There is a scene in the movie “Milk” that’s set at the gay pride parade in 1978. That parade is my earliest memory, or at least the earliest memory I can date. I remember hordes in Civic Center — men in leather chaps and nothing else; topless women with glittery stars over their nipples. According to my mom, one of my early complete sentences was, “Mommy, why is that man rubbing himself on that pole?” When the right-wing claims that gay people threaten children, I recall that I didn’t see a fully clothed adult until I was 9, and I turned out fine.
In 1978, it wasn’t called Pride. It was called Gay Freedom Day. Pride and freedom both had to be claimed to be won.
For example, when I went to Lick-Wilmerding High School in 1991, no students had yet come out as GLBTQ. One of my classmates was the first, and started coming to school wearing combat boots, a bomber jacket and a mostly-shaved head.
She put a sticker on her locker with “homophobia” in a circle with a line through it. It seemed like an uncontroversial message. Within hours, her locker had been defaced and the sticker ripped up. Someone wrote, “You faggots are disgusting and do nothing for society.”
Around that time, I had gone to see Fugazi at the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Oakland. Fugazi was known for only playing venues that charged $5 and didn’t serve alcohol, and moshing on carpet in a church was weird. In the lobby, Queer Nation had set up tables to give out stickers, which I collected.
In response to the attack on my friend’s locker, we covered the hateful graffiti with the Queer Nation stickers. Within an hour, they were destroyed again. I put some on my locker, and they were also destroyed.
My friend and I contacted Queer Nation and ACT UP organizers and got hundreds more stickers. We came back to school and gave them out to friends. We got everyone we could to put them up until lockers were covered with iconic fluorescent Queer Nation stickers in solidarity.
Then, the backlash began. Boys started putting anti-gay signs on their lockers, which they made themselves, since they did not have access to the John Birch Society. “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve,” for the uninspired. “Fight homophobia fighters” was a more creative attempt. We defaced their homemade signs.
In a matter of days, rival factions of students were waging a proxy war over lockers. One preppy guy from the Marina stood in the middle of the hall yelling, “I don’t care what the signs say; I just don’t like THIS!” Then, he pointed dramatically at the scraped adhesive marring our pristine private school lockers.
(At this point, I should acknowledge the privilege inherent in large numbers of private school students being allowed to deface school property without consequence.)
A few of our teachers came out to us and quietly cheered us on.
Eventually, the school administration acted. They started sponsoring assemblies and teach-ins about homophobia and identity. More programs and changes in curriculum followed. The gay faculty came out publicly without upset. Gradually, more students came out. The culture and the institution changed.
My friend, who started it, left the school. It was too much of a burden. The author of the most vitriolic graffiti left the school, too. The guy offended by adhesive has since become a partner at Goldman Sachs.
It was one of my first and most profound political lessons: Create a crisis, and the system — whatever that means, in any context; in this case, the school administration — is forced to respond. Don’t avoid the fight. Pick the fight you want to have on your own terms.
So in honor of Pride, my favorite holiday commemorating a riot when drag queens fought cops, go out and create a crisis for people in charge.
Nato Green is a comedian, writer, dad, union organizer and nervous wreck based in San Francisco. Check him out at Riffer’s Delight at the Alamo Drafthouse on June 29, where he and Natahsa Muse make jokes during movies. This month’s flick is “Footloose.”