Yesterday Mom, Bob and I piled into the car and headed to "town" (They live sixteen miles south of Phoenix, so any trip is considered "going to town." I always think we should have a horse and buggy when I hear this, and wonder why we aren't bringing any food to sell at the market.) We were off to do a bit of "Black Friday" shopping and then to see Milk, the new Gus Van Sant movie starring Sean Penn and Josh Brolin.
As all reviewers have noted, Penn is absolutely amazing as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States. He was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (aka City Council) in 1977, after three unsuccessful campaigns: two for the Board, and one for the California Assembly. Milk, the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Castro Street," was a neighborhood organizer on Castro just as that neighborhood was becoming the center of gay San Francisco. It took a while for the city's gay establishment to respect and support him, but eventually he was the linchpin of that establishment.
Today SF is one of the most gay-friendly cities in America, so it is hard to imagine that Milk and his boyfriend Scotty Smith faced intense discrimination when they moved to Castro St. in 1972. But they did. Another revelation (for me anyway): Milk didn't even move to SF until he was in his 40's, after years in the closet (or at least, somewhat in the closet) in New York. He met Scotty at a subway stop in NYC in 1970.
We all know how it ends. Milk, and Mayor George Moscone, were shot dead by disgruntled ex-Supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978. White's attorneys employed the infamous "Twinkie Defense" to argue that he had diminished capacity over his actions, and White received only a seven year sentence for two point blank murders. (California voters were so disgusted with the Twinkie Defense that they abolished it--that year's Proposition 8--in 1982.) He was paroled after 5 years, and ended up committing suicide, at the age of 39, less than two years later.
Josh Brolin plays White, and makes sure that he is not presented as a buffoon but as a troubled person. White represented a conservative district in San Francisco, and was the only Supervisor to vote against a gay rights ordinance championed by Milk. But he also invited Milk to his son's christening (he's invited many Supervisors, but Milk was the only one who attended.) They both took office in 1978, and early on it seemed possible that they could work together on some issues at least. But Milk was much savvier at political maneuvering within the Board, and immediately cultivated a key partnership with Mayor Moscone. So by the time White took his fateful action, he was marginalized within the city's political community. Of course none of this justifies White's decision, and he should have served a much longer sentence. But labeling the murders an act of hatred against Milk--who immediately became a martyr because of White's actions, drawing 30,000 candlelight marchers that evening--is too simplistic.
One of Milk's most successful campaigns, in addition to his own Board seat, was opposition to California Proposition 6 in 1978. (It failed less than three weeks before White murdered him.) Prop. 6 would have banned openly gay teachers from working in California schools, and was offered in the wake of several anti-gay measures that had passed around the country. Milk debated state Assemblyman John Briggs, the sponsor of Prop. 6, before friendly and hostile audiences throughout California. Eventually the Log Cabin Republicans--a Republican gay group that still exists today--rose in opposition to the bill, and even Ronald Reagan opposed it. The bill went down to resounding defeat. Milk definitely did his part, but as ever the story is more complicated the closer you examine it.
As Milk arrives in theaters, California voters have taken a conservative turn by supporting Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage. A key strategy against Prop. 6 was to reveal how everyone in the state knew at least one gay person. Humanizing the story was critical. This will also be key to overturning Prop. 8, which will happen in the long run. Harvey Milk endured three defeats before his two triumphs of becoming Board supervisor and defeating Prop. 6. The arc of history remains long, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, but it bends toward justice.