Today I saw Gus Van Sant’s Milk, and while I’m embargoed from reviewing the film, something struck me in the movie’s second half that I think is fair game: we’ve come almost no distance from where we were when Harvey Milk was alive.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to a serious position in the United States, and he won his seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. Eleven months later he was shot dead, along with Mayor George Moscone, by a disgruntled former supervisor, Dan White. Van Sant’s film meanders throughout the first half but finds its sharp focus in the campaign that consumed Milk’s final days, when he stood against California Proposition 6, which would have forced the firing of all gay schoolteachers in the state – and anyone who supported them.
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Thirty years later California has another anti-gay Proposition on the ballot, and it seems like the only progress we’ve made is in the numbering, since this one is Prop 8. On the surface Prop 8 doesn’t seem as draconian as Prop 6, but it’s just as cruel and evil at its heart; Prop 8 would ban same-sex marriages in California, which had been ruled constitutional by the California Supreme Court.
Usually we go to see movies about civil rights struggles of the past and they feel like distant nagging voices to us: ‘Hey, black people used to have to sit at the back of the bus! They couldn’t use white people water fountains!’ There’s something safe about these stories, and we’re allowed to shake our head at the ghosts of bigots past or the pathetic, fringe clowns who make up the race hate establishment today. We shake our heads and feel better about ourselves because we’re so progressive and have come a long way, and we feel like we’ve done our part to keep these sorts of civil rights abuses from happening again because we saw this important movie about this important subject.
But the gay rights movement isn’t something from the past*. We’ve made some progress – there are more gay characters on our TV shows than ever before, for example – but it feels like we’re still lagging in so many ways. While it’s Dan White who killed Harvey Milk, if there’s a villain in Milk it’s Anita Bryant, the singer who became a strident, heartless anti-gay activist. She criss-crossed the country, attacking equal rights legislation wherever it sprung up, a one issue Hitler allied with the grotesque, hateful animals of the Moral Majority. And while Bryant fell out of favor and on hard times later in her life, it feels like her spirit is alive and well in the United States today.
Proposition 8 is just the latest in a long series of assaults on gay people, who are apparently the last group you can hate without worrying about too many repurcussions. The most amazing thing about the anti-gay marriage movement is how venomously stupid it is; nobody can give you a good reason why gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry, always falling back on some kind of ‘protecting traditional families’ crap. I’m not going to pull out the old ‘outlaw divorce if you’re so worried about families’ thing but simply ask: ‘How the fuck is this hurting families?’ Is gay marriage becoming compulsory? Is there a competition between gay marriage and straight marriage, and straight marriage is worried about losing out on all those closeted gays who have unhappy marriages just to remain hidden? I literally do not understand how gay marriage is in any way a threat to traditional marriage, since they seem to be appealing to two very different groups of people.
What a dumb argument to even be having in the 21st century. What a tragedy that there are still people who hate gays for no good reason three decades after the murder of Harvey Milk. How sad is it that there are still people who are actively trying to deny gay people the most basic rights and happinesses. How insane is it that attacks on gays for the simple crime of being gay continue to this day; here in California, on February 12 of this year, an openly gay fifteen year boy was shot dead in school for asking another boy to be his valentine. A 27 year old man was beaten to death in Washington DC a few weeks ago for being gay. Thirty years ago, Harvey Milk fought for the ideas that gay people should be allowed to be open about who they are and still keep their jobs and their lives. Thirty years later people are still fighting for these basic, obvious rights. Why have we progressed so little? Why does Milk have to be so relevant today?
*and to be fair, neither is the African-American civil rights movement.