'Gay' and illegal: A winning combination
California, What's the Matter withGeneral
© Jack Cashill
The Navy had taught Steven Nary a good deal in the six months he had been in the service. It had even taught about some of the dangers he would face in the Bay Area, like violent crime and venereal disease and earthquakes.
The Navy had taught him nothing, however, about the often cruel and indifferent forces that comprise California’s cultural tectonics. No one knew enough to teach him.
In many ways the state’s culture mimics its geology, including the omnipresent fear of a “big one.” During the course of its brief human history, cultural island after island has rammed up and into the state.
In May 1979, San Francisco had experienced its first significant rumble from the shifting of the gay plate. Half a year earlier, Dan White, a troubled young former police officer, abruptly resigned from the city’s Board of Supervisors. On the advice of Harvey Milk, the city’s first gay councilman, Mayor George Moscone refused to reinstate White when he petitioned to get back on. White snapped. He shot and killed them both and promptly turned himself in.
The murder cases went to trial the following May. The White team had no defense to speak of. They just lined up a swarm of psychotherapists and hoped that something someone conjured up would stick.
One famously argued that White had eaten too much junk food—Twinkies in particular—and this caused homicidal surges in his blood sugar. On May 21, 1979, the jury came back with its verdict: voluntary manslaughter on both counts. White would likely be out of jail in less than five years.
After the verdict, an anti-death penalty coalition organized a protest march. It quickly went south on them. How far south? How about thousands of angry gay men marching down Market Street chanting “Kill Dan White” south.
When the marchers reached City Hall, their behavior shocked San Francisco. They broke windows, burned police cars, and injured 61 cops. To be sure, the video of the “White Night Riot”—a cold-blooded pun on the recent Jonestown carnage--wasn’t about to make the anti-death penalty highlight reel.
That night, however, gays finally did establish themselves as a serious force in the area’s cultural tectonics. They had the power to influence, to elect, and now to intimidate. From that time forward, in any case of controversy involving a gay, no judge or jury in the city could fully forget the White Night Riot especially if that gay were also a prominent ethnic leader like, say, Latino activist Juan Pifarre.
Pifarre had come to San Francisco from Argentina in 1968 as a 26 year-old on a student visa, and he never looked back. According to probate records, Pifarre married a female San Francisco activist “purely out of convenience.” The sham marriage allowed Pifarre readmission to the United States after a return trip to Argentina and eventually legal residence. The couple stayed technically married so that the woman “could receive health care benefits” through Pifarre’s employers.
In February 1987, the 45 year-old Pifarre, then San Jose’s affirmative action officer, acted a bit too affirmatively in the presence of an undercover officer in the restroom of San Jose’s Bernal Park and was promptly arrested.
Being both Latino and politically wired, Pifarre never feared for his job. According to the San Jose Mercury News, he took several days sick leave to recover from his ordeal, requested a job reassignment, and remained on the payroll. In 1996, Pifarre was still working for the City of San Jose, now as a senior analyst in its Finance Department.
By this time Pifarre had established himself as something of a mover and shaker in San Francisco politics. As publisher of Horizontes, a Spanish language paper that he launched a decade earlier, Pifarre had real presence in the Latino community and serious pull at City Hall.
According to San Francisco Supervisor Susan Leal, Pifarre frequently took his beefs about Latinos in general and the Mission District in particular to the supervisors. ''He often held very strong opinions,” said Leal in obvious understatement.
In the Bay Area, few citizens seemed as royally entitled as Pifarre. Somehow he managed to juggle his publishing and protesting with an aggressive social life, a cocaine jones, and that full time job in San Jose, a tough fifty-mile slog south of his home in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill.
According to a spokesperson for the city of San Jose, he was considered, ''a very valuable employee.'' According to probate documents, Pifarre was the sole proprietor of a newspaper “worth a considerable amount money” (sic) and into which he had poured “ten years of his time, sweat, money and knowledge.” Busy guy.
San Francisco had witnessed its first major tectonic clash on the Hispanic just months before Nary and Pifarre met. In early 1995, activists prodded their plate forward when they urged the Board of Supervisors to name one of the city’s streets in honor of the late farm organizer Cesar Chavez.
It was not as if San Francisco had ignored its brief Spanish heritage. Indeed, the area has almost as many streets named after Mexicans as Mexico City.
For the young and restless, however, history does not count. "Most of the Spanish names in the city are of saints or conquistadors,” said San Francisco State administrator, Ed Apodaca. “It's hard for the kids to relate to that. Cesar Chavez was a real-life, flesh and blood hero." In contemporary California, “hero” is code word for a guy on our side of the political fence.
Had the activists chosen to rename Peralta Street or Pacheco or just about any street other than Castro Street—they knew better than to mess with Castro—the move would have met with negligible resistance. But they didn’t. They went after the three-mile long “Army Street.” Said activist Eva Royale, “It’s fitting that a military name be replaced by a name dedicated to peace.”
Always eager to make a show of its peacenik airs and ethnic enlightenment, the Board of Supervisors blew off the protests of the affected business people and voted 11-0 to approve the change.
Unexpectedly, at least for San Francisco, the citizens fought back. Certainly, the businesses on Army Street had economic reasons to resist the change, but they alone did not have nearly the clout to do what happened next.
"San Franciscans to Save Army Street" recruited 18,000 of their fellow citizens to sign a petition—twice the needed number—and forced an election to undo the name change. The campaign that was followed was brutal.
Among those leading the charge for the name change was Juan Pifarre. Although Caucasian, as were many of his fellow protestors in the Army Street campaign, Pifarre and chums had no problem charging the opposition with bigotry and racism, charges that cut deeply in this almost comically race conscious region.
The strategy paid off. The Chavez name change held. But in a city where George Bush would only get 15% of the vote, the pro-Army Street forces had gotten 45%. "It would be a terrible embarrassment to the city, and to the name of Cesar Chavez if it had gone the other way," said Apodaca. But the 45% was embarrassment enough.
The city’s Latino activists had prevailed, but they were not pacified, and the city’s nabobs knew it. A largely unseen and seemingly dormant plate had rumbled into the tectonic mix, and Steven Nary was about to get caught in the crunch.
Cashill’s newest book, What’s the Matter with California, is available in bookstores - or you can order your autographed copy online .
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