Two Men and a Myth

By Mark Thompson

Originally published on Advocate.com October 22 2008 12:00 AM ET

I knew David B. Goodstein and Harvey Milk pretty well. I met Harvey in 1973, not long after he opened his little camera shop on Castro Street. He was charming, smart, and wildly ambitious, and I liked him at once. Just about everybody did. An uppity New Yorker, Harvey was part of the mass immigration of gay people to San Francisco at that time, a growing trend that would upset tidy apple carts all over town.

I met David two years later when he hired me to work for The Advocate right after I graduated from San Francisco State University. I was 23 years old, and David had just purchased the magazine from the original owner, Dick Michaels. He too was charming, smart, and wildly ambitious, and I liked him too. But the two men were destined to clash.

David had a mansion in the gated community of Hillsborough. He collected art and expensive show horses. Harvey had to buy a used suit to campaign in, wasn’t always sure about how he would pay the rent, and enjoyed kinky sex. In other words, there were in different worlds. What both men shared, however, aside from a robust sense of humor, was a need to contribute to the gay community.

San Francisco was too small a town for both of them. (This is the West, after all.) Often called a fishing village with an opera house, San Francisco is seven miles square -- a tiny municipality with a lot of big egos. Both Harvey and David stepped onto a stage already filled with seasoned players. The city’s gay community was well entrenched by the ’70s, ruled by the Tavern Guild (a coalition of bar owners) and groups like the Pride Foundation, which ran a center for social services and the arts at 330 Grove St. There were plenty of toes to step on. Whether in sneakers or wing tips, both men were seen as interlopers.

But where Harvey had oodles of charisma, David just had buckets of cash. The gay kids on the streets who wanted a more open and honest society -- gay and otherwise -- felt safer with the former. Harvey was our hero, a working-class star who became a martyr and then a myth. There is no way David could compete with that. An investment banker (in nature and practice), David saw progress in the gay movement best served by steady and sure gains. For Harvey, politics was theater -- the splashier the show the better. Yet I saw David’s opposition to Harvey not as a Machiavellian maneuver but as something based more on personal style than substance.

Both men had the same lofty goal: to help gay people everywhere find decent lives once they came out of the closet. Had Harvey lived, he would have undoubtedly worked toward that end by becoming the city’s first gay mayor and then a state senator. David demonstrated his conviction (until his death from cancer in 1985) through the Advocate Experience, a successful gay self-empowerment program he founded in 1978, the year Harvey was shot.

Who knows whether both men would have continued to bump into one another had they lived? David mellowed a lot as he aged. And Harvey, had he lived longer, surely would have been seasoned by a scandal or two. Like the one just beginning to brew before his murder: Few knew that Harvey Milk was under investigation by the FBI for misappropriation of public funds.

It seems that as a city supervisor, Harvey and an aide had redirected $375,000 in grant money, earmarked for the nonprofit Pride Foundation, toward his own recently created organization, San Francisco Gay Community Corp. Pride needed the money to expand and relocate from 330 Grove, a city building targeted to make way for a parking garage. (It would ultimately take nearly 24 years before a new community center opened its doors.) But Harvey wanted to be top dog, and Mayor George Moscone backed his ambitions in exchange for Harvey’s support in the upcoming mayoral election. Supervisor Dan White -- an open backer of the Pride Foundation -- considered Harvey a crook because of his internecine double-dealing.

When White resigned from his job, then just as abruptly asked for it back, Harvey led the chorus in the mayor’s office to deny the request. Nothing got sorted out, of course, because in a matter of days White would murder both men. Maybe it was a parking garage that ultimately did Harvey in. History is full of sidetracks and surprises like that. One thing I can fairly say for certain is that had they both lived, David Goodstein and Harvey Milk would be friends today. Politics -- and the passage of time -- makes strange bedfellows. Each a visionary in his way, Harvey and David weren’t the complete odd couple Milk makes them out to be.