We almost floated out of the Castro Theatre, holding hands and prancing down the sidewalk last week. The biopic Milk transported these two aging, long-partnered, lesbians back to our youth when being gay was about wanting to get laid, not about getting married. If you have a chance, do go see it and share the joy and terror that was the emerging gay movement of the 1970s.
The film and its times recalled for me a line from the murdered Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton:
Isn't that always the case when people are coming into the struggle for their freedom?
Of course I've got commentary. Hopefully most viewers of the movie will notice an absence. Aside from Anne Kronenburg, there are NO women in this story. That's true to the period. Lesbians in that time were more often fighting alongside other women still barely winning the rudiments of equality in employment, getting credit, raising children, etc. Gays might have been emerging, but the Equal Rights Amendment was going down to defeat and we cared.
I lived no more than a mile and half from the scenes in Milk, but in my little local political world, the struggle was about whether Latinos would finally elect a Latino to the Board of Supervisors from the Mission neighborhood (didn't happen) -- and how those of us who were lesbian and gay should relate to Latino fears that we were changing their turf.
Many San Francisco lesbians of the period were glad those boys in the Castro were there, but their world was not ours. Of necessity, we were more about survival and sobriety. Women did not get deeply integrated into LGBT struggles until the male leadership of the 1970s was decimated by AIDS in the 1980s.
The film makes me want to go back and restudy the campaign that defeated the Briggs initiative, the 1978 measure that would have fired gay teachers, and anyone who spoke up for them. We won that one, 65-35. Certainly the role Harvey Milk played, vividly portrayed in the film, demanding that gays "come out" and debating homophobes was a part of the victory. My ground level recollection of the campaign has several features:
- the Briggs was the first time I remember hip and groovy straight people incorporating the struggle for gay rights as part of their self-understanding of liberal identity;
- and, contrary to received dogma about how you win elections, the anti-Briggs forces never came close to achieving unity of message and organization. There were at least three major anti-Briggs campaigns that I can remember; affiliates of each thought the others were going to ruin us.
But that wasn't Harvey's game. He was about speaking out and standing up for ourselves. You have to love Sean Penn's portrayal of the guy as the Pied Piper of Gay Liberation. See the film if you can.