been pushed from the soon-not-to-be-Black Filmore neighborhood by gays and hippies into more dangerous neighborhoods either shooting themselves or being shot by cops. The film makes it seem like gay bashing was the primary motive for violence in SF, which is a boldfaced lie.

    The leniency of the cops and the city toward the promiscuous life style of gays in SF was mind-boggling. The film took one or two gay bar busts, which had a lot to do with the vast quantities of drugs and sex being consumed on the premises, as the status quo. Not. It’s as silly as focusing on one Dutch bust of a brothel in Amsterdam and talking about the terrible “oppression” there.

    Harvey Milk was a distinctly middle class politician who had been in the armed services and had once, I think, supported Goldwater. His one really impressive achievement was his defeat of the Briggs Initiative; but aside from that, he was a “dog shit” kind of politician. As a “gay art hippy” who hung out with the Cockettes, I had no interest in him and saw him as someone who had “sold out to the establishment.” Most of my friends thought the same, when we thought of him at all.

    It was merely an accident of time and place that won him a place in history. If he had not been shot, his status and identity would probably resemble that of a Barney Frank today.

    Since the late 60s we had been pushing the gay agenda politically. In 1969 and 1970 in San Francisco, I participated in impromptu gay rights marches through the streets of SF, a takeover of the convention of the American Psychoanalytical Association, to get them to take homosexuality off their list of illnesses, and a fuck-in in a church. Harvey was far from the originator of gay politics. He was the originator of gay mainstream politics, and for that he’s become a saint? The Saint of Compromise, I would say.

    What really depresses me is that people like that young screenwriter from a Mormon family think that this is really the true story. Yet another convert to a politics that has no class consciousness and is narcissistically unaware of the reality of any other oppessed group. And who is he being fostered and educated by? Someone born in 1952 (Van Sant) who can’t possibly think that this is the true story.

  • WillBFair

    @Drew: Of course it’s not the true story. It’s Hollywood. They are there to make money, which means sugar coating reality for the dumb masses.
    That doesn’t mean we have to tarnish Harvey’s memory, just as we don’t need to dwell on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s extramarital affairs. FYI: nobody’s perfect.
    Both men were exceptional. Harvey’s genius was politics, in building coalitions by carefully packaging liberal values. That’s a serious talent. He also is a martyr, which is something special. Both men had the courage to continue, even though they knew they might loose their lives. That’s more courage than others have, and we should respect it.

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