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    Castro Street Fair Proves Certainty of Harvey Milk’s Words of Wisdom

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    In 1974, Harvey Milk and Scott Smith gave a block party and invited the immediate world. On August 18, some 5,000 people joined them at the first Castro Street Fair to enjoy mimes, clowns, and music; chat with friends old and new; and visit vendor booths offering handicrafts and food. It was the largest gathering that the neighborhood had seen since the California Centennial Celebration held many years before, and it immediately became one of the major events on the City’s LGBT calendar.

    Besides hoping for a good time had by all on a sunny summer afternoon, Harvey later wrote that he wanted “to promote the area and to show the City the potential power that the gay community has.” At the same time, he hoped “to register as many people as we could on that day” to intensify local political influence.

    2018 Photo by Ben Ruffner

    “The more we register,” Harvey stated, “the more clout the gay community has. The more clout that we get, the easier the laws are changed.” At a time when same-sex intimacy between consenting adults was still illegal in California, he understood that “if the gay community is ever to get the laws and general attitudes changed, it will come only through the voting booth.”

    Milk never denied the power of protests, boycotts, picket lines, and marches, but he realized not everyone could join one to affect change. “If you believe in the gay movement,” he wrote, “then you must do more than just talk about it. You must make sure that all your friends are also registered and that they do vote. Without that, as the bottom line, gay rights will forever be something sought after.” Only some 300 people registered to vote at the first Fair, but it was a start.

    The first Fair established many of the fundamentals that have made those that followed great fun. From the beginning, community organizations shared information, vendors sold their goods, and local talent entertained the crowds. Fairgoers looked forward to a day of sunshine, an occasional glimpse of the odd and unusual, and people watching, always the most popular pastime: attendees sharing the results of their hard work at the gym and showing off the latest skin fashions from newly pierced nipples to tony tattoo art.

    Over the years, entertainers at the Fair included everyone from the Bay City Reds to Lea DeLaria to Jane Dornacker to Tom Ammiano. No one, however, was more beloved than Sylvester, who in the 1970s became a major star. When David Bowie’s San Francisco debut failed to sell out in 1972, Bowie explained, “They don’t need me. They have Sylvester.” Sylvester performed at the Fair at no charge, paying the not insubstantial fees for his backup singers and musicians from his own pocket.

    The Fair quickly became the biggest street fairs in the City. Accurate estimates of crowd sizes were always difficult to come by—organizers and police often reported widely distant numbers—but no one disputed that crowds increased each year. In 1975, at least 25,000 people went to the Fair, five times more than the year before, which made it the best attended neighborhood event in the City. The next year, as many as 75,000 were there.

    From the beginning, the Fair mixed the serious with the satirical. In 1977, when the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club set up a dunking tank to fight Anita Bryant and her politics of homophobia, it put her photograph on the target and Harvey on the dunking seat. Bringing out the best in everybody, he wound up in the water more than anyone else.

    In 1978, the year he was elected to the Board of Supervisors, Milk explained his feelings about the event that he helped to create in a campaign brochure he distributed at the Fair:

    “Everyone needs a sense of belonging and neighborliness and the chance to celebrate the joys of living where we live … . Every neighborhood should have a street fair, and everyone should have a chance to work with her/his neighbors to make one happen close to home.”

    The changes that Harvey worked to accomplish were dramatically on display at the 1985 Fair, highlighted by the official dedication of Harvey Milk Plaza at Castro, 17th and Market Streets. As Mark Barabak wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Drag queens in the crowd … mingled with uniformed police officers and local politicians hoping to win points with an important San Francisco constituency.” In less than 10 years, the LGBT community had its “clout.”

    The world has changed since the first Castro Street Fair. Then, cell phones were found in jails, not pockets; computers were for moon shot, not money shots; and laptops were for dances, not homework. No longer. More change needs to happen, but Harvey succeeded in showing the City and the world the political, social, and economic importance of the Castro and the LGBT community. His ideas and the strategies he used to affect change have been followed by activists ever since.

    The Bay City Reds juggling troupe perform at the 1975 Castro Street Fair

    More than anything else, the Castro Street Fair continues to prove the certainty of Harvey’s words of wisdom to “let people see the truth about who gays are, and in so doing, give them and other disenfranchised people hope.” Besides, there is nothing quite like an afternoon spent with a hundred thousand intimate friends.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.