This is the first in a series of blog posts this week, inspired by movies high-lighted in last night’s Oscars Awards ceremony. Today, the director of our Advocacy & Witness staff group, Meg Riley, talks about the movie, Milk. Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.
Harvey Milk was murdered the year I came out, 1978. At that time in my life, I ate, drank, worked, volunteered, danced, slept, read, listen, processed and otherwise lived lesbian. Yet I don’t remember hearing a word about Milk’s murder until New Year’s Eve, 1979, when Holly Near and Meg Christian came from California to Minnesota to perform at A Woman’s CoffeeHouse, and I first heard the song, We are a Gentle, Angry People. At that point, Near described the tense scene of thousands of angry people in the streets, and how this song was created to focus and channel their energy nonviolently.
Watching the movie, Milk, it is completely clear why a 24/7 young dyke wouldn’t have heard about Milk and his death. At that point, at least in my neck of the woods, gays were men and lesbians were feminists. My community was much more about processing the relationships between heterosexual women and lesbians, or about white women and women of color, than it was about processing those between gay men and lesbians. Indeed, in my own life and in the life of BGLT culture, it took the AIDS epidemic to really bring lesbians and gay men together in significant ways.
Still, having watched the 1984 documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, I noticed that even the tiny bit of lesbian/gay solidarity that Milk embodied had been edited out of this most recent version of his story. With the exception of the motorcycle riding dyke who was Milk’s campaign manager and longtime assistant, there are no women at all in the story. When Milk grabs the mike and lists groups with whom gay men need to be in solidarity, women are nowhere mentioned.
Having said all that, I loved this movie and was thrilled that Sean Penn got Best Actor for his work, because I thought he was fantastic. Penn moved into a level of comfort with straight-acting-gay work that included kissing and touch—light years ahead of Tom Hanks, who was not allowed to kiss his partner in the movie Philadelphia, for which he also won an Oscar.
Mostly I’m thrilled when I think of the young kids in the middle of adolescent angst about emerging sexual preference who now have a role model for coming out proud, as well as some information about how BGLT rights have evolved to the point where they have. I hope that this movie is tonic for self-hate and for fear, not only for white gay men but for everyone who feels scared and marginalized in this world. May we each imagine shouting fearlessly into a bullhorn, on behalf of those who have no voice, “I’m here to recruit you!”
The UUA offers a study guide to the movie, Milk.