Roger’s note: I am thankful that I don’t have to spend up to thirty five years in prison. I cannot begin to imagine what that would be like. Chelsea Manning apparently has not been bowed by the draconian and vengeful punishment loaded upon her by the criminal United States military. A profile in courage.
Nov. 25, 2013, Time
I’m usually hesitant to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. After all, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony systematically terrorized and slaughtered the very same Pequot tribe that assisted the first English refugees to arrive at Plymouth Rock. So, perhaps ironically, I’m thankful that I know that, and I’m also thankful that there are people who seek out, and usually find, such truths. I’m thankful for people who, even surrounded by millions of Americans eating turkey during regularly scheduled commercial breaks in the Green Bay and Detroit football game; who, despite having been taught, often as early as five and six years old, that the “helpful natives” selflessly assisted the “poor helpless Pilgrims” and lived happily ever after, dare to ask probing, even dangerous, questions.
Such people are often nameless and humble, yet no less courageous. Whether carpenters of welders; retail clerks or bank managers; artists or lawyers, they dare to ask tough questions, and seek out the truth, even when the answers they find might not be easy to live with.
I’m also grateful for having social and human justice pioneers who lead through action, and by example, as opposed to directing or commanding other people to take action. Often, the achievements of such people transcend political, cultural, and generational boundaries. Unfortunately, such remarkable people often risk their reputations, their livelihood, and, all too often, even their lives.
For instance, the man commonly known as Malcolm X began to openly embrace the idea, after an awakening during his travels to the Middle East and Africa, of an international and unifying effort to achieve equality, and was murdered after a tough, yearlong defection from the Nation of Islam. Martin Luther King Jr., after choosing to embrace the struggles of striking sanitation workers in Memphis over lobbying in Washington, D.C., was murdered by an escaped convict seeking fame and respect from white Southerners. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in the U.S., was murdered by a jealous former colleague. These are only examples; I wouldn’t dare to make a claim that they represent an exhaustive list of remarkable pioneers of social justice and equality—certainly many if not the vast majority are unsung and, sadly, forgotten.
So, this year, and every year, I’m thankful for such people, and I’m thankful that one day—perhaps not tomorrow—because of the accomplishments of such truth-seekers and human rights pioneers, we can live together on this tiny “pale blue dot” of a planet and stop looking inward, at each other, but rather outward, into the space beyond this planet and the future of all of humanity.
Chelsea Manning, formerly named Bradley, is serving a 35-year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Born in 1930 in Schiller Park, Ill., the deceased was 82 years old at the time of passing, which ironically was the day before Thanksgiving.
Having long enjoyed the sweet life, the end was a bit bitter, for the dearly departed’s estate had been mercilessly plundered in recent years by unscrupulous money managers. This left 18,500 surviving family members in dire straits. Indeed, the family contends that the octogenarian’s death was not due to natural causes, but to foul play — a case of corporate murder.
This is the drama behind the sudden death of Twinkies. Fondly remembered as “the cream puff of the proletariat” (and less fondly as a sugar-and-fat bomb that delivered a toothache in one bite and a heart attack in the next), this industrial concoction of 37 ingredients became, for better or worse, an icon of American food processing.
The father of the Twinkie was James Dewar, a baker at the old Continental Baking Co. who saw the goo-filled tube cake as a way to keep the factory’s confection machinery busy after strawberry shortcake season ended. Yes, the Twinkie was actually conceived as “food” for idle machines. How fitting is that?
But us humans happily swallowed this extruded marvel of comestible engineering. As a teenager, I probably downed my weight in Twinkies each year — and my long years on this Earth might well be due to the heavy dose of preservatives, artificial flavors and other chemicals baked into every one of those cellophane-wrapped two-packs that I consumed.
The Twinkie was the best-seller of Hostess Brands, a conglomerate purveyor of some 30 nutritionally challenged (but moneymaking) brand-name food products, ranging from Wonder Bread to Ho Hos. In the past year, Hostess racked up $2.5 billion in sales — yet it suffered a staggering $1.1 billion in losses. Thus, on Nov. 21, Ripplewood Holdings, the private equity outfit that had taken over the conglomerate in 2009, pulled the plug, solemnly announcing that Hostess simply couldn’t survive.
Why? Because it was burdened with overly generous labor contracts, the firm’s executives declared, adding that greedy union officials refused to save the company by taking cuts.
Wait a minute. They claim that the bereaved loved ones of the Hostess family killed the Twinkie? Holy Agatha Christie, that can’t be right.
Remember the horrible murders in 1978 of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk? At the killer’s trial, his lawyer argued for leniency on the grounds that his client subsisted on a steady diet of junk food, which had addled his brain. This claim entered the annals of American jurisprudence as the “Twinkie Defense.”
Even less defensible is the campaign by Ripplewood financial manipulators to lay the death of Hostess at the feet of loyal, longtime employees who, after all, need the jobs. In fact, far from greedy, Hostess workers and their unions have been both modest and faithful. Their wages are decent but not at all excessive — only middle class. And the charge that unions would not make sacrifices to help the company is a flat-out lie, for they had previously given back $100 million in annual wages and benefits to help it survive.
The true perfidy in this drama is not in the union, but inside Ripplewood’s towering castle of high finance in New York City. After buying Hostess in a bankruptcy sale, these equity hucksters proceeded to feather their own nests, rather than modernize Hostess’s equipment and upgrade its products, as the unions had urged. For starters, these profiteers piled an unbearable debt load of $860 million on Hostess, thus diverting its revenues into nonproductive interest payments made to rich, absentee speculators. Also, they siphoned millions of dollars out of Hostess directly into their corporate pockets by charging “consulting and management fees” that did nothing to improve the snack-makers financial health.
But it was not until this year that their rank managerial incompetence and raw ethical depravity fully surfaced. While the Ripplewood honchos in charge of Hostess were demanding a new round of deep cuts in worker’s pay, health care, and pensions, they quietly jacked up their own pay. By a lot! The CEO’s paycheck, for example, rocketed from $750,000 a year to $2.5 million.
Like a character in a bad Agatha Christie whodunit, Ripplewood — the one so insistently pointing the finger of blame at others — turns out to be the one who killed the Twinkie. Along with the livelihoods of 18,500 workers
National radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the book, Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow, Jim Hightower has spent three decades battling the Powers That Be on behalf of the Powers That Ought To Be – consumers, working families, environmentalists, small businesses, and just-plain-folks.
Presidential Medal of Freedom? Got that. A place in the California Hall of Fame and Sean Penn playing you on-screen? Those, too.
Now, Harvey Milk has a holiday of sorts to call his own. California will observe its first day of “special significance” Saturday honoring the slain gay rights leader on what would have been his 80th birthday.
It took two legislative tries and the 2008 movie “Milk” to help persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign a bill last fall establishing May 22 as Harvey Milk Day. Memorial events are planned in 20 other states.
The California measure does not close state offices as an official holiday would but does encourages public schools to conduct activities commemorating the first openly gay man elected to public office in a major U.S. city.
Milk was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978 when he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated at City Hall by former supervisor Dan White.
Milk preached a message of pride that made him an inspiration to generations of gay rights activists, and he is credited with helping defeat a ballot initiative that would have prevented gay teachers from working in public schools.
The range of activities planned in his memory – concerts, voter canvassing to repeal California’s gay marriage ban, and students at some schools handing out malted milk balls and Milk Duds – speaks to Milk’s singularly iconic place in gay rights history and the public’s continued polarization on gay rights issues.
The day is shaping up to be even grander than its supporters anticipated. Demonstrations in St. Louis, Savannah, Ga., Fulton, Miss., and other cities are aimed at putting pressure on Congress to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military and to pass a law protecting gays and transgender people from job discrimination.
“The creation of the first official day of recognition for any openly gay person in the history of this country has really touched people, many of whom have been closeted in life or faced rejection or government discrimination which continues to this day,” said Geoffrey Kors, executive director of the gay rights group Equality California.
In Milk’s adopted home state, however, few public schools are marking the occasion, despite the language in the California bill that created it.
Having May 22 fall on a Saturday this year may have muted the celebrations. But a conservative group’s call for parents to pull their children out of class if any Harvey Milk activities were planned probably had an effect as well, said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, a San Francisco group that trains students to be gay rights advocates.
“We have heard from students and teachers who are facing resistance from school administrators who do not want to acknowledge this day,” Laub said.
Some students decided to sponsor movie screenings and other activities at lunch or after school in the absence of school-wide events, she said.
Zac Toomay, a 17-year-old junior at Arroyo Grande High School in central California, said he was surprised when his principal agreed to encourage history and English teachers to mention Milk during classes Friday.
“I encountered some apprehension, not because the principal or teachers are uncomfortable with it, but because they didn’t want to have too much of a controversy within the classroom,” Toomay said. “I said, ‘We have controversy in the classroom all the time, and if we are going to avoid that one, we are going to have to avoid all of them.'”
At in San Juan Hills High School in Orange County, Calif., where scheduled state achievement tests prevented classroom activities, 15-year-old Benji Delgadillo and other members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance Club planned to sell Harvey milkshakes and to hand out fliers after school explaining who Milk was.
Besides Delgadillo, San Juan Hills only has one or two other openly gay or transgender students, he said. The club of about 25 members nevertheless persuaded the principal to change the dress code for dances so girls could wear suits and to cancel the annual “Battle of the Sexes” pep rally after some students said it was offensive to gender non-conforming students.
“Harvey Milk is a civil rights icon who sparked a movement that today is really helping to address the issues of harassment that lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer or gender non-conforming students face in our school and our community,” Delgadillo said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was scheduled to appear at a fundraiser Friday night tied to Harvey Milk Day and benefiting Equality California’s political action committee, which hopes to qualify a ballot initiative in 2012 that would repeal California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Events planned for Saturday include the premiere of a musical based on Milk’s life written by Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for “Milk” the movie, and performed by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. The chorus plans to take the piece into high schools next year as part of project to prevent anti-gay bullying.
Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk’s 49-year-old nephew and one of the guardians of his legacy, thinks his uncle would be thrilled by the various tributes, but he also wants his day to be more about uniting all marginalized minorities than merely about gay rights or the accomplishments of one man.
“It’s still a hard concept for people to get,” Stuart Milk said. “This isn’t about having a Harvey Milk curriculum in every school. It’s an opportunity to talk about what discrimination means and why it’s important for everyone to feel included.”
AMY GOODMAN: In recent days, many in the gay community have been sharply critical of the Obama administration’s positions on some of the hot-button issues affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer Americans across the country. On Wednesday, President Obama signed a memorandum to extend some, but not all, benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. Comprehensive healthcare, for example, is not included.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today I’m proud to issue a presidential memorandum that paves the way for long-overdue progress in our nation’s pursuit of equality. Many of our government’s hard-working and dedicated and patriotic public servants have long been denied basic rights that their colleagues enjoy for one simple reason: the people that they love are of the same sex.
Currently, for example, LGBT federal employees can’t always use sick leave to care for their domestic partners or their partners’ children. Their partners aren’t covered under long-term care insurance. Partners of American Foreign Service officers abroad aren’t treated the same way when it comes to the use of medical facilities or visitation rights in case of an emergency. And these are just some of the wrongs that we intend to right today. […]
It’s a day that marks a historic step towards the changes we seek, but I think we all have to acknowledge this is only one step. Among the steps we have not yet taken is to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. I believe it’s discriminatory, I think it interferes with states’ rights, and we will work with Congress to overturn it.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s promise to work to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, Wednesday came one week after his administration filed a controversial legal brief supporting DOMA, an action which greatly disappointed activists fighting for marriage equality.
In a strongly worded letter to President Obama on Monday, Joe Solmonese, the president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, said, quote, “I cannot overstate the pain that we feel as human beings and as families when we read an argument, presented in federal court, implying that our own marriages have no more constitutional standing than incestuous ones.”
The President also has been criticized for not pushing more strongly for an end to the military’s discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Taken together, the administration’s actions have angered a number of gay rights activists. Some prominent voices in the community have decided not to attend a gala LGBT fundraiser for the Democratic Party next week, which Vice President Biden is expected to attend.
Well, I’m now joined by one of the giants of the gay rights and AIDS awareness movements. Cleve Jones is the founder of the NAMES Project, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. In the 1970s in San Francisco, Cleve Jones was a close friend of the pioneering gay rights leader, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. In fact, he found his body under his desk as he was shot dead in his office. Cleve Jones worked as a student intern for Milk after he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
More recently, Cleve served as a historical consultant to Gus Van Sant’s award-winning film MILK, and he works with UNITE HERE to strengthen the growing coalition between the labor movement and the LGBT community. Now Cleve is planning a national equality march on Washington for October 11th, National Coming Out Day, to call for equal rights for the LGBT community.
Cleve Jones, Welcome to Democracy Now!
CLEVE JONES: Thank you. My pleasure.
AMY GOODMAN: There has been a lot of action in the Obama administration in the last few days. Is it really because there’s this big fundraiser planned and some of the leading gay rights activists and donors are pulling out?
CLEVE JONES: Well, of course, I can’t get inside their heads, though I’ve wanted to very much over the last couple of weeks. I think the people pulling out of the fundraiser is part of it. I think the momentum building for the march on October 11th is part of it. I think that they understand that the anger and frustration is not diminishing, it’s getting much stronger.
We’re really baffled by this. You know, we voted in enormous numbers for Obama. We want very much to believe that he has our best interest, as well as the entire country’s, in his heart. But he seems to be continuing this really hurtful policy of doling out increments of rights, fractions of equality. And I think our movement is really beyond that at this point. We’re tired of this state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city struggle for fractions of equality. And this latest thing, this is really just crumbs. And it’s disheartening to see so many of the leaders of our community standing there behind him while he sprinkles out these crumbs.
AMY GOODMAN: One of those who was there was Tammy Baldwin, well-known lesbian Congress member. She will not be boycotting the fundraiser. She said she’ll be there, but she’ll bring the concerns of those who are boycotting. And she, too, is deeply concerned.
This memo that he signed, it was late in the day. Not to be confused with an executive order, it means whatever of the limited rights that were granted expire on the day President Obama leaves office. And we’re not talking about healthcare here for federal employees who are gay or lesbian—visiting rights, I guess he said, to the hospital.
CLEVE JONES: Well, it feels like Clinton all over again. You know, Bill Clinton gave wonderful speeches and told of his vision of a country, a vision that he claimed included us, and what we got out of that was the Defense of Marriage Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” So, what we’re getting now from President Obama are flowery proclamations, probably a few key appointments for some of our more powerful community members, and very little for ordinary people.
And on this issue of healthcare, I think it’s ironic that this memorandum does not extend healthcare benefits. But that’s also an example of an area where my community could be very helpful, I think, in helping to build support for the President’s healthcare package. My community cares deeply about access to healthcare. So much of the impetus for marriage rights has really come out of our experience with the epidemic, so we certainly would be a staunch ally in his efforts to provide affordable healthcare to all Americans. So I feel that he’s burning some bridges rather rapidly.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip from this past year’s Academy Awards. Actor Sean Penn, who won an Oscar for his role as Harvey Milk in the film MILK, talked about equality and gay marriage in his acceptance speech.
SEAN PENN: For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sean Penn, who played Harvey Milk, won the Oscar for that. We’re going to be talking about “don’t ask, don’t tell” in a minute.
We’ll be speaking with the first African American Secretary of the Army, Clifford Alexander, who is a strong proponent of Congress repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But I wanted to go back in time a bit. Actually, Harvey Milk graduated from my high school, from Bay Shore High in Long Island. But you met Harvey decades ago. You have devoted your life to helping to fulfill his dream. Can you just talk for a moment about what that dream is, and your experiences with Harvey, how you met him, the assassinated San Francisco City Supervisor?
CLEVE JONES: Well, I met Harvey on Castro Street back in 1975. I was pretty much a street kid. He got me off the street. He got me to go to school, got me to cut my hair, get a job. He was a great father figure.
AMY GOODMAN: When was this?
CLEVE JONES: I got to San Francisco at the end of 1972. I met him in passing but didn’t really pay attention to him until probably ’75. And then, when I came back from a couple of years of hitchhiking around the world, it was 1977 and his last campaign and the campaign against the Briggs Initiative. And that’s when we got close.
AMY GOODMAN: Which was…? The Briggs Initiative?
CLEVE JONES: The Briggs Initiative was a really hateful initiative. It was a referendum to require the dismissal of all gay and lesbian schoolteachers—or actually, not just teachers, anyone working in the school district, plus any heterosexual who supported their rights. It was a bitter fight that we won statewide in California thirty years ago against many of the same people who opposed us with Proposition 8 this past year.
And, you know, Harvey had a message of liberation and equality, but he also was very critical of the established gay leadership at the time and said that they were all too willing to accept crumbs, to accept compromises. I think Harvey understood clearly that every time our community accepts compromises or delays, we are really participating in undermining our own humanity. No other group of people would settle for fractions of equality. There is no fraction of equality. You are an equal people, or you are not. So, I am—
AMY GOODMAN: He was the first openly gay elected official in the United States?
CLEVE JONES: Actually, I want to correct that. He is known to be the first openly gay, but in fact I believe that honor goes to a woman named Elaine Noble, who had been elected to the Massachusetts state legislature two years prior. And then there were two members of the Ann Arbor city council who came out after they had been elected. But he was, I think—I think his significance was as our first really shared public martyr. There are many martyrs to this cause, but he was the one whose name became known.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain, for those who aren’t familiar with what happened to Harvey Milk—extremely outspoken fighting for gay rights, as well as just for everyone in San Francisco—the day he was killed and who he was killed by.
CLEVE JONES: Yeah. He predicted his death. In the film, when you see him making this tape recording predicting his assassination, that wasn’t contrived. He actually believed that. I used to tease him about it and tell him he wasn’t important enough to be assassinated.
But he was killed by a former colleague, a former member of the Board of Supervisors, a former police officer, a man named Dan White, who was very troubled and, I think, clearly confused about homosexuality, homophobic. I don’t want to claim that I have any great insight into what was going on in his mind, but he was very troubled and very much in over his head in the day-to-day dealings of the Board of Supervisors. And he assassinated both Harvey Milk and our mayor, a wonderful man named George Moscone, on November 27th, 1978.
AMY GOODMAN: And it was you who was walking towards Harvey Milk’s office, when you saw?
CLEVE JONES: I was outside of City Hall when the shootings occurred and was frightened by all of the confusion over towards the mayor’s office, which is on the other side of City Hall. And I let myself in through the back door to the supervisors’ chambers and found his body there. And then—
AMY GOODMAN: Recognized his feet?
CLEVE JONES: Yeah, Harvey only had one pair of dress shoes, these old battered wingtips.
You know, it was terrible. It was terrible. And I remember thinking all day long, it’s over, everything’s over. You know, he was really a father figure to me. I’m very close to my actual father, but at the time I was estranged from my family. And he was so kind to me, and he was our leader. And all day long, I just kept thinking it’s over, until the sun went down, and San Franciscans, gay and straight, young and old, black and brown and white, began to gather by the tens of thousands and lit their candles and marched down to City Hall. And then I knew it was really just beginning.
AMY GOODMAN: And now, decades later, you are organizing this march on Washington. You were also the co-founder of the AIDS Quilt. And talk about the significance of that and how it’s led into this mass march.
CLEVE JONES: Yes, I’ve had a lot of experience organizing protests and demonstrations. But, you know, back in the ’80s when the pandemic was so horrifying and so many of my friends were dying, I was struggling with new ways to try to communicate to the media and to the public and the politicians about what was happening to my community. And I was also obsessed with the reality that most of my friends were dying, and it seemed to me that we were all going to die and leave no trace. And my friends were brilliant people. You know, had they lived, they would be taking home Emmys and Pulitzers and Nobels and sitting in the Senate and the House of Representatives. And so, I was struggling with a way to break through the stupidity and cruelty and ignorance, that still hampers our planet’s response to this pandemic.
And I was at a protest where we climbed up the walls of the Federal Building in San Francisco and covered it with names of people who had died. And as I looked at that patchwork of names, I thought it looks like a quilt and thought immediately of my grandma, my great-grandma back in Bee Ridge, Indiana. And it worked.
I think it’s important to go to Washington. And we’re going back on October 11th. We’re not taking a quilt. We’re not having a rock concert. It’s not going to be Lollapalooza. It’s going to be a demonstration, a protest. It is not against President Obama. It is for equality. And it’s for shifting the strategy.
Back when Harvey Milk was alive, we had no choice with the strategy. There were only a few pockets in the entire country where we could gain any rights at all. When I came out of the closet, it was a felony to engage in sexual behavior with another person of the same sex. People went to prison. People committed suicide. People were arrested regularly and prosecuted. For young people, it may be bizarre to hear this, but it was illegal for us to dance. Two people of the same gender were forbidden by law from dancing. You could be arrested for that. So, in the ’70s, we took whatever we could get. In a small college town like Ann Arbor or Madison, you know, you might be able to get some kind of job protection.
But that was a long time ago, and we’re not putting up with that anymore. We want full equality, which I define as being equal protection under the law in all matters governed by civil law in all fifty states. It’s the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. That’s what we want.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Cleve Jones, who’s organizing a mass march for gay equality on October 11th in Washington, DC.
We supported you. Time to live up to your promises
by John Aravosis
Team Obama keeps telling lesbian and gay Americans like me to be patient. If we just wait a little longer, administration officials whisper to us lovingly (and out of earshot of the media), after the White House finishes with healthcare reform and getting the troops out of Iraq, your time will come. In the meantime, cheer up — we put a gay band in the inaugural parade!
Everyone loves a parade, but we don’t like being betrayed. And while gay and lesbian Americans were initially willing to cut our new president some slack, the president’s now-clear reticence to follow through on even one of his many campaign promises to the gay community has put the Democratic Party on the precipice of an ugly and very public divorce with this once-solid constituency.
During the presidential primaries, then-candidate Obama promoted himself as the biggest defender of gay rights since Harvey Milk. He would be a “fierce advocate” for our rights, he promised, and he even out-gayed Hillary Clinton: telling gay and lesbian voters that while she was for a partial repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), he’d get rid of the whole damn thing.
And there was much rejoicing.
Then, not so much.
About a year before the November election, primary challenger Obama invited Donnie McClurkin, a homophobic gospel singer who claims to have been “cured” of his own homosexuality, to lead a series of concerts in the South in order to woo the black vote. The gays were not amused, but candidate Obama held firm. The gays forgave the Big O until a year later, when then-President-elect Obama chose evangelical preacher (and well-known homophobe) Rick Warren to give the inaugural prayer. Again, the gays expressed their ire, Obama wouldn’t budge, and his advisors continued to whisper sweet nothings in our ears about how glorious the future would be once Dear Leader was finally in office.
But a funny thing happened on the way to equality. Rather than clouds opening up and angels descending from on high, Barack Obama became president and things never got better for the gays. In fact, they got decidedly worse.
On taking office, Obama immediately announced that he was doing away with the Clinton-era concept of special assistants who served as liaisons to various communities like gays and Latinos. He then went ahead and appointed special liaisons to some of those communities anyway, but never to the gays. Around the same time, the White House Web site, once detailing half a page of presidential promises to the gay community, overnight saw those pledges shortened to three simple sentences. Gone were five of the eight previous commitments, including the promises to repeal both Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and DOMA. Adding to a growing sense of angst, senior White House officials kept telling the media that they weren’t sure when, if ever, the president would follow through on his promises to the gay community. Then there were the Cabinet appointees. Three Latino nominees but nary a gay in sight. And finally, last week our president had his Department of Justice file a brief in defense of DOMA, a law he had once called “abhorrent.” In that brief, filed on the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia (which outlawed bans on interracial marriage), our own interracial Harvey Milk, not lacking a sense of historical irony, compared our love to incest and pedophilia.
Shit, meet fan.
Tonight, President Fierce will try to make amends by signing either a memorandum, a directive or an executive order, directing some federal agencies, but not others, to provide some benefits, but not others, to some gay federal employees, but not others, at some undisclosed time in the future. (And the benefits may reportedly go away when Obama leaves office.)
First problem, federal agencies already have the right to provide these benefits to gay employees — and several, including at least one DOD agency, do. Second problem, the administration can’t tell us exactly which benefits they’re talking about and for which employees. That’s because this was all hastily thrown together after the incestuous and pedophilic gays nearly brought down a Democratic National Committee gay pride fundraiser scheduled for next week. A gay blogger got hold of the event’s guest list and published it, and once D.C.’s gay paper, the Washington Blade, announced that it would be staking out the entrance to the event with camera and video, the $1,000 a head attendees started dropping like flies.
In other words, the only reason we’re getting anything: The gay ATM ran dry.
Don’t get me wrong. Some federal employees getting some benefits at some future point is definitely something. But it’s not an answer to why this president directed his Department of Justice to defend a law he previously opposed when he didn’t have to. It doesn’t explain why the DOMA brief linked a key Democratic constituency to pedophilia and incest. Or why this president has already overseen the discharge of 253 gay service members, and has refused to issue a stop-loss order ceasing those discharges. Or why he won’t lift a finger to push Congress to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
The president would like us to believe that he’s awfully busy being president, and if we only wait a little while longer, we’ll get our rights. Of course, the president isn’t too busy to stab the community in the back by continuing the military discharges, defending DOMA, and comparing us to pedophiles. (On Wednesday, White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs was given a chance to repudiate the DOMA brief’s language about incest and pedophilia and would not.)
When, Mr. President, will be a good time to set my people free? When will the leader of the free world get a breather, a presidential timeout as it were? (And I thought this was the administration that could walk and chew gum at the same time.) Are we really to believe that 2010, a congressional election year, will be any more timely than today? Or 2011, the beginning of the presidential primaries? Or 2012, with a congressional and presidential election? There is quite literally no time like the present.
The real problem is that Team Obama is stuck in 1993. Perhaps some advisor has convinced our once-fierce advocate that gay rights is the third rail of presidential politics. Just look at what happened to President Clinton 16 years ago when he tried to help the gays, the insider is likely warning.
But 2009 is not 1993. Sixty-seven percent of Americans now favor granting same-sex couples the right to marry or join in civil unions. Sixty-nine percent support letting openly gay men and lesbian women serve in our military, including a majority of Republicans (58 percent), conservatives (58 percent), and even churchgoers (60 percent). And an overwhelming number of Americans have long since supported passing legislation banning job discrimination against gays.
The controversy is in President Obama’s mind — at least it was until it became real and moved to the Democratic Party’s pocketbook.
What can the president do to avoid outright rupture with the gay community? He needs to start fulfilling his campaign promises — even one would be a nice start. He needs to stop the discharges, and stop the Falwellian legal briefs in support of a policy he opposes. He needs to push — really push — for legislation banning job discrimination, repealing DOMA, and lifting Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Many of us were willing to cut our new president some slack. Not anymore.
Shannon Morgan of Minnesota, left, Riane Menardi of Wyoming, and Brittnany Swanson, also of Minnesota, rally in support of the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, on April 3 in Des Moines, Iowa.
How same-sex unions triumphed in Iowa, and what other states can learn from the victory.
April 15, 2009 | Iowa is known for its sweeping cornfields and pigs, fed by those vast amounts of corn. The landlocked state in the heartland isn’t exactly recognized as cutting edge or socially progressive, though its presidential caucuses do tend to predict the outcome of presidential races, as they did most recently with the selection of Barack Obama.
But with its Supreme Court decision in Varnum v. Brien, making it the third state to legalize same-sex marriage, Iowa is shedding its image as cornfed conservative. After the decision was announced April 3, about 1,000 people rallied in Western Gateway Park in Des Moines to celebrate, and Iowans showed their personality by toting signs, like “Corn Fed and Ready to Wed,” and even nodding to the coast: “This One’s for You, California.”
California, which at one time seemed destined to be the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, meanwhile awaits a decision from its Supreme Court on the validity of Proposition 8. The controversial ballot initiative, passed by a narrow margin in November, outlawed same-sex marriage, which had just been legalized via a California Supreme Court decision the previous May.
In fact, in the space of five days this month, the number of states where gays and lesbians can legally wed doubled, when Vermont and Iowa joined trendsetters Massachusetts and Connecticut. Vermont’s approval of same-sex marriage on April 7 was not surprising. After all, Vermont pioneered civil unions in the U.S. in 2000.
Vermonters have had nine years to observe that allowing gays and lesbians to enter into legally binding partnerships did not herald the end of the world. Fire and brimstone didn’t rain down on the land, plagues didn’t smite their iconic maple trees and most important of all, children in these nontraditional families were just as well-adjusted as their peers with straight parents.
The paths to legalizing same-sex marriage are quite different in Iowa, Vermont and California. Iowa, like Massachusetts in 2004 and Connecticut in 2008, relied on Supreme Court decisions to change the law. Vermont’s law, on the other hand, was voted in by the state Senate and House of Representatives, promptly vetoed by Gov. Jim Douglas, and then overridden by the Vermont Legislature. At first glance, the Iowa Supreme Court’s vote may appear surprising, especially to the-world-revolves-around-me Californians, but Iowa has an impressive history of pioneering civil rights legislation.
Iowa abolished slavery in 1839, 26 years before the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865. Iowa disallowed separate but equal racial segregation in schools in 1868, 85 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of education outlawed it nationally. And in 1873, Iowa again protected racial minorities, extending anti-discrimination to public accommodations, 91 years before the U.S. Supreme Court. Iowa was also the first state to allow women to practice law. “I think Iowa’s tradition played a big role in the victory,” said Camilla Taylor, lead counsel for Lambda Legal, which represented the couples seeking to marry in Iowa.
It’s a good thing that laws aren’t always left to the people. In Iowa, if the amendment had been put to a popular vote, as it was in California, it probably would not have passed. According to a University of Iowa Hawkeye telephone poll just before the Iowa Supreme Court vote, 26.2 percent of respondents said they supported gay marriage, and 27.9 percent opposed marriage but supported civil unions, while 36.7 percent opposed both. However, the younger voters were more accepting. Talk about a generational divide — among voters under 30, 60 percent supported gay marriage, and 75 percent supported formal recognition of gay relationships.
California’s position on marriage equality has lobbed back and forth. It has been defined through popular vote (2000’s Proposition 22, which defined marriage as a contract between a man and a woman), a maverick decision (San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s short-lived permission in 2004 for gays and lesbians to marry) and a Supreme Court decision annulling those marriages. And that was just the beginning; in 2008, a Supreme Court decision reversed Proposition 22 and allowed same-sex marriages again. Then came another popular vote — Proposition 8, which reversed the Supreme Court ruling and left about 18,000 couples who wed between May and November of last year to wonder if their marriages are valid.
Despite California’s reputation as freethinking and liberal — it was the first state to recognize domestic partnerships in 1999 — it has its own conservative heartland, the Central Valley, and Republican enclaves like Orange County that tarnish that reputation. Public opinion is divided — some polls show the majority opposing same-sex marriage, while others show the opposite. But polls in Iowa, California and Vermont show that among the younger voters, the majority favor marriage equality. All three states have this in common: They have a history of being on the forefront of civil liberties legislation.
California was the first state to dismantle anti-miscegenation laws in 1948 with Perez v. Sharp, 19 years before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed it in Loving v. Virginia — a very unpopular ruling at the time. The first Gallup poll on the subject, ten years after California’s landmark decision, revealed an astonishing 94 percent of Americans still opposed interracial marriage. Even ten years later, after the federal decision, 72 percent opposed it, according to Marriage Equality USA. Vermont never enacted anti-miscegenation laws, and was the first to abolish slavery.
The decision in Loving v. Virginia relied on the concept of equal protection found in the U.S. Constitution and that of all 50 states. It calls marriage one of the “basic civil rights of man,” and states that “to deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”
Supporters of same-sex marriage believe it is a civil rights issue, and hope that the courts will enforce existing laws. “It’s not that we need a new constitution,” said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. “We just need a renewed commitment. Properly enforced, the existing equal protection would require equality.” So what worked in Iowa and Vermont? Activists and legislators made the issue personal, taking a cue from Harvey Milk, who advocated that people tell their stories.
One Iowa, an organization formed in 2006, just after Lambda Legal filed Varnum v. Brien, began holding forums across the state, in big cities and small towns, bringing together same-sex couples, legal scholars and people of faith to talk about the importance of marriage equality. Justin Uebelhor, communications director for One Iowa, said the group recognized the need to build support for marriage equality.
“We needed those folks to contact their elected officials,” he said, which they did, both before and after the vote. Lambda attorneys used a new strategy when they filed the case in Iowa: They included children of the couples as plaintiffs. They also called psychologists. “We took a lot of care in making as complete a record as possible of the social science of gay and lesbian parenting,” Taylor said. In light of the New York court’s 2006 decision against same-sex marriage that relied in part on “intuition” that children would be better off with a mother and a father (how many families lack one of those?), Lambda included statements from child development and other experts to make the case that children of gay and lesbian parents are just as well-adjusted as children of heterosexual parents.
This strategy to make things personal appears to be helping. The National Organization for Marriage launched a $1.5 million advertising campaign that included broadcasting the fear-mongering “The Gathering Storm,” which claims that same-sex marriage will infringe the rights of straight people. The video, denounced by gay rights activists, is intended to encourage Iowans to pass a law to dismantle the ruling.
When the embarrassing audition tapes showed up on YouTube, revealing that the people talking about their fear of the darkness were actors, NOM requested the video’s removal. To undo the Supreme Court’s ruling, Iowans would have to amend their constitution. So far, Iowans have not persuaded legislators to introduce a bill to negate same-sex marriage in the state. In order to change the state constitution, the Legislature must vote on the issue in two separate years. It appears unlikely that the current Legislature, which is about to end its 2008-2009 session, will vote on it, meaning that it could be changed by 2012 at the earliest.
Vermont activists, including an organization called Vermont Freedom to Marry, took a similar approach. “We had frank discussions with people: I am gay and I am your neighbor and I am your farmer and I want the same rights that you have,” said Jason Lorber, an openly gay state representative from Burlington. “In California, I don’t think those discussions took place.” California has a population of 38 million. Vermont, at 600,000, is smaller than San Francisco.
Now, attention is turning back to California, where the state Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling by early June on whether Proposition 8 is valid. The California constitution can be changed in two ways: through amendments and revisions. The amendment process is designed for ordinary changes, and can be done through the Legislature or through a signature collection that leads to a vote of the people. “California has an unusually low threshold for changing the constitution,” Wolfson said.
The California Supreme Court is currently deciding whether Proposition 8 was simply an amendment or a revision that should have gone through a more rigorous process. “It’s hard to imagine anyone considering the idea of equal protection a mere amendment,” Wolfson says. “Writing out the rights of a minority is a revision.” And if it was a revision, it’s invalid, Lambda’s Taylor said. “We firmly believe it is a revision — it redraws equal protection to permit the exclusion of some people from the guarantee of equality based on a simple majority vote.” Yet in a hearing March 6, it appeared that some Supreme Court justices were hesitant to go against the will of the people. Their decision is expected by early June.
Adding to the momentum, this Thursday, New York’s Gov. David Paterson plans to introduce legislation to legalize same-sex marriages in the state. “We’ve got New Hampshire coming up for vote, New York and New Jersey. We’ve got momentum on our side, and we’ve got time on our side,” Lorber said. “When you talk to youth, they just don’t even get what the controversy is all about.”
Iowa’s choices in recent presidential caucuses have made it a bellwether of sorts in presidential races — hence the saying, “As Iowa goes, so goes the nation.” The Iowa decision is important precisely because it’s in the heartland, Taylor said. “It highlights for the nation that marriage equality across the country is inevitable. It’s simply a matter of time and we still have some years to struggle, but we’ve turned the corner as a nation.”
March 5, 2009 | SAN FRANCISCO — It’s time to pop the big question: Will California marry gay couples? That’s the proposal the state Supreme Court will consider on Thursday, when arguments begin against Proposition 8, the recently passed measure that outlawed same-sex marriage, just months after it was legalized.
No one’s done more to spur the court to say “I do” than San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. The 46-year-old doesn’t exactly have the “it” factor of the city’s celebrity mayor, Gavin Newsom, who kicked off the city’s wedding spree five years ago. But Herrera, with his blunt features and everyday mannerisms, is a bit like the wizard behind the curtain, pulling the legal levers to keep this political show going.
When San Francisco was ordered in 2004 to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Herrera immediately hit back with a historic lawsuit against the state. In the years since, he’s led the charge of a legal battle that seemed to be won in May 2008 when the state Supreme Court decided to overturn the ban on gay marriage. But then Proposition 8 made it to the November ballot and passed with 52 percent of the vote. Herrera, among many others, brought a suit against the measure, arguing that it shouldn’t have made it to the ballot in the first place.
He recently spoke with Salon in his stately office overlooking City Hall’s front steps, which have hosted thousands of same-sex newlyweds, about the significance of this high-court decision.
What are the key arguments that will be made in the legal challenge to Proposition 8?
Well, for us, it’s really quite simple. We’re saying that the process for putting Prop. 8 on the ballot was fundamentally flawed; the proper procedure was not a constitutional “amendment” but a constitutional “revision.” For the electorate to change the nature of the equal protections clause of the California Constitution, it would require a constitutional revision. That means that you need a two-thirds vote of the Legislature before you can even put it on the ballot — that’s not what happened in November. Prop. 8 was instead treated as a constitutional amendment and brought directly to the voters.
Prop. 8 also drastically altered the structure of state government; it stopped the courts from applying the equal protection clause of the California Constitution to a protected class of citizens, those being gay folks.
How is it even up for debate whether Proposition 8 should have required a constitutional revision, when the Supreme Court ruled in May that marriage is a fundamental right?
There isn’t a heck of a lot of case law on what constitutes a revision versus an amendment in California. But, because there is a fundamental right at issue that involves a protected class of citizens, we’re saying you can’t make these changes through the amendment process.
What is the strongest argument Proposition 8 backers have against you?
There isn’t a lot of jurisprudence in this area. What they have been saying all along is, “Oh, well, this goes against the will of the voters.” That’s a politically attractive argument, but it ignores that we have a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. The courts are empowered to make determinations about who’s entitled to constitutional protections and, sometimes, they are called upon to ensure that the minority is free from the tyranny of the majority.
If the court doesn’t strike down Proposition 8, should we worry that any minority right could be taken away by a simple majority of voters?
Yes, it’s a distinct possibility. If the courts aren’t allowed to be the arbiters of what equal protection under the law means, what do our constitutional guarantees mean? In that case, any politically disfavored group in the future — women or other minority groups — could have their rights taken away by an adroit and effective political campaign. I don’t think that was what was envisioned when we created our constitution in California.
What would a loss in this case mean for the 18,000 couples who married during the four months gay marriage was legal in the state?
The court will most likely render an opinion on that. It’s our position that there’s no language in Prop. 8 that says it was retroactive, so those marriages are valid.
What did you think about the racially charged finger-pointing after the measure passed?
Obviously, I was disappointed that it passed and I know there has been finger-pointing at a variety of groups, but I like to look at how far we’ve come. Tremendous strides have been made both legally and politically, in terms of educating folks about the issue of marriage equality. That was reflected in the fact that the vote on Prop. 8 was so close.
Do you think the popularity of the film “Milk,” and its recent Oscar wins, has changed public opinion about gay marriage?
Real-life examples educate people. The progress that’s been made over this last decade has largely been thanks to introducing people to individuals that they know, in their family or their neighborhood, who are gay and just want the opportunity to be in a recognized relationship with the person that they love.
The legal back-and-forth over gay marriage has spanned five years now. Will it ever end?
With respect to this case, we’ve only made state law claims — so, what the Supreme Court says here will be the definitive word. That’s not to speak to what happens in other jurisdictions across the country or any federal claims that are raised.
Some might say that, as a straight Catholic, you’re a somewhat unlikely advocate for same-sex marriage. How is it that you’ve become such a dogged defender of gay rights?
Oh, I just think it comes down to my being a believer in equality. The extension of that is ensuring equality for a whole class of citizens that have been denied it for much too long. If you’re a lawyer who believes in the rule of law and civil rights, I don’t see how you can respond any other way.
I was probably involved in this issue before I even realized it. The year before we directly dealt with the issue of marriage equality, my office led the charge to extend the title of spouse to same sex couples with respect to property tax reassessments after the death of a domestic partner. That was the issue right there and we didn’t even realize it at the time.
Has being an outsider to the gay community helped your mission?
It might be that seeing gay marriage defended by a straight married man led some straight people to look at the issue more closely. If that’s true, I’m happy to have served that purpose.
Mayor Newsom was criticized for so radically tackling the issue the way he did in 2004. Could he have taken a better approach?
I’m not going to criticize his approach. It certainly got people focused on the issue and has been complementary to what I’ve done on the legal side; they were mutually reinforcing.
On that note, hours after San Francisco was forced to stop issuing marriage licenses, you filed a lawsuit against the state — but your job certainly didn’t require you to. Why did you decide to keep fighting this legal battle?
Because I knew that it was the only way we were going to get the issue dealt with. We had the lawsuit ready, because I knew the court wasn’t going to get to the heart of the issue. We were already involved in it; if you go to battle, you better be prepared to take the fight to its logical conclusion.
Did you have any idea that the battle would go on for so long, though?
Did I think we’d be sitting here five years later? Probably not. But the wheels of justice sometimes grind slowly.
Can you predict an outcome in this case?
I never do that. But I’m confident that we have a very strong argument. When you look at the concept of constitutional protections and what the courts have traditionally been empowered to do, I don’t see how you can come up with any other decision than in our favor.
What’s your next move if the court doesn’t strike down Proposition 8?
I don’t know at this point. We’ll review our options, consult with our partners who have been involved in this legal battle alongside us for the past five years, and then we’ll make the decision that we have to make. But I’m confident that justice is on our side and that we’ll have this dealt with once and for all.
While Milk does much to revive the history of the gay liberation movement, it misses a few big opportunities.
Milk goes into the Oscars with eight nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, for Sean Penn. Aside from 2005’s Brokeback Mountain this is one of the only recent big-budget films to deal sympathetically with the lives of gay people.
The movie is framed by a spoken narrative that Harvey Milk recorded “only to be played if I am assassinated.” But the dramatic tension in the film doesn’t depend on the anticipation of Milk’s death. Instead the viewer is drawn into the story by Milk’s transformation from a closeted insurance salesman (who jokes that he is “responsible for all the evils that afflict society”) to a beacon of hope for the modern gay liberation movement.
As if on cue, the film’s release date—December 22, 2008—coincided with a national staging of protests against the passage of California’s Proposition 8 and similar ballot measures elsewhere that eliminated the right of same sex couples to legally marry. Milk, then, turning the dial of time back a click, holds up a mirror to the American psyche even as it pays homage to a father of gay liberation.
Behind the film’s opening credits, newsreel footage of men in mid-century suits being corralled into paddy wagons from bars and other meeting places gives a quick history lesson, shows the trauma that police brutality, criminalization and public scorn have inflicted on the gay community. We hear the echo of that theme when we learn that the film’s antagonist, Dan White (played by Josh Brolin), is consigned to the hellish prison of internalized homophobia. “He is one of us,” Milk confides to his staff after White pays a visit to Milk’s new office in City Hall. And, later, White drunkenly confesses to Harvey, “I have issues.”
While White and Milk (what an ironic pairing of names!) are forever linked by Milk’s murder, it is another couple that is central to the film—the sumptuously portrayed romance between Milk and his lover, Scott Smith (James Franco, who deserved an Oscar nod). From the first tender sex scene between Milk and Smith, openly gay director Van Sant demonstrates a masterly feel for the subtle electric fire that crackles between men who are in love with each other, and in lust. But the romance does not stop there. Milk and Smith develop into an intimate couple who keep each other in check. Smith comes to represent the earthy, live-for-the-day aspect of their gay partnership, while Milk embodies the loftier, shooting-for-the-stars energy that will eventually propel him into politics.
Refreshingly, when Milk and Smith separate it’s not because gay love is impossible (see: Bent, Querelle, Brokeback Mountain, Wilde, etc.) but because political life is stressful. Their falling out also augurs Milk’s growing involvement in the “political machine” and the potential for reactionary violence that a gay man’s reaching for power entails. Toward the end of the film, Milk watches with fascination a staging of Puccini’s Tosca, which ends in several tragic, twist-of-cruel-fate deaths. At the denouement, Van Sant has Milk staring out of a City Hall window at the opera house as he is fatally shot by White.
Where Do We Go From Here?
For all its virtues, the film does miss a few golden opportunities. Milk often speaks about the role of the “gay movement,” but what exactly is this movement? There are assorted references to the history of the oppression of gay people, as in Nazi Germany and under the thumb of oppressive laws and Christian fundamentalism in the United States. But the vision of this movement could have been elaborated more clearly with a gesture toward Harry Hay, an earlier “father of gay liberation” who was doubtless an influence on Milk. Hay’s argument that homosexuals are in fact “a people” with a purpose in society is a message implicit in everything that Milk carries forward.
Also, the film does not find a way to highlight more effectively Milk’s vision of forging a coalition between gays and other oppressed minority groups, namely (non-gay) people of color, women, and the elderly. In The Times of Harvey Milk, the 1984 documentary that this film is based on, the budding politico says, “Gays, ethnic minorities, and feminists need to link together so that we can affect the total direction of the city [San Francisco]” toward more inclusive and therefore more authentic forms of democracy and social justice.
The movement as portrayed in the film is predominantly white—which may have been a reflection of the demographics of the gay Castro in the 1970s; however, Milk’s awareness of the deep, wide roots of civil rights was clearly a more pronounced aspect of his vision than was captured in this film (footage in The Times of Harvey Milk reveals more direct involvement with people of color). Nevertheless, the theme of unity is rendered movingly in Milk—the filmmakers gathered more than 2000 volunteers along with 200 paid extras to recreate the candlelight vigil for the slain hero, and to create, in effect, a new act of mourning. (It was shot in two takes and “later digitally enhanced to achieve the the look of the crowd winding all the way down Market Street to the Castro from our shoot location near City Hall,” one of the filmmakers explains.)
At a rain-drenched press conference after his victory in the race for a spot on the Board of Supervisors, Milk jokes, “Anita Bryant said gay people brought drought to San Francisco. Well it seems that the drought is over.” The joke is also on Milk, for his ending of the drought leads to a fresh deluge of collective pain in the politically rudderless decades that followed his assassination. (White himself becomes the symbol of the most difficult-to-embrace aspects of gay liberation—one’s disowned, despised, and fragmentary self.)
The film thus leaves the viewer to consider the direction of the modern gay liberation movement. Where do we go from here? Milk underscores the importance of combining the dual strategies of carrying the torch—in the streets, the courts, the voting booth, and the movie theater—while also turning that light inward.
First things first. Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” is a movie to be thankful for. Go see it, tonight if you can, and in a crowded theater. See it because as a grass-roots activist and California’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk led and won the fight to defeat Proposition 6, an anti-gay measure as bigoted in its own time as Proposition 8 is today. Or because it features one of our best actors at his least actorly—in his most winning performance since “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Or because on Nov. 4, civil rights took a step back on the very day it leaped forward—though Milk would have known how to use that defeat to galvanize a movement. See it because Milk is a legend in his community and in San Francisco but he hasn’t yet been written into the history of American civil rights at large, where he belongs.
Hell, see it because it’s going to take all Wednesday night to defrost the turkey, anyway, and how often does a movie about a martyred hero leave you wanting to buy tinted prescription glasses and dance in the street?
“Milk” does not exactly paint Dan White as a homophobe or racist—the scenes in which White rants against a gay demonstration and fights to keep a facility for troubled young people out of his district tell only half the story. Before White, a Vietnam veteran and former crusader for racial justice in his own Fire Department, came completely unhinged, he was supportive of gay San Francisco. SF Weekly has the backstory.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, writer on HBO’s “Big Love,” was raised in the Mormon church. Last week he told Terry Gross how Harvey Milk inspired him to come out, and he offers some astute insights into church leaders’ possible motivations for backing Proposition 8.
If you live in a city or town with a gay neighborhood large enough for its own theater, see it there. After the credits roll—and yes, you’ll stay through the credits, weeping and clapping—take advantage of the fact that for a minute “Milk” will have done for that crowd what Harvey Milk did for the Castro district: help transform a group of isolated individuals into a community. Scan that community for cute strangers. Smile, strike up a conversation, and then invite them back to your place to share some cheap merlot and watch the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” by Robert Epstein (see sidebar to watch online)—because these two films belong together.
Epstein’s Oscar-winning documentary, which he began working on before Milk’s assassination, is a marvelously constructed narrative of both Milk’s achievements and the political context of civil rights in the late 1970s. And now it’s also worth seeing just for the pleasure of appreciating how well Penn captures the real life politician’s gestures, charm and infectious humor, and how well Van Sant and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, capture the ebullience of those first heady days of pre-AIDS freedom in the Castro.
Almost as impressive are James Franco as Scott Smith, Milk’s longtime boyfriend, and Josh Brolin—who specializes in bad guy pathos—as ally-turned-assassin Dan White. Diego Luna’s twitchy performance as an unhinged lover is an embarrassing distraction, and Van Sant and Black spend a bit too much time on Milk’s private life, at the expense of the much more gripping drama taking place back of Milk’s camera store, where he and his ad-hoc advisory council plotted out his campaign strategies.
Which is why—inspired, tired and a little drunk—you and your new best friends might now take a look around your living room, and admit that it’s not nearly as shabby as the collection of beat-up couches and overflowing ashtrays that Milk and his staff used to plan some of most important campaigns in the history of American civil rights.
Sean Penn’s spectacular laugh lines inspire, but it’s Epstein’s film that blocks out Milk’s strategies and political philosophy in ways that Hollywood can only touch on, what with the need to make time for Love, Loss, Moments of Quiet Reckoning, and extraneous flashbacks to scenes that that were extraneous to begin with. Epstein instead explores Milk’s effect on some of the labor leaders he worked with, his almost spooky mutual love affair with news cameras, his insistence on the need for minorities to find strength by working together, and the darker days of unrest following White’s unjustly light sentencing, which culminated in a riot that did a million dollars worth of damage to City Hall and landed almost 200 San Franciscans in the hospital.
“The Times of Harvey Milk” is in essence a riveting primer in effective grass-roots activism. Epstein’s cameras followed Milk’s supporters straight into hostile neighborhoods where they reached out to voters one by one. Today, Milk would have sought out newly influential minorities through churches, pamphleteering and precinct walking. And we can be sure he’d have condemned intimidation campaigns against individuals who supported Prop. 8 and the recent name-calling by angry demonstrators directed at African-Americans on the streets of Los Angeles. Instead, he’d have preached a relentless optimism, the kind that rallies masses and empowers individuals.
“I know you cannot live on hope alone,” he told an enthusiastic crowd on the steps of City Hall 30 years ago. “But without it, life is not worth living. And you … and you … and you … gotta give ’em hope.”
Hope is Milk’s legacy, and action his imperative. And if in the course of following both, you also brought some cute strangers home, Harvey Milk would not disapprove.