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Our Town: Milk and Chicago's Frank Robinson

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There's a scene in Gus Van Sant's new film Milk in which San Francisco gay-rights leader Harvey Milk and his followers formulate a response to Anita Bryant's antigay "Save Our Children" crusade. Aside from the middle-aged Milk, who's played by Sean Penn, the group consists mostly of young men in their 20s and early 30s, so it's hard to miss the grizzled old guy wearing the Greek sailor's cap and sweater emblazoned with the slogan anita the hun. Though he doesn't have any dialogue, he adds gravity and authenticity to the scene. His name is Frank Robinson, and he's representing himself.

Robinson, a Chicago native, was Milk's speechwriter and one of his closest advisers. A writing job took him to San Francisco in 1973, just as Milk, a New York transplant with a Castro Street camera shop, was gearing up for his second bid for city supervisor. "I used to walk down to the Castro every morning for breakfast and pass the camera store," Robinson recalls. "One day I fell into conversation with Harvey, and it came up that I was a writer. He said, 'Hey, why don't you be my speechwriter? It'll be a hoot. We'll stir some shit.' I thought, Jesus Christ, back in Chicago we couldn't have elected an openly gay dogcatcher. I figured it would be a lot of fun and it would be a continuation of my gay lib activity from Chicago—and I might meet somebody."

In Chicago Robinson was a behind-the-scenes player in the gay liberation movement that arose in the wake of New York's Stonewall riots. When I met him in 1971 he was a gruff but friendly fellow with a hearty laugh, and even then his trademark was a Greek sailor's cap. Most of us in gay lib were college students, but Robinson, a veteran of both World War II and Korea, was in his mid-40s and still in the closet to his family and at work. He was writing the Playboy Advisor column at the time, and I got a huge kick out of knowing that Hugh Hefner's young, horny, straight urban male audience was getting its sex and lifestyle advice from a middle-aged closet queen.

In fact, writing for Playboy capped Robinson's long career editing and writing for men's magazines such as Gallery, Cavalier, and Rogue, where the editorial staff also included Lenny Bruce. "I never actually wrote the answers to the sex questions," Robinson now says of his stint as the Playboy Advisor. "They were written by Masters and Johnson. I just put them into English."

Robinson's first passion as a writer (and collector) is science fiction, fantasy, and adventure. He published his first short story in Astounding Science Fiction in 1950. Six years later, while pursuing a master's in journalism at Northwestern, he wrote his first novel, The Power, about a man with telekinetic powers, which producer George Pal later turned into a movie starring George Hamilton. His nonfiction books include Science Fiction of the 20th Century, a lavishly illustrated coffee-table tome, and Pulp Culture: The Art of Fiction Magazines, a compilation of cover illustrations for such publications as Weird Tales, The Shadow, and Popular Detective.

When Chicago Gay Liberation mounted street protests against police entrapment and laws banning same-sex dancing in bars, Robinson couldn't join in. Instead he took it upon himself to produce free papers publicizing Chicago's fledgling Pride parade in the summers of 1971 and '72. In one article Robinson profiled the Godzilla Rainbow Troupe, an off-Loop theater whose director, Gary Tucker—a numerology freak who went by the name Eleven—staged "genderfuck" epics like Whores of Babylon and Turds in Hell. Another piece paid homage to "the birds of Sparrows"—Sparrows being a drag bar near the corner of Foster and Sheridan that featured well-known female impersonators including Wanda Lust and Artesia Wells. "To my regret, I had always had a certain amount of contempt for drag queens," Robinson says. But he came to realize that they had been at the forefront of the anti-police resistance at Stonewall. "Writing that article, I had my own epiphany. They are our heroes."

Robinson relocated to San Francisco at the invitation of Tom Scortia, a fellow writer who wanted to team up for a novel about a blaze in a skyscraper. "Tom says, 'It's presold to Doubleday for $20,000.' So I took a year's leave of absence from Playboy and headed west—but I never went back." The two lived off their advance (which turned out to be less than Scortia had claimed) and modeled their thriller on Arthur Hailey's best seller Airport. "I deconstructed that book chapter by chapter, scene by scene," says Robinson. The result was The Glass Inferno, which—combined with Richard Martin Stern's The Tower—came to the screen as The Towering Inferno, the follow-up by producer-director Irwin "Master of Disaster" Allen to The Poseidon Adventure. Notes Robinson: "He wanted to follow water with fire." The blockbuster's success gave Robinson the financial wherewithal to stay in San Francisco, where he volunteered for Milk in the run-up to his historic 1977 election to the board of supervisors.

Robinson describes his speechwriting work for Milk as a supporting role: "You talk to him about what he wants to say, then you sit down and write it. Harvey would go through the text with an actor's eye—using repetition, breaking up long lines into shorter phrases. The strength of his speeches was not alone the words I wrote for him. Harvey spoke from the heart, and that's what reached people."

Among Robinson's credits is the famous "hope speech," affirming Milk's theme that he was not just a politician but the leader of a movement for change. Milk gave a version of the speech, honed over his brief political career, when declaring his 1977 candidacy just weeks after the brutal murder of a gay man whose assailant screamed "Faggot! Faggot! Faggot!" as he stabbed him to death. "It's not my election I want, it's yours," Milk proclaimed. "It will mean that a green light is lit that says to all who feel lost and disenfranchised that you can now go forward. It means hope and we—no, you and you and you and, yes, you—you've got to give them hope."

In another moving piece of oratory, written for San Francisco's 1978 Gay Freedom Day parade, Milk declared: "We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets.... We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions.... I am tired of the conspiracy of silence." In Milk Sean Penn delivers the speech almost verbatim, standing before hundreds of thousands of people in front of City Hall—just as Milk did 30 years ago. Robinson's there, too, standing in the crowd—just as he was 30 years ago. "When I heard Sean say those words that I had helped write, I was so proud," Robinson says.

Though he penned Milk's coming-out message, Robinson himself remained closeted. "You know, it's one thing to be out in the Castro, where you could go for a week without ever meeting a straight person," he says. "But I was never out to the city at large. In Hollywood people could assume whatever they wanted, but it was never mentioned. In most of the stuff I've written there are gay characters or gay subplots—the only way I could express it was through my fiction."

In a tape recording made shortly before his death—the same one in which he demanded, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door"—Milk named Robinson as one of four possible political successors. After he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in 1978, acting mayor Dianne Feinstein interviewed Robinson as a potential replacement for Milk on the board. "I told her, 'I'm a writer, I really don't have the time,'" Robinson recalls. "She says, 'It's just a part-time job.' I said, 'I'm not a politician, I don't have a following.' She says, 'Just follow my lead.' Left unsaid was the fact that Harvey's seat was identified as being a 'gay seat'—and I was still in the closet." Afterward, Robinson formally withdrew his name. "I wrote her a letter," he says. "You don't say no to Dianne's face—unless you're Harvey Milk."

Robinson became involved with Milk after Penn, Van Sant, and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black asked to interview him for background. "At some point Van Sant asks if I want to be in the movie. I said, 'I can't act. The last time I tried acting I was in my eighth-grade play and forgot every line!' He said, 'Don't worry, you'll only have one word.' I said, 'Oh well, I guess I can manage that.'" The word was "dog shit," a reference to Milk's crusade to make dog owners clean up after their pets. It was a safe, cute issue—a first step toward more controversial matters.

But on the set Van Sant encouraged Robinson to contribute more. For one scene, in which Milk urges his friends to come out of the closet, Robinson was asked to improvise some dialogue. "So I say, 'You want me to tell my brothers that I'm a fucking faggot?'" Robinson, in fact, never came out to his parents or siblings, all of whom are now dead. "Van Sant comes over to me and says, 'No, Frank, it's an affirmative, not a question. Let's try it again.' So the camera starts rolling and this time I say, 'I'll tell my brothers that I'm a fucking faggot!' And I began to shake. I was channeling myself 60 years ago, at the age of 22—all that self-hate. I suddenly realized I was saying good-bye to all that baggage."

The moment ended up on the cutting-room floor, but it could show up as bonus footage on the DVD. At 82, Frank Robinson is finally coming out to the world—just as Harvey Milk wanted.v

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