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“Milk” Celebrates Life of Gay Activist

Harvey Milk's fight resonates today as gay activists fight against the passage of Proposition 8 in California.

Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk in
Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk in "Milk," which documents the life of the gay activist. (Milk)

In a year that’s short on Oscar bait, “Milk” is the first holiday-release hopeful that fills the void. Sean Penn delivers a stellar performance as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man ever to be elected to public office in America. An equally impressive supporting cast surrounds Penn, including Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch. Franco plays Milk’s partner, Scott Smith, and the relationship between Penn and Franco’s characters is particularly tender, serving as the emotional center of the film. Brolin also gives a nuanced performance as Dan White, Milk’s fellow council member who eventually shoots and kills both Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

Harvey Milk ran for office with the hopes of providing a voice for the gay population in the Castro District of San Francisco. While the city seemed to be a safe haven from the intolerance of small town America, Milk’s friends and neighbors were constantly hassled and even beaten by police. Most gay residents carried a whistle for safety. After several failed attempts, Milk eventually won the election by rallying the gay community and building unlikely coalitions with the Teamsters and the elderly.

The film features a controversial ballot initiative threatening gay rights and a progressive politician’s speech about hope, and it is impossible not to be struck by the film’s relevancy today. Milk and his team of campaign staff work to defeat Proposition 6, a ballot initiative that would have made it lawful to fire gay teachers, as well as any public school employees who supported gay rights. Milk tirelessly fought against Prop. 6, even debating the initiative’s proponent John Briggs on his home turf in Orange County. During an anti-Prop. 6 rally, Milk gave his famous hope speech, arguing that young gay people around the country needed to hear about the activism in California and have hope that there is a place where they too could belong. Prop. 6 was defeated by more than a million votes.

Fast forward to the 2008 election. A progressive candidate won the White House, but the gay rights movement suffered a major blow when Proposition 8 passed in California. The initiative amends the state constitution to restrict the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Although the final election results won’t be published until December, it looks as though Prop. 8 will pass with around 52 percent of the vote.

Upon hearing the disappointing news, anti-Prop. 8 protesters took to the streets, first in California, and then in other cities around the country. The protests show that Prop. 8 isn’t just a California issue, but a civil rights issue with far-reaching effects. California is often seen as a bellwether state for progressive policy, and both sides of this issue will use the Prop. 8 example accordingly to take their fight to other states.

Back in September, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) vetoed a bill that would have made Milk’s birthday a statewide “day of significance,” arguing that Milk should instead be recognized on a local level. Unfortunately, Governor Schwarzenegger, who opposed Prop. 8, doesn’t see the importance of Harvey Milk’s legacy. Milk may have fought in the streets of San Francisco, but he was fighting for the rights of gay and lesbians across the country.

The passage of Prop. 8 begs the question: Have we really come that far from the days of Harvey Milk? A few states have legalized gay marriage, most recently Connecticut, but for every step forward, it seems as though there are just as many steps back. Protests against the passage of Prop. 8 may have little influence on the political process in the short term. Harvey Milk would praise the actions for providing hope for young gays and lesbians who still reside in intolerant households and communities. Milk and his community organizing protégé Cleve Jones, played by Hirsch, remind us that taking to the streets can bring about social change.

“Milk” has a limited release on November 26 and a wider release on December 5.

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Anne Shoup

Associate Director, Press Relations