Dear Ms. Gearhart,
You have no idea who I am, but you might as well know I’m one of those people who have been digging around in your papers at the University of Oregon. I’m sorry for reading so much of your personal correspondence, but it’s so interesting. One thing I kept wondering about whenever I read your fan mail (yes, I went through that stuff, too – sorry) was how you received/interpreted those letters. There was an outpouring of support for the “Times of Harvey Milk”, and for your role in it (and for good reason!), but I was curious how you felt about the familiarity with which some fans wrote to you.
Obviously, many of the letters were heartwarming and sweet, and there were a fair number of letters that seem to be from friends you knew before your movie-related fame. But what about the people who wrote to you as if they knew you personally? I recall reading one letter that sounded like it came from an old friend who hadn’t seen you in a few years… it was only after reading the paper attached to it addressed to SFSU and asking the first recipient there to find a way to get it to you that I realized the fan didn’t even know you well enough to have your mailing address! Did you welcome this kind of fandom? What was it like knowing that the effect of your words was so profound that people would write a lengthy letter and send it off to no one in particular in the blind hope that it would find you? It seems at once touching and impertinent, but I wonder what you thought about it at the time. Has your view changed at all since then?
Speaking of changes over time, I read that you describe yourself as “a recovering political activist”. What is it you find yourself needing recovery from the most? Is there anything you miss about the political activist life(style)? If you could go back and do it all again… would you? What would you do differently? If there was one thing you’d want future generations to remember about you, and about what you’ve done here, what would it be? I ask because I remember vividly a fan letter from a young man thanking you for your role in the Milk documentary (speaking of which, did you see the newest movie about him, and if so what did you think of it?), and your effect on his life. I remember it not only for the content, but for the small note you made in the corner: “answered 12/26/84”. I can only imagine what you wrote (do you remember?), but I’m sure it was something befitting the beauty and heart of the original letter. It made me wonder which you cherish the most: the effects you had in individual peoples’ lives or the amazing things you accomplished in the “bigger picture” (I know they go hand in hand, but I still think it’s an interesting question).
I’m really not sure how to end this letter (it’s something I’ve always struggled with, along with lengthy asides in ubiquitous parentheses), except to say thank you. For the great reads, for your role in the world we live in today, for the impact on individual hearts and minds, and for the journey you and your generation set us upon. And I’m sorry if my letter comes off as unqualifiedly familiar as the ones to which I referred earlier.
Sincerest best wishes in all regards.
Muhammad M. Khalifa