"I want to thank my mom, who has always loved me for who I am even when there was pressure not to. But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than, by their churches, by the government, or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value. And that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours. Thank you. Thank you. And thank you, God, for giving us Harvey Milk."
— Dustin Lance Black
Except for the queer content, there was little in Dustin Lance Black’s acceptance speech upon winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Milk that was at all unusual. It was the usual cross between Hollywood faux-humility and faux-liberalism with a patina of political promise.
But why be so mean? After all, here is a mainstream Hollywood film that actually takes gay rights and gay politics seriously. Isn’t this what gay activists and audiences have been waiting for? In a world where gay rights and issues are not taken very seriously, even by the new liberal Obama establishment, Milk does set a new standard, at least with its intentions, of what a queer political film might address. And its relative success at the box office—not a huge hit, but certainly a critical and economic hit—shows that there may actually be an audience out there that is interested in a film about queer politics. Sure, the magnetic performance by Sean Penn helps, as does the fact that the queer political content is subsumed under the most genre-bound convention of the Hollywood biopic. But still…this is good, right?
If you tuned in late, Milk, directed by the openly gay Gus Van Sant, details the political rise and assassination of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay person to be elected in California to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk was in office for 11 months before he was shot to death, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), by Dan White (Josh Brolin), a former supervisor, ex-cop, and ex-firefighter, who had just resigned from the board because of political differences. Milk’s death sparked a memorial march that evening of 30,000 people. In May of 1979, after Dan White was sentenced to just over seven years in prison for the murders—the jury cited diminished capacity—more than 3,000 people rioted in the streets and burned several police cars.
Rob Epstein covered this material in his brilliant 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. Van Sant—once a Hollywood maverick, now a team player—ends his film with Milk’s assassination, not the rage and riots that followed the injustice that came later. This was no mistake. Milk, as good as some of it is, is a drastic rewriting of history that takes some very hard and complicated political truths and repackages them as ahistorical, sentimental, feel-good pap. What more can we expect from a Hollywood film? After all, when was the last time a Hollywood film, based on actual events, was even close to accurate? That said, the reality is that in the midst of the fight over California’s Proposition 8, which rewrites the state’s constitution to forbid same-sex marriage, Milk has nonetheless become a rallying point for young activists looking to it for hope, inspiration, and a road map for organizing.
So how is Milk inaccurate? Black’s script plays fast and loose with a host of facts, many of which are intrinsic to understanding the gay political scene of the time and the queer community. The film presents Harvey Milk as being the only gay politician who had the nerve to come out at that time and it pits him against closeted gay power brokers who were always trying to squelch him and his radical approach.
The reality is that San Francisco in the mid-1970s was a hot bed of grassroots organizing and had been for almost a decade. The only reason that Milk emerged as a viable political candidate in 1975, was that the groundwork had already been laid by a complex network of vibrant political and cultural organizations that were formed and run by collectives, organizations, and individuals who had come out of the feminist, civil rights, and leftist movements. Despite the film’s clear implication that Milk’s radicalism was sui generis, the reality was that he was a Democratic Party politician who distinguished himself by articulating a radical critique in a mainstream context. No mean feat in 1975, but not a solitary revolutionary.
Milk also implies, in repeated scenes, that Milk was one of the main reasons that Prop 6, commonly known as the Briggs Initiative—a ballot initiative that would have banned all lesbians, gay men, and their supporters from teaching in the California school system—was defeated at the polls. In reality the landslide defeat of Prop 6 was affected by the work of grassroots activists who went into communities across the state to urge people to vote against it. By never really showing this, the film implies that Harvey Milk was the primary reason Prop 6 was defeated.
Milk and supporters march to City Hall—photo by Daniel Nicoletta
The most striking historical inaccuracy in Milk is the absence of a vibrant social and sexual community in the Castro District. There is no sense that the political and social cultures of the moment were centered on, and fueled by, the open sexual culture of the city. It was this sexual energy and public sexual culture that facilitated the political organizing of the time, by Milk and others. Sex was the glue that held the gay male and, to a slightly lesser degree, lesbian communities together. Throughout Milk we do see several large demonstrations taking place. While the images are stirring—especially the large memorial march at the end of the film—it appears as though this gathering of people simply happened, or was the result of Harvey Milk’s political organizing. The reality is that these men and women already knew one another from a wide-range of community-based organizations and social settings.
These complaints may seem to hold the film to a higher political standard. But I think this critique strikes at the heart of a serious problem with contemporary queer political organizing.
Given the absence of a more radical message from the gay community it is no surprise that Milk’s sanitized version of queer history, its insistence on the politics of celebrity rather than on community, and its politics of "hope" resonates with younger queer activists who have grown up under eight years of a Bush administration where "hope" was in short supply. It also is a reflection of how our contemporary mainstream culture has chosen a few, safe, queer "stars" to represent all of queer life—Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John—so that the public face of homosexuality is essentially, in the words of lesbian novelist and organizer Sarah Schulman, a "fake homosexuality" that is constructed mostly for heterosexual audiences and purposely avoids any of the complexity, diversity, anger, or actual pain of queer people.
This begs the question: where are queer youth going to find out about queer history? This doesn’t happen in high school or college. Since most of the mass-produced national queer press is more interested in profiling heterosexual celebrities or spotting the newest consumer goods aimed at an LGBT niche market, it isn’t surprising that queer young people are attracted to the fake history of Milk and misread it as true and useful. Even when it gives us actual historical footage—as it does with Anita Bryant—they turn it into a silly joke, removing any of the very real, very deadly homophobic threat. It is all carefully constructed rhetoric that placates and doesn’t move us forward.
For instance, one of the emotional high points of the film is the powerful speech Milk gives during the 1978 Anita Bryant campaign: "And the young people in Richmond, Minnesota, or Jackson Mississippi, or Woodmere New York…who are coming out and hearing Anita Bryant on television telling them that they’re wrong, they’re sick, that there is no place for them in this country, in this world…. They are looking for something from us tonight…. And I say, we have to give them hope!"
This is the scene that gets on all of the film’s promotional clips and is the essence of Dustin Lance Black’s acceptance speech at the Oscars. There’s nothing wrong with hope, but hope alone is not going to change the world, or make queer kids safe, or even change people’s hearts and minds. Hope, in the film and in Black’s speech, is a generalized, hyped, political commodity that has only vague meaning and little substance. It is about a personal feeling, not a community response.
Michael Bronski is a journalist, cultural critic, and political commentator. He has been a visiting professor in Women’s and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College since 1999.