Harry Breaux and I decide to meet at Twin Peaks Tavern, on the corner of Market and Castro Streets. From inside, you can look out and see Harvey Milk Plaza and the huge rainbow Pride flag. The fact that you can view these testaments to LGBTQ history from inside Twin Peaks is what makes it a landmark: It was the first gay bar in the country to feature full-length glass windows, allowing people on both sides of the pane to see each other and recognize their shared humanity, to stand in clarity and brightness, rather than hide in darkness and shame.
Harry and I first met as subjects of Last Men Standing, a 2016 documentary by Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin that explores the unique challenges faced by long-term HIV survivors like us. Harry, a native of Louisiana and a self-described hippie, landed in SF in the early ’70s and became heavily involved in the gay revolution, while I moved here from Chicago in the ’90s after being told that
I had—if lucky—a few more years to live.
This is our conversation.
Have you ever been just an observer for Pride?
Oh, yeah. For many years, I would watch some of the parade but then did other things after—like go to a party or just go to the Civic Center.
The Civic Center was fun, but the crowd there watches the whole parade. It’s so fucking long.
I think it used to have a much bigger draw for me because it was fun. But now it’s not so much a gay event as a commercial gay event.
I remember the Supreme Court decision [legalizing same-sex marriage], in 2015: Two days later, I found myself having this conversation with this straight guy, about my mixed feelings about what’s going on with this [other] guy. That’s a conversation I just never could have imagined. That level of acceptance blew my mind. I was always terrified before.
Do you know where using the word pride first started?
In ’66, in L.A., 27-year-old Steve Ginsburg had started a gay group called PRIDE, which stood for Personal Rights in Defense and Education. After a dozen policemen burst into the Black Cat, a Silver Lake gay bar, swinging billy clubs at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1967, PRIDE organized a protest with hundreds of supporters.
That’s fucking amazing. I never heard that—that Pride was an acronym. What changes have you observed in SF through the years?
First off, you didn’t have companies and churches coming out and supporting gay causes. I mean, it was still illegal. Think about it. They could fire you for being a homosexual probably until 1979 or something.
Did you ever live in New York?
No, I visited. I ended up dancing at—not Jolene’s, but some woman’s name; I forget. But I was in the proximity of Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson and Chevy Chase. They were there that night. I also went to the Continental Baths.
Did you see Bette Midler at the Baths?
I think I did. But I didn’t know her then; she was just starting. Nobody knew her. But it was so funny: You had people—gay men in towels taking a break from fucking and sucking—coming into this little restaurant area. So bizarre.
Over the years, how has the San Francisco parade grown?
During the ’70s, it was in the range of 50,000 people. Then, in the ’80s, it started kind of kicking up. Then, in the ’90s, it got up to a million. And the largest one we had was in 2015, and it was 1.8 million. That was the year we walked in the parade.
I just remember how dramatic the difference was between observing and walking in it.
Well, that’s how I got famous with my Frank N. Furter thing. I’d done Frank N. Furter in 1980. I would go and march in the costume with the group. And then, by the end of the ’80s, I had enough of fucking AIDS. I didn’t want to hear the word anymore. I thought, Well, for this Pride parade in ’90, I’m going to put on that outfit and just walk. I don’t give a shit about being with a group.
Did you have an issue with the AIDS label?
I think, in those days, what I thought was, HIV didn’t show, but AIDS would. So, as long as I could be a person with HIV, that was kind of cool—not cool, but it was like it was okay. I could live with that. But being a person with AIDS meant that somehow everybody would see I had an A on my forehead.
When did HIV and AIDS awareness come into the picture at the Pride celebration?
Parades in the ’80s had its contingent of people with AIDS. There were people in wheelchairs. We knew people were dying. And then, in the mid-’90s, Pride turned into forgetting about AIDS. The commercial booths flourished because they didn’t want to talk about AIDS; they wanted to talk about how fabulous it was to be gay again. What I’m concerned about now is that the people who have it are surviving get the attention they deserve.