Monday, November 24, 2008


Harvey Milk makes us all look lazy (as most martyrs will.) It was San Francisco in the 70's and gay pride was suddenly a thing. Blame the war, blame the hippies, blame revolution-- but suddenly gay neighborhoods started feeling something other than shame... they were proud and happy and joyous.

Gay men and women in America had been told for 200 years, since America's bright and shining existence, that they aren't normal, that something is wrong with them. They were being called the devil and that they were the evil amongst good. That they are the problem and an embodiment of sin. Gay teenagers were killing themselves in shame and desperation. Violent raids and riots were breaking out in neighborhoods like the Castro, and the people's elected officials weren't doing anything. They were actually part of the problem.

But suddenly it was 1970 and there was San Francisco and a camera shop owner named Harvey Milk decided to make some changes. His story is one of heartbreak and hope, love and revolution. What a funny thing to have to fight for, right? Love and acceptance? Harvey Milk died so that others could live-- sounds super familiar, doesn't it...

Sean Penn stared as Milk, with James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, and Allison Pill as his world. The film jumps between real footage and acting which creates a very clear idea of what this movement felt like. The film stills absolutely mirror the photograph's I've seen of Milk and his campaign which validate its deep sadness and real joy.

This is one of the first movies about gay pride to make a splash in contemporary culture which is kind of shocking. Brokeback Mountain, sure, but this is about openly gay relationships, not hidden, contraband ones. Always use the steps when you come here, Milk told Cleve at San Francisco's city hall. Wear the tightest jeans you can find. You can make a grander entrance that way. And always with Sean Penn's stunning and heartfelt smile.

Milk believed deeply in being yourself, being proud, loving fully. He didn't try to hetero-ize himself or his campaign for the good of the vote. This was extremely risky for a state and a legislature seeing an openly gay man run for the first time. Wouldn't it have been easier had he quieted it down a bit? Snuck in and took over slowly over time? It wasn't Milk's way. There is nothing to be ashamed of, he told the nation. I am Harvey Milk and I am here to recruit you!

The win was beautiful. Glorious. The rein was everything it should be. And we all knew, every one of us, that he was eventually going to be shot. I, however, was not at all prepared for the embodiment and the aftermath of that crime. Fellow Supervisor Dan White shot both Milk and the Mayor their own offices after losing his governmental position over a gay issue vote. It wasn't a mystery, it wasn't a sniper or a hit and run. It was a man with a gun in a room. He served five years for manslaughter. Five years. For manslaughter. The defense arguing that White's bad diet of junk food and sweets caused a chemical imbalance that caused him to commit murder. WHAT?!

After Milk's death, 30,000 people marched the streets in a candlelit vigil, mourning the death of a man so very imperitave to the lives of so many. His life and death rocked the world. It was beautiful.

And as I just read on Wikipedia, writer John Cloud remarked on his influence, "After he defied the governing class of San Francisco in 1977 to become a member of its board of supervisors, many people—straight and gay—had to adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed." YA THINK!? We've still a long way to go, America...

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