by Lauren Dockett
Six days before the November 2008 elections, the movie Milk premiered to a celebratory crowd at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. The film’s nationwide release would be weeks later, after the passage of Proposition 8 tacked a gay marriage ban onto California’s constitution. In contrast to the earlier cheers at the Castro, there was poignancy for those who saw the biopic in the election’s aftermath. Audience members variously described it as a salve, an invigoration, and a frustration. Many wished the state residents had been introduced to the endearing human rights hero before they were asked to vote away marriage equality.
Here was a film that, like the fight for marriage rights itself, had been tumultuous years in the making. Finally it became a major motion picture directed, written, and produced by gay men and starring Sean Penn, an outspoken ally, as Harvey Milk. Concentrating on the politically potent final years of Milk’s life, the film explores his rise to become the first openly gay man elected to public office (two lesbians had preceded him in other states), and his strategies of coming out and coalition building. The movie shows how these tactics helped defeat the Prop. 8 of Milk’s era, a nasty piece of legislation called Proposition 6, or the Briggs initiative, just weeks before he was assassinated by fellow city supervisor Dan White.
Milk has been a critical success, earning among its many awards Oscars for best actor and screenwriter; it has also enjoyed modest financial success, bringing in about $53 million worldwide from box office sales. (Frost/Nixon, the other 2008 release concerned with an historical, political figure, did only half as well.) When you compare Milk to commercial blockbusters (2008’s Dark Night made over $1 billion worldwide) it might seem a minor movie; however, it’s near the top of the pack of money-making films that feature gay main characters, including The Birdcage (which comes in first with $124 million) and Brokeback Mountain ($85 million). Now on DVD, Milk is newly available in communities where it wasn’t shown in theaters, and it’s being widely pirated in countries such as China and India, where it’s officially banned.
University of California professor Martha Gever, author of Entertaining Lesbians and Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video, says it’s hard to gauge the true political impact of films like Milk. “Milk certainly exhibits a kind of maturity. It was important in California as a way of saying these issues have existed for a long time, and it offered viewers a background for what’s going on now. We have a tendency to overestimate the power of Hollywood in terms of a direct relationship to political change. Still, it puts out ideas that be debated and provokes the opposition.”
The debate was front and center for screenwriter Dustin Lance Black when he was penning the script. “I started researching in 2004,” says Black, “around the middle of the Kerry [presidential] run, when the Rove strategy was to pit evangelicals against gays and preach messages about saving our children and families from homosexuality. It was almost word for word what Anita Bryant was saying in 1978.”
Black’s moving Oscar acceptance speech has made him an in-demand speaker, which has given him the chance to see Milk’s message take hold, especially among youth. “I’ve been touring colleges lately and have met a real cross-section of students. It seems like the movie has been a wake-up call for them. Almost none had heard of Harvey before. [But] lots of these kids get it instinctively. They saw what Harvey did, the coming out and telling stories, and they feel emboldened. As we’ve been losing certain fights, they have been showing up and marching.”
Black likes to emphasize the message of the film by breaking down Milk’s political strategy for his audiences. “It’s a strategy that both unified gay and lesbian people and won at the ballot box,” he says. “I tell them there are two steps we can all follow immediately. One is visibility. Come out in as public a way as you can. Get into the paper, form an alliance, if you haven’t come out to your family tell your parents or an aunt or uncle. The second is coalition building. Harvey didn’t just fight for LGBT rights; he went to the Chinese in his community, to the seniors, to unions. Until we have that coalition again it’s very hard to win.”
LGBT organizations like GLAAD have been championing the impact of Milk. “The success of Milk has tremendous impact in creating awareness, understanding and acceptance during a time when our community continues to face opposition in our pursuit of equality,” says the organization’s president, Neil Guiliano. Most of the respondents to a survey commissioned by GLAAD said their attitudes toward LGBT individuals had improved recently. Twenty-nine percent attributed their more positive opinions in part to LGBT movie characters.
While Gever reminds us that “it isn’t exactly true that media can be credited for the saturation of gay rights into people’s lives,” she also stresses the importance of the long term, pointing out that “over decades there comes a slow awakening.” She imagines Milk will continue to be taught, as it is now in college and a few high school classrooms, and have a long life as an educational resource. Equality California is pushed to reintroduce a bill that would proclaim Harvey Milk’s birthday, May 22, a non-fiscal holiday in the state. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it in 2008, but by May of this year the film’s reach among other pressures, led him to reverse his position.
In the meantime, Black continues to hear from those affected by the film. “I received lots of emails post-Oscar from people all over the world who’ve come out to their families and more than a few who’d thought about suicide and chose to come out instead,” says Black, whose own Mormon upbringing kept him closeted and struggling in his youth.
“I hear from parents who feel, after seeing the film and hearing the Oscar speeches, that they understand their own kids’ stories better, and who feel real shame and regret about how they treated them when they came out. I got a lovely letter from a woman who is part of the Relief Society [a Mormon women’s group], asking if she could get a PG version to show.”
But it’s not all good. Another viewer wrote Black to say, “I hope you know the great shame you’ve brought to your people and your family.”
Black keeps Milk’s advice in mind: “The first step is always hostility, and after that you can sit down and talk about it.”
SIDEBAR: Winners and Losers
Harvey Milk’s victory against the Briggs Initiative holds many lessons for the gay rights movement, post-Prop. 8.
Thirty years before Californians passed Proposition 8, they defeated another ballot measure that questioned the gay community’s right to be part of a public institution: Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative.
Encouraged by fundamentalist-Christian-led repeals of gay rights legislation in Florida and other states, Orange County, California legislator John Briggs sponsored a measure that sought to ban gays, lesbians, and their allies from working in public schools. Defeated by a 58 percent majority, it even lost in Briggs’ home county.
Prop. 6’s defeat was attributed to grassroots opposition that crossed party lines. Harvey Milk and other gay activists rallied gays and lesbians to come out to families and communities and commit to door-to-door visibility campaigns. The Log Cabin Republicans, formed to build Republican opposition to the initiative, was born in this campaign.
In both cases, pro-gay activists enlisted high-level support from both parties. (Former governor Ronald Reagan came out against the Briggs Initiative, as did then-governor Jerry Brown, and, at Brown’s urging, President Jimmy Carter. President-elect Barack Obama opposed Prop. 8, as did Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.) And as was the case with Prop. 6, certain religious communities were among Prop 8’s strongest supporters, with California Catholic and Mormon leaders advising congregations to vote in its favor. Proponents of Prop. 8 also played the schools-and-children card, running ads that insisted marriage-equality supporters wanted to teach gay marriage in schools.
The difference between then and now lay in the gay movement’s basic approach. Anne Kronenberg, Milk’s former aide, remembers meeting with politicians who wanted to counter Prop. 6 with a “human rights” angle. “Harvey just lost it. He threw the pamphlet they’d created in the fireplace, said it was a crock of shit. He was scary but he was right. It’s too easy for voters to ignore these issues when they don’t know someone who’s gay. ‘No on 8’ was unfortunately about human rights and didn’t get down to specifics. Equality for all okay, but, well, who is it?”
Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black agrees. “The message from the right was very clear and easily understood,” he says, “whereas we had no gay people in our ads. A lot of people just didn’t know what we were talking about.”