Milk: The Man Who Set America Straight About Gay Rights

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The Independent/UK

Milk: The Man Who Set America Straight About Gay Rights

The release of a Hollywood biopic about Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected politician, could not be more timely.

Guy Adams

Sean Penn, right, stars as Harvey Milk in the Hollywood biopic. (Getty images)

The streetcars are being renamed and the red carpets rolled out in
the Castro district of San Francisco for the world premiere of Milk,
the latest film to break Hollywood's long-running taboo over

A roar of approval greeted Sean Penn and Josh Brolin as they swept past
several hundred people who had gathered on Tuesday to applaud the biopic of
Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected politician who was
assassinated in a corridor of the nearby City Hall 30 years ago.

Many in the crowd also used the occasion to protest, waving signs urging "Vote
No on Proposition Eight". The measure would eliminate same-sex marriage
in California if it were to be passed next week, and the battle serves as a
topical reminder of how much still stands in the way of the movement that
has elevated Milk to iconic status.

The colourful event brought considerable star power to Castro Street, the main
street through the most famous gay and lesbian district in San Francisco,
where Milk's reign as city supervisor was cut short after he was shot and
killed along with the Mayor, George Moscone, having served only 11 months in

The actors Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and the director Gus Van Sant - the man
behind the 1997 film Good Will Hunting - were joined by local politicians,
together with Milk's old friends and contacts, many dressed as Seventies
drag queens.

Yet it also highlighted a serious and pressing case of history repeating
itself. Three decades ago, Harvey Milk was responsible for leading the
campaign against a ballot measure that seems eerily reminiscent of
Proposition Eight.

Proposition Six would have banned gays from teaching in California on the
grounds that homosexuals were, at the time, considered more likely to be
motivated by paedophilia. Milk's against-the-odds success in defeating the
ballot measure is still seen as one of the most inspiring victories in the
gay rights movement.

"Harvey Milk was prophetic, a pioneer of gay rights at a time when people
needed it most," said Peter Novak, a researcher on Milk's career at the
University of San Francisco, who also had a role as an extra in the film. "He
was articulate and founded a defence for the movement that continues to this
day. His death was also a significant moment in recognising what was at
stake in the struggle for equality. He used to say: 'if a bullet should
enter my brain, let it destroy every closet door,' and he knew his death
would propel the gay rights movement forward."

Milk, who is played by Penn in the film, was assassinated by a right-wing
former city supervisor called Dan White (Brolin), who was upset by the
premature demise of his own political career.

Having been brought up in New York, Milk served in the US Navy, and became
politically active after moving to San Francisco in the early Seventies. A
gift for speechmaking that has seen him widely compared to Barack Obama,
helped him to forge links with the local electorate, trade unions, and the
city's Asian community. He was elected to office at the third time of asking
in 1977.

The new film, which charts Milk's life, comes almost a quarter of a century
after Rob Epstein's The Times of Harvey Milk won an Academy Award for best

The new film features a scene in which Penn enjoys a long French kiss with his
co-star, James Franco. In a recent interview, Franco revealed that shortly
after the scene was shot, Penn text-messaged his former wife Madonna saying: "I
just popped my cherry kissing a guy. I thought of you, I don't know why."
The singer texted back: "Congratulations!"

Although Milk's career as an elected official lasted only 11 months, he
pioneered several major pieces of equal rights legislation. His
anti-Proposition Six campaign culminated in an Obama-like appeal for gay
people and civil rights advocates to contribute "just one dollar"
to fight the measure. Yet it came to an end on 27 November, 1978, in a
wood-panelled corridor of San Francisco's City Hall. Appropriately enough,
this is where thousands of local gay couples have been married in the months
since California's Supreme Court voted to make same-sex weddings legal.

Dan White had resigned after a political dispute with Milk and other
supervisors, claiming that his salary was not enough to carry out the job. A
few days later, he changed his mind and asked Moscone to rescind the
resignation. When that request was refused, he blamed the Mayor and Milk in
equal measure.

Though he hadn't previously shown signs of violence, the refusal affected
White badly. A few days later, he broke through a downstairs window of City
Hall to avoid metal detectors and killed Milk and Moscone with
hollow-pointed bullets from a revolver.

At the trial, White was sentenced to seven years for involuntary manslaughter,
having convinced the jury he had carried out the killing on a whim as he
hadn't slept for days and had been bingeing on junk food. It is now seen as
one of the worst miscarriages of American justice.

His successful use of the so-called "Twinkie defence," named after
the snack that White blamed for his state of mind, meant that the plea of "diminished
capacity" was later expunged from Californian law. The sentence caused
small-scale riots, and inspired the gay rights movement to secure Milk's

Today, the tale will again be thrust to the centre of the public's
consciousness. "Harvey Milk is a true American hero," Van Sant
told reporters on the red carpet on Tuesday. "He's a great example of a
man representing his community and city."

Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's Mayor, who pioneered same-sex marriage in
California, and helped to install a bust of Milk at City Hall, announced
that a streetcar used in the filming would be renamed in Milk's honour,
saying: "This story couldn't have happened anywhere else."

In Hollywood, the film's nationwide release later this month is sparking
widespread debate over how its production company, Focus Features, will try
to sell to middle America a title which contains several explicitly
homosexual scenes.

Only a small number of advertisements have been bought, and the film's trailer
has received limited showings. Producers have kept it away from film
festivals and are restricting media screenings, in a strategy aimed to make
it become a "word of mouth" success like the 2005 film Brokeback
Mountain starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

They may still face an uphill struggle. "At a recent Vegas test-screening
for a middle-class, straight audience, several senior citizens tried to
leave after a gay love scene in the early moments, but couldn't because they
were trapped in the middle of a row," according to the Hollywood
Reporter this week. "The seniors eventually said they were happy that
they stayed but, like independent voters in an election contest, these are
the very viewers that Focus must woo."

A week before one of the most crucial ballots in the history of gay rights in
the USA, the marketing conundrum inspired by Milk's biopic provides the
movement he prematurely left behind with a graphic reminder of the troubles
it still faces.

"You know, the fact that we are still at a stage where you cannot market
this as a mainstream film shows how far we still have left to come,"
said Mr Novak.

Milk the legend

* Born in 1930, Milk was popular at school and studied at New York State
Teachers College.

* He served in the navy during the Korean War and then worked as a banker.

* He became the first openly gay city official in California in 1977.

* Milk fought anattempt in 1978 to ban gay teachers.

* He was shot dead later that year.

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