I was born in 1970 in small town New Zealand. I grew up in the 80s in country NSW. I was in a closet inside a closet. I came out in 1995 in Sydney. My family coped. Nearly all my friends stayed friends. I can be open at work. I owe a lot to the previous generations of sexuality and gender rights activists for making my life so easy.
Going to see “Milk” is a sharp reminder of how far the non-heterosexuals amongst us have come in our struggle for human rights and respect.
Harvey Milk put his life on the line in San Francisco in the 1970s. He was the inspirer – and eventually the elected representative – of the gay ‘community’ based in the Castro neighbourhood of the city. He combined gay rights with a working class platform to make history.
Sean Penn puts his career on the line by playing Harvey. Or maybe not… The fact this film is finally being told by Hollywood is a sign of the success in the cultural and legal battle for equal rights. I hope he wins prizes.
Much of the plot is driven by the movement’s response to Anita Bryant’s ‘Save the Children’ campaign. The singer and orange promoter campaigned to roll back the very limited anti-discrimination in employment victories won in a few places in the US by the mid 70s. California became the flashpoint, with a referendum on ‘Proposition 6’ aimed at sacking gay teachers and their supporters.
In a desperate move Harvey insists that his supporters come out to their families, friends and workmates. Controversially he hopes to prove that homophobia makes no sense when it’s a loved one or trusted colleague who is a target of the discrimination.
One of the sharpest scenes amid the campaigning is when Harvey gets a call from a desperately isolated young man in the Mid West about to be sent by his parents to a hospital to fix his homosexuality disorder.
The emotional moments in the film are handled without sentimentality and the 1970s are lovingly recreated by Gus Van Sant, who directed the gay-friendly ‘My Own Private Idaho’ (1991) and ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’ (1993).
Harvey Milk was a reformer who understood that civic power – and the political deals that go with it – could secure some rights for homosexuals. He united with unionised workers to defend their rights and got their support in return. He made alliances with the Chinese community. We see his team mobilising the local community on the street, demanding their rights and threatening mayhem if their voices aren’t heard by City Hall.
Once elected we get a glimpse of a more cynical – however effective – side to his political tactics: organising angry street marches only to cool them down in order to position himself as the one man, “The Mayor of Castro Street”, who could stop a threatened ‘riot’ in exchange for rights.
Of course the struggle continues. We can’t even get equal marriage rights from Kevin Rudd, at least not while Family First Senator Steve Fielding keeps his kingmaker hold in the Senate. He got in with the less than 2% ‘Anita Bryant’ vote on ALP preferences in Victoria in 2004. Anti-gay bullying and violence is still a traumatic fact of life for its victims and suicide rates remain higher for young gays than their straight peers. In lots of countries it is impossible to come out and very dangerous – sometimes even punished by death – to love and be the person you want.
“Milk” should have a worldwide audience to celebrate past victories and to inspire the victories to come.