Unlocked legacy: Jim Van Buskirk reveals family history

  • by Patrick Hoctel
  • Tuesday August 30, 2022
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Georgette Simon Burns, whose grandson, scholar Jim Van Buskirk (right), discovered forgotten parts of her life.
Georgette Simon Burns, whose grandson, scholar Jim Van Buskirk (right), discovered forgotten parts of her life.

Writer and activist Jim Van Buskirk is that rare bird, a native Californian, born in Los Angeles, who has called San Francisco home for the past 50 years. He has lived on Potrero Hill since 1985 and has been the partner of theatre director and playwright Allen Sawyer for well over 20 years.

Turning 70 at the end of August, Jim confesses that "miraculously, I feel like my life is getting better, richer, more fulfilling. I'm just happy sitting in my garden or lying in my hammock reading a book. My advice to people? Carpe diem. Seize the day. Be here now. Prioritize. If you're not satisfied, then shift. Now I do what I want. I used to be so afraid. 'What if they don't like me?' Now, who cares?"

Van Buskirk has always been drawn to Jewish culture and holds a particular affinity for its people and community, which leads to his current project, steeped in family history.

On a recent visit with his late mother, who was dying, she decided to reveal to him that his family on the maternal side was Jewish. He never knew why she waited so long to tell him, but as he put it, "My body understood something my consciousness didn't. Suddenly, all the pieces began to fit together in different ways. It was the greatest gift she could have given me, even if she didn't know it."

Before he left, his mother asked if he wanted to see his grandmother's suitcase, which had been stored in the attic. Jim's grandmother, Georgette Simon Burns, had been a well-known soprano and recording artist, who had performed opera and operetta throughout France and in London in the 1920s and '30s.

In her suitcase, she had left behind a treasure trove of family history; photos and documents about her career and the family's Jewish heritage. Like all good writers, Jim took this material and turned it into something original, in this case a presentation called "Unpacking My Grandmother's Suitcase," which he has recently presented at various venues.

Van Buskirk next presents his story at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Thursday, September 8.

Books shelved
During Jim's long and prolific career, he has written for the Bay Area Reporter, the San Francisco Sentinel and Final Exit Network (FEN) on film, the arts, cabaret, books, travel, death and dying, and queer history. He came to public attention in the mid-90's as the co-author (with Susan Stryker) of "Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area," recognized as the groundbreaking work on the origin and evolution of LGBT culture in the City by the Bay and its environs. Jim credits this book with, in a sense, putting him 'on the map.'

"Personally, this was a great project for me. Being able to say I had a book changed how I felt about myself and how others regarded me. Having a book title after your name gives you a certain credibility."

Later, Jim went on to co-edit "Celluloid San Francisco: The Film Lover's Guide to Bay Area Movie Locations" with Will Shank and "Love, Castro Street: Reflections of San Francisco" with mystery novelist Katherine V. Forrest, in which well-known LGBT writers reveal why they love Castro Street in essays and stories.

Starting back in 1992, Jim was working behind the scenes on developing an LGBT collection for the James Hormel Center at the new San Francisco Public Library. The JHC's opening was timed to coincide with the SFPL's in 1996. Jim was the first Project Manager of the JHC and ascribes this to being "at the right place at the right time."

He served in that position for 15 years until 2007 and argues that the JHC was so important because it was "the first acknowledgement of LGBT history and culture in a public library that was a central part of the building itself." He recalls that "we had a guestbook and people were in tears. They finally felt seen, validated by a public institution."

Library art
One of the main challenges Jim faced during his tenure was the vandalism of hundreds of books in the collection. The culprit was eventually caught, but instead of simply removing the books, the library, in an inspired turn, gave them to artists, who then created fresh works from them. This culminated in the 2002 exhibition, "Reversing Vandalism," which garnered wide acclaim and also forged relationships between the artists who had their works defaced and those who had given those same works new life.

In 2007, as Jim's time at JHC was ending, he co-edited with Jim Tushinski an anthology of LGBT writers on,"Identity Envy: Wanting to be Who We're Not." This book of essays explored "the connections" [LGBT people] have to "religions, races, ethnicities, classes, families of origin and genders" not their own. Jim's essay, "At the Museum of Jewish Heritage," delved into how he himself had always been drawn to Jewish culture and his particular affinity for its people and community. This was before his mother's revelation.

Death and Dying
A lot of Jim's current projects involve death and dying. For over five years, he has been co-hosting a Death Café at the Potrero Branch Library on 20th Street (www.DeathCafe.com). Since COVID, the cafés have gone virtual, which has allowed people from all over the world to participate. These discussion groups are facilitated but with no set agenda and provide an opportunity to explore any and all aspects of this often charged and contentious topic in a safe space.

Additionally, Jim has been volunteering for over three years with Final Exit Network as a regional coordinator. For 25-plus years, FEN has been a resource for those wishing to hasten their own death by supplying them with the information, education and support necessary to make the choices right for them. Jim's area includes Texas, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. He returns the calls of people from those states who have left a message with FEN, answers their questions and offers whatever help/options he can.

By his own estimate, 85% of these calls are onetime conversations, and the other 15% "develop from there." Jim characterizes the whole experience as "so inspiring. I'm interacting with people I would have never otherwise met. Some friends say, 'Oh, I could never do what you do.' I don't think I could never not do this."

Jim favors a realistic, albeit thoughtful, approach to death and dying: "Denial and magical thinking won't wish it [dying] away, acknowledging its inevitability will free us to embrace life to its fullest. As I witness friends, and parents of friends, I see that there are lots of ways to move toward our final destination, none right or wrong, but like many things, more meaningful if executed mindfully."

This same mindfulness is indicative of the way Jim approaches his life, his work and his relationships. Almost always upbeat and optimistic, he manages to maintain an open, inquisitive outlook about whatever crosses his path.

Jim Van Buskirk presents "Unpacking My Grandmother's Suitcase" at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Thursday, September 8, 1pm. 3200 California St. (415) 292-1200. www.jccsf.org

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