LGBTQ Agenda: New podcast episode looks at late SF supe Harry Britt

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday May 17, 2022
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Harry Britt and Ellen R. Shaffer chained themselves to a fence outside the San Francisco Federal Building to protest inaction on AIDS on January 19, 1989. Photo: Rick Gerharter <br>
Harry Britt and Ellen R. Shaffer chained themselves to a fence outside the San Francisco Federal Building to protest inaction on AIDS on January 19, 1989. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Devlyn Camp, a genderqueer podcaster and — as it turns out — historian, talks about their work with a bubbly, contagious enthusiasm that comes across clearly on the phone even from 3,000 miles away. Calling Camp exuberant might still be an understatement. On the other hand, they have a lot to be excited about.

Camp, 30, has just released the latest installment in their ongoing podcast series, "Queer Serial", exploring this time the legacy of Harry Britt, San Francisco┬┤s lesser known but important successor to Harvey Milk following Milk's assassination in 1978. "Give 'Em Hell, Harry! Keeping Harvey Milk's Dream Alive" examines the life of a man, it turns out, that most people don't know that much about. Britt died in 2020 at the age of 82.

"Harry Britt took on the job as the only openly gay elected official in the country during some of the most violent years for American queer communities," Queer Serial's promo materials for the series states. "He was a powerful and effective gay leader, even as his district became the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, and all while battling his own inner demons, compulsions, and confusion about his gender."

In 2009, San Francisco historian Will Roscoe recorded 20 hours of interviews with Britt with the idea that, eventually, the recordings would be fodder for a book. Besides talking about his relationship with Milk, and why Milk, before he was killed, suggested Britt as his successor, Roscoe delved into a great deal of his personal history and struggles. What is particularly significant about Roscoe's work is that, as Camp pointed out, he was present for much of what plays out in the serial.

But, as much of what Britt revealed in those interviews was deeply personal, Roscoe, 67, didn't release any of it until after reaching out to Camp. And the format, those long-ranging interviews that often lasted a couple of hours, really didn't lend themselves to many other formats, said Roscoe. More than anything, however, it was the profoundly personal, revelatory nature of the material that made it almost impossible to work with while Britt was still alive.

"I felt like if I tried to do something while he was alive he would constrain me too much," said Roscoe in a phone interview. "At first, as we did it, I said let's do an oral history and get this into an archive."

Roscoe had listened to Camp's podcasts about the late Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay and, impressed with their work, proposed a program based on his recordings of Britt. It didn't take much convincing.

"It took [Devlyn] a minute, a heartbeat, to say yes," said Roscoe.

Up until that point, Camp considered "Queer Serial" to be finished — they were really only interested in focusing on pre-Stonewall history, after all. As they put the new podcasts together, Roscoe did "much of the meat of the research," Camp said, right down to the number of police cars burned out during the White Night riots in 1979 (16, by the way), after Dan White, who assassinated Milk and then-mayor George Moscone, was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. Camp focused on more of the archival work.

The first episode dropped May 7; the six remaining episodes will be released through the end of Pride Month in June.

Podcasting wasn't exactly where Camp had expected to focus their work, but after having little luck breaking into TV in Los Angeles, and learning about the Mattachine Society, the first organization to rise to prominence during the Homophile movement beginning in 1950, something clicked.

"I loved serialized storytelling," Camp said, bringing up their love of gossipy television shows like "Desperate Housewives." "Like every other gay person," Camp said they started out in theater, but "when I discovered the Mattachine Society, I fell in that rabbit hole."

Podcasting, they realized, besides being an ideal way to tell the Mattachine story, was a potential backdoor entry into television and it also offered something that television doesn't. Podcasting is, essentially, a radio show and "nobody could tell me this is too gay for TV," Camp said.

"I love storytelling," said Camp. "I love making sure queer stories get told. That was my happy little blend."

Camp has been working on podcasts since 2016 and, numerous episodes later, it has begun to open doors that might not have been possible had they tried to stay in L.A. Besides their podcasting, Camp is now directing a documentary about Randy Wicker, the now-84-year-old activist who got his start in the Mattachine Society in 1958 and eventually went on to work and live with the late activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. A radical almost from the very beginning, Wicker was involved in, or responsible for, many firsts in the early years of the LGBTQ rights movement including the picketing of a military induction center in New York City in 1964 because it had released personal information about a gay male draftee, and taking part in what is believed to be the first radio interview of LGBTQ people on WBAI in New York in 1962.

It was Camp┬┤s connection with Wicker, who now lives in Plainfield, New Jersey, that prompted the Evansville, Indiana native to relocate to New York City last year.

"I interviewed him for 'Queer Serial' because he was a character in the story," Camp said. Wicker advertised the Mattachine meetings so well, for example, he managed to get the group kicked out of its new New York City offices. But Camp admires Wicker, too, for his growth.

"He was very transphobic at the beginning," Camp observed. "You can watch him change and grow and become a better activist and become a loving father of this whole queer family." Bringing trans activists Johnson and Rivera into his Hoboken home, they built a life together. As the lone surviving member of that family, Wicker is sharing the stories he's written about them with Camp.

"Older queer folks have a ton of insight they're ready to share with you if you ready to ask them," Camp said. "I don't think anyone has told me no when I wanted to interview them. They've got stories to tell. They want to learn as much from me as I want to learn from them."

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact Eric Burkett at e.burkett@ebar.com

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