Former California State Assemblyman, Tom Ammiano made an appearance on Zoom on Saturday May 9 to officially launch his memoir “Kiss My Gay Ass.” If the title seems a bit crass and over-the-top to the conservatives of the population it is because as Ammiano said, “I come from a place of activism.”
At age 78 Ammiano (and his friends) thought it was time to tell his story. “So, I just sat down at the kitchen table,” said Ammiano, and that his how this fresh and candid memoir got put together.
At the grass-roots neighborhood level, Ammiano built his career– serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and then moving on to State government. His appearances on stage as a comic, helped him in the political arena – believe it or not. A hostile yelling audience can be a baptism by fire.
Ammiano had been involved with San Francisco politics for years. But few are aware that his activism goes back even further. When the Vietnam War pulled America into a civil war conflict, Ammiano was among those who opposed the war. But he went over to Vietnam anyway and served as a teacher with a Quaker religious community.
Returning to San Francisco from his work in Vietnam he continued a career in teaching. It was while teaching that he recognized the need for speaking out against discrimination based upon the status of being gay. He was among the first to do so. This was what initially brought him into politics. And like many of that era, that spoke up and spoke out, he was criticized.
At the start of the gathering on Zoom, he mentioned that younger generations don’t realize, “it wasn’t easy, it was difficult!” A person back then had to be very brave to stand up to what was a very politically conservative San Francisco.
As he read from a chapter of his memoir, he talked about Harvey Milk – the first openly gay person on the SF Board of Supervisors. Ammiano described Milk as “a conduit for what people thought and needed.”
It is easy for people today to airbrush much of what happened in retrospect. It was a very turbulent time.
Ammiano talked and answered questions from those texting in via Zoom, Ammiano pointed out he was very aware that society then was changing. But that change took considerable effort.
Even though needed changes were occurring Ammiano noted that a very strong conservative backlash was present.
From the 1960’s thru to the 1970’s people were questioning things and the status quo. While attitudes, knowledge and laws on the books were being challenged and penalties were beginning to be demolished, the stigma of being gay was still in place.
For all its liberal social freedoms, as Ammiano noted, politically in the 1960’s and ‘70s there was a very strong conservative contingency.
San Francisco during the ’60s and 1970’s had an established society. Milk and others represented ‘outsiders’ perceived as those coming in changing things and stirring up trouble. This is where most of the social and political conflict was.
Ammiano in his candor noted that back then he was told. “Don’t be too gay or rock the boat.” This he alleged was said to him by Diane Feinstein who was back then on the SF Board of Supervisors.
“Harvey was very forward thinking,” said Ammiano. He saw things deeply, like class struggle not only for gays, for so many people – working people. Milk, like Ammiano and others in the political struggle then came from a working middle class background. “Harvey saw things” said Ammiano, (in the distance) like the dangers of real estate speculation, the conflicts with police power, political campaign spending, the sweeping away of the middle class… “the very things we are dealing with right now.”
Ammiano’s book, no doubt is timely! Still as he chatted and reminisced, It is clear to recognize the unique life this man has lived, the impact he made and continues to make.
Ammiano spoke briefly about former SF Mayor and CA State Assemblyman Willie Brown. Describing Brown as “progressive,” “smart” and one who “outclassed a lot of politicians.” Ammiano did not always agree with him. “It was intimidating standing up to Willie,” said Ammiano.
Ammiano did not see eye to eye with some of Mayor Brown’s (real estate) development plans for San Francisco. For as the first African-American mayor of San Francisco, he did leave his mark upon the City.
Ammiano briefly mentioned other political heavyweights during his six-year tenure in Sacramento, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom.
Ammiano believes that a mayor or any politician/statesmen has to think beyond their egos, of “brick and mortar.” Helping to create positive change in the lives of the people – all the people if possible, this is what Ammiano wants to do.
While he did not get to be mayor of San Francisco, his defeat in that election campaign of 1999, urged him to move on to a spot in the State Assembly in Sacramento in 2008. “Sacramento – the State Capitol on the surface is like Mayberry compared to San Francisco,” Ammiano said.
Which speaks of Sacramento’s conservative side, when advocating for important progressive legislation that will help many people if not all. That in and of itself serving in public office Ammiano, pointed out, gets frustrating.
For elected officials who speak progressive and then vote conservative that for Ammiano was very annoying. “Especially, when an assemblymen changes his (or her) vote at the last minute to claim credit,” said Ammiano (as a way to show that they are progressive – when they were or are actually not regarding a particular issue.)
Several at the virtual launch meeting simply logged/called in to show their support for Ammiano. Some called in to remember him from his comedy show days; others for his work in local and State politics. “It’s important that you get your stories out there,” said fellow state assembly member, Hector De La Torre.
“A digital and audio version will be made available in the near future,” said Ammiano. The book is now available on line through SF Bay Guardian – 48 Hills web site.