Photographer Jerry Pritikin emailed me saying he has a different opinion from those who are upset that the Human Rights Campaign is setting up an “Action Center” in the storefront once occupied by the late LGBT hero, Harvey Milk. I asked for his opinion, plus some background to help round out the picture of why he might care so much. Pritikin responded with a note that adds to our collective knowledge of that time and spirit in the late 1970s when Anita Bryant and the religious antigay movement were catching fire. Here’s Pritikin’s recollection and opinion, with a headline and a few slight edits from me – Karen Ocamb
Harvey Would Not Be Mad if HRC Took Over His Old Location
By Jerry Pritikin
I knew Harvey Milk and my image of him on “Orange Tuesday,” 6/7/77, introduced Harvey nationally, 5 months before he was elected. Here are a few images and tidbits to understand how I feel about the Human Rights Campaign and the possibility of them using my iconic image of Harvey as a mural at the famed 575 Castro landmark.
I left Chicago because just knowing someone “queer” (that is what we were called) or being gay yourself was considered Taboo! I moved to San Francisco in 1960. I bought a cheap camera to send tourist-like images of the bridges, wharf and cable cars back home to friends and family. I soon found left-over beatniks, aging hippies and flower children and peace mongers marching against the Vietnam War.
I remember seeing an unknown band at a downtown gay bar called the “Rendezvous” – no cover charge and 25 cents in a bottle. The owner was happy that 30 new customers came to see a band called “The Grateful Dead” in the ’67 “Summer of Love.” A one-ounce lid of pot sold for $7 bucks! By the end of the 60′s, there was a man walking on the moon – but the Haight-Ashbury had lost most of it’s luster when the Sight-seeing buses showed up and McDonalds built a new franchise right across from Golden Gate Park.
I moved between the Haight and a changing neighborhood in the Eureka Valley called “the Castro” to start the 1970s. I was renting a 2-bedroom house with an in-law apartment, a front and back yard and two garages for $250 bucks a month. There were still quite a few mom and pop stores and family-owned bars. When businesses changed hands, they were usually was sold to a gay person. Storefront rents seldom ran over a couple of hundred bucks. In 1972, I asked the owner of Georgianna Bakery shop at 420 Castro (just yards away from today’s Harvey Milk Plaza) if I could put some of my photos in her storefront window, and she complied. It was a popular transfer stop for buses and streetcars.
Shortly after, I heard that a new camera shop opened about a block away at 575 Castro. I bought and had my film developed there. I made friends with the owners, Harvey Milk, and Scott Smith. Within a short time, 575 Castro Street became a popular place to hang out and talk local politics, pet Harvey’s dog or just stare out the front window at the passing parade of good looking and healthy guys.
Over the next few years, Harvey ran for public office, using his camera store for a headquarters. The first two times, he lost. But the Gay Community was growing. In 1973 the Gay Community Softball League formed with 6 teams, becoming the first gay sports association in the country. Today there are over 50 cities with gay softball leagues and sports associations.
In 1974, Harvey produced the first Castro Street Fair. It was extremely successful, and not one booth was corporate sponsored. 1976 was a Bicentennial year, and several times the Presidential race came to the City. I got to meet and photograph [Democratic presidential candidate] Jimmy Carter.
In May of 1977, Orange Juice spokesperson and former Miss America contestant Anita Bryant began to get national attention, by making anti-gay remarks and leading a campaign to overturn a new Dade County, Florida, Gay Housing Ordinance. I created the “Anita Bryant’s Husband is a Homo Sapien!” T-shirt and outed myself nationally via a United Press Wire Service and two weeks later I was able to get Jane Fonda to wear one at a gay fund raiser.
However it was on June 7, that my AP wire photo introduced Harvey to the nation, via the Associated Press – 5 months before he was elected. On that day, Anita Bryant led-forces overturned that gay rights ordinance. Over 5,000 people took part in an impromptu march from the Castro, with Harvey Milk yelling through his Bullhorn “out of the bars and into the street!” We past City Hall and marched down to Union Square. The biggest hand of the night came when a young girl climbed a flagpole and unfurled a “Gay Power” flag.
Harvey Milk was one of a few speakers, warning through his bullhorn that if it can happen in Dade County, it could happen here in San Francisco!
I took my film over to AP at Fox Plaza and at first they were not interested. But I convinced them that an impromptu march of 5,000 in response to a local election almost 1500 miles away warranted national attention – and then they ran it.
The following day my photo appeared on the front page of the S.F. Examiner and the Sunday Cover of the Chronicle’s World Magazine. I believe the best thing to happen to the gay rights movement was Anita Bryant, she gave the gay rights movement… movement!
My photo introduced Harvey Milk as a gay spokesperson – 5 months before he was elected in November 1977. It also changed the status quo when Harvey ran for Supervisor of the 5th District and won. Becoming the fifth open gay elected to public office in America [see the first five listed here]. He used his camera shop for a very well organized campaign headquarters. Shortly thereafter, Harvey’s landlord, gay real estate agent Paul Langley, raised Harvey’s rent almost a thousand dollars a month and forced Harvey to move and to start the New Year looking for a new shop location.
For a couple of years, especially after Sean Penn and screenwriter Lance Black won their Academy Awards for the movie “Milk,” 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 the S.F. gay rights movement. The movie also helped to make Harvey’s 575 camera shop location a landmark for tourist and gay pilgrims to visit.
I disagree with those who say that the Human Rights Campaign is a bad choice to occupy this historic landmark location. About a month ago, I received an email from HRC saying they were interested in getting my permission to use my iconic image of Harvey as a back wall mural. Right off the bat, I told their representative, that I have had problems with too many HRC Black Tie Events because they price out gay students, seniors and hourly-wage workers from attending them. I also felt HRC was wrong for not including the transgender segment of the gay community in their agenda.
That being said, I would rather see HRC as tenants than another franchise coffee shop or x-rated magazine store – with or without my Milk image. However, if we come to agreement, I would be honored to have my photo of Harvey there.
Back in the 1980′s, Harvey Milk’s former landlord Paul Langley, raised the rent to the well known bar called The Elephant Walk at 18th and Castro from $6,000 a month to $12,000, forcing them out of business. Then Mr. Langley had the chutzpah to change the name of The Elephant Walk to Harvey’s. He then asked me to sell him several of my Milk images and memorabilia for his new bar. I refused, because I knew he forced both Harvey and the Elephant Walk out of business. I see a big difference now between Langley and the HRC.
Without a doubt, I do not believe Harvey would be mad if HRC takes over his old landmark location. Mainly because of the “Milk” movie, more and more people who come to the Castro want to see where Harvey’s store was located. Now they will be able to come and visit inside, and maybe get that old time spirit to continue the work started by Harvey over 30 years ago.