Former SF Supervisor and Harvey Milk acolyte Tom Ammiano, who later spent six years representing San Francisco in the state Assembly, recently published a memoir in which he told a story of shame and embarrassment at his New Jersey high school over 60 years ago. Ammiano said he had rightfully earned a varsity letter on the school's track team when he was 16, but it had been denied at the last minute for odd reasons that he chalked up to his being effeminate and different.
Ammiano, always one of the most assertive of SF's political figures, talked about the incident in an interview with KQED in December. The interview was in done promotion of the book, titled Kiss My Gay Ass — a phrase Ammiano was fond of using in his multiple disagreements with former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. (The New York Times reported on a not-so-hidden message Schwarzenegger once wrote into a veto of one of Ammiano's bills, in which the first letters of the sentences in the veto spelled out FUCK YOU.)
"It’s something that still hurts, even a hundred years later," Ammiano said in the interview, discussing how the Catholic school he attended in Montclair, NJ, Immaculate Conception High School, had wronged him back in 1958 — or at least one homophobic track coach had.
He said the experience "was humiliating," and he said, "I felt shame."
As the Times reports, a KQED listener, Stephen Saxon, decided to step in and try to right this wrong on Ammiano's behalf. In his own religion, Judaism, he says, "sticking up for people who are not like me is part of my responsibility," so he emailed the high school. He suggested they award they give Ammiano "his varsity letter in the interest of healing old wounds and paying respect to one of your alumni who has lived a good and positive life."
The school soon responded, and a couple of weeks ago Ammiano received a letter in the mail informing him that the varsity letter would be awarded to him 63 years late. A representative from the school had even done a little digging, contacting a surviving coach from that era, Ed Kirk, now in his 90s, who confirmed that Ammiano deserved the letter. And a former teammate and team captain said the same.
"They apologized and want to make up for it and award it to me now!" Ammiano wrote on Facebook. "I'm really touched by their words, and as an aside at almost 80 I'm glad this happened before I left this mortal coil, and plotz, a real Hail Mary."
The Times referred to Ammiano's political style as being "in-your-face," and this was perhaps something he learned from Milk, with whom he campaigned against the Briggs Initiative in the 1970s, a.k.a. Prop 6, which would have barred gay people from serving as schoolteachers. (Ammiano himself was a grade-school teacher at the time.)
A colleague in city politics, Peter Gallotta, who's currently a Vice Chair of the SF Democratic Party, says of the Times piece, "Tom has taken on bullies throughout his career and life. He’s continuously called out the bullshit. Without his voice, there would be more wrongs than rights. So what’s considered 'in your face' to straight people and the establishment, is called a regular day in the life of queer folks. Without speaking out, there would be no concession, no rights given, no power dynamic shifted, and no Varsity letter ultimately given."