Documenting a Queer Johnny Appleseed

Hank Wilson was a sort of Johnny Appleseed of queer San Francisco. Everywhere he went, new organizations sprouted. Many of these organizations form the institutional backbone of today’s LGBTQ community in the city and beyond.
Hank was an extremely modest man who avoided the spotlight, so his story is largely unknown. That’s why I’m working with cinematographer Leo Herrera and the GLBT Historical Society to make a documentary about him, “Thanks to Hank.” Fortunately, the Historical Society’s archives hold not only Hank’s personal papers, but also organizational records, photos, ephemera, and audio and video recordings reflecting his work and the times in which he lived.
To give you an idea of Hank’s impact, here are just a couple of the gay groups he helped found: the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club (1976), now the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and the Gay Film Festival (1977), now the Frameline International LGBTQ Film Festival. Hank also helped organize some of the first community responses to the AIDS crisis, including the AIDS Memorial Candlelight March (1983), now the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, sponsored by 1,200 organizations in 115 countries.
Incredibly, Hank did all this in his free time. His main work was managing the Ambassador Hotel, a 150-room residency hotel in the Tenderloin where he pioneered a harm-reduction approach to social services. During the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, thousands of people with HIV found housing and hospice care at the Ambassador.

The GLBT Historical Society archives are providing crucial materials for telling these stories — and what’s more, the society is serving as fiscal sponsor for the documentary. For information on how to support the project, visit the “Thanks to Hank” page on my website.

Bob Ostertag is a composer, writer and filmmaker who lives in San Francisco. He holds the post of professor of cinema and digital media at the University of California, Davis.