SF Lives: Learning what a gay man could do and be

Moisés Garcia wasn’t alive at the time The City was shaken by its tragic events of 41 years ago

Moisés Garcia wasn’t yet born when The City was shaken by its tragic events of 41 years ago, though as an out gay man working at the National LGBTQ Center for the Arts, home of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, his San Francisco life is nevertheless linked to Nov. 27, 1978, the date of the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk

“The chorus had just been founded and its first public performance was at the vigil for Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk on the steps of City Hall,” said Garcia, delving into SFGMC’s deep ties to radical history; today he heads the organization’s community affairs.

Milk’s record as the first openly gay elected official wasn’t the inspiration for Garcia’s career path, though it certainly wouldn’t have been possible without it. Garcia has spent the past decade immersed in The City’s multicultural histories, participating deeply in the movement to curb over-gentrification and establish historic cultural districts. Having previously worked for the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, the San Francisco Community Health Center (formerly API) in the Tenderloin and Instituto Familiar de la Raza (serving the Latino/Chicano and Indigeous populations), civic engagement comes naturally to Garcia. He gets our city’s spirit and Milk’s message, despite being born and raised in Orange County—not exactly known for freethinking.

“Giving back is just what we did in our family,” he said of what he called his “traditionally Mexican” immigrant parents and five siblings. His eldest sister, Isela, 10 years his senior, served as his guide.

“I remember when she was working on the campaign against Prop 187,” he said of the 1994 ballot initiative proposing to prohibit undocumented folks from receiving public education and health care services. Isela went on to attend UC Berkeley and he remembers the day the family moved her to the Bay Area.

“I knew this was a very gay place and that I would return someday,” he laughed. He was only 11 and didn’t necessarily know he was gay, but as a member of a brown family living in a region that was notoriously red, he knew he was different.

“My family was what my friends would say were very Mexican, meaning they are monolingual, Catholic, and the music in the house was Spanish.” The children however had a foot in both worlds. “At home we would speak Spanish and at school and in public, English. We were deeply rooted in being of Mexican descent,” he said of spending summers with relatives in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

“I used to feel shame about our difference. Now I love the culture,” he said. By the time he was ready to come out, he had developed a tiny network of support at school: His sister Isela was also there for him.

“It was non-traumatic, but very dramatic,” he said of the scene in the high school counseling office where his parents thought they’d come to discuss grades, while Isela translated. “Basically she had to bring them up to speed,” he said.

Isela was acquainted with a circle of gay men. “Her friends had modelled for me what a gay man could do and be,” he said.

Following in his sister’s footsteps to Berkeley where he graduated with degrees in political economy and public policy, he watched as his friends took work in finance. “When the crash of 2008 occurred, I had to rethink everything,” he said of our existing system and how communities of color and lower income workers are disproportionately impacted by economic vagaries.

“My parents worked in a factory and sent four kids to Berkeley and one to Columbia,” he said. “There’s a connection that they raised us in Orange County where there are well-funded public systems of support. It could’ve ended up very different for us but it comes down to luck,” he said. “They could’ve landed anywhere.”

In 2018 Garcia lost his sister Isela to cancer. He’s grateful to have had extra time with her as she outlived her diagnosis by four years. “She had great care because she had excellent medical coverage as a teacher and her union provided it,” he said. Three of his siblings have also established San Francisco lives.

“I know my story is atypical,” said Garcia, who does not take lightly his ability to work and find housing in The City when so many others have been pushed beyond city limits. He was living at 22nd and Valencia when fire destroyed the nearby Mission Market mall and living quarters above.

“To see it still empty is so disheartening. We’ve already lost about a quarter of our population,” he said of the 8,000 out of 40,000 households identified as Hispanic that have been disrupted in recent years. “I was just lucky. I owe it to my communities.” He cited the loving embrace he received from elders with Danza Azteca Xitlalli and his peers in the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club. His move to working for SFGMC at the National LGBTQ Center for the Arts echoes the organization’s own homegrown story: They moved from renting space in the historic Art Deco building at 170 Valencia to becoming its owners, a purchase made possible by a $5 million dollar gift from founding chorus member Terrence Chan, in agreement with the property’s previous owners, the Baha’i faith.

“Everything was really synchronistic,” said Garcia of the ownership milestone. The SFGMC’s permanent residence in the 23,000-square-foot space proposes a performance venue, conference rooms and education programs for local and visiting LGBTQ performing artists.

“Our community gave and lost so much to acquire the space and we are prepared to give back,” he said. “So many people made sacrifices and were sacrificed for us to be where we are now. This is truly meant to be community space. This is building is for everyone.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

IF YOU GO The Gay Men’s Chorus, Holigays Are Here

When: 7 :30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7

Where: Sydney Goldstein Theater, 275 Hayest St., S.F.

Tickets: $25-$110, cityboxoffice.com

Meet Shahid Buttar, Nancy Pelosi’s symbolic competition

The Stanford-educated lawyer’s campaign is a benchmark for progressive San Francisco

Meet the local artist painting The City’s first on-street mural

Public art installation coincides with the opening of downtown’s newest pedestrian plaza