Monday, April 28, 2008

The Times (They Are A Changing... For the Most Part... Sorta)

I watched Rob Epstein's 1984 Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. It's a beautiful and thoroughly emotion-ringing account of the life of San Francisco's (and Americas) first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, who was assassinated along with the Major of San Francisco George Moscone in 1978.

The film is utterly captivating and it's fascinating to watch all the wonderful archival footage of this honourable man. It's a definite must-see for anyone who has even a passing interest in the history of the gay rights movement and politics in general. It's a study on the mechanics of a flawed political system.

The frightening part about The Times of Harvey Milk was that it was released in 1984, yet there are still people like Dan White (Milk and Moscone's killer) and John Briggs (a politician who tried to give schools the right to fire any homosexual teachers with "Proposition 6") around and in plain sight spewing anti-GLBT garbage of TV/radio/etc and barely anyone outside of the GLBT community seems to take any notice. It took a "mini movement", if you want to call it that, to get Jay Leno to remark at about his insulting interview with Ryan Phillippe where he asked the actor, who in his first acting role portrayed the first gay character on daytime television, to give his "best gay look". Yet I doubt in America the story circulated anywhere in the mainstream news media, and so Leno gave an insincere apology and has moved on. Australian talk show host Rove McManus routinely asks celebrity guests "who would you turn gay for?" All a bit of a laugh (hey, he asked k.d. lang who she would "turn straight for"), but then he goes on and uses gays and lesbians as the butt of jokes several more times throughout his show.


I cried during The Times of Harvey Milk for a multitude of reasons. I cried because I am happy that I live in a time when I can be myself without the threat of losing my job. I'm happy that I can be myself around friends and family and it's not a cause for social pariahism (is that a word?) and that I have the forum and the ability to express my thoughts and beliefs and that I don't need to hide it.

I also cried, however, out of sadness. Sadness for the fact that there are still people out there who think it is alright to insult and defame not only the GLBT community, but any minority whether it be race, sexuality or so on. That they think just because they have "god" on their side, that it's alright to be hypocritical bigots. I imagine someone like Harvey Milk got into Heaven (if there is a such a place) a hell of a lot quicker than any member of the Westboro Church or any placard-waving "all American boy" like Dan White.

I also cried out of horror that a man such as White could get away with a mere eight-year sentence, and five year stint in prison once he got parole, for the brutal killing of two innocent unsuspecting people and I think the talking heads in the documentary have a point that if it were only Moscone that was killed then White would have received a much stronger sentence (he snuck into City Hall through a side window so to avoid the guards from discovering his gun and ammunition for crying out loud!), but because he also killed Milk, a man who was most surely not a supporting of White, his killings were justified. Milk tipped him over the edge.

I thought it was beautiful to watch all the people who were connected to Harvey, whether it be through his political career or just simply following his message of tolerance and acceptance, express their love for this man and their immense sadness at his passing. I really liked the stuff with Anne Kronenberg, Jeannine Yeomans and Tom Ammiamo, a gay teacher whose life could have been directly affected by the passing of John Briggs' "proposition 6". Although it is Sally M Gearhart (below with Harvey) whose passionate and intelligent dissection of the period proves the most insightful and moving.


The passage in the film that describes the outpouring of grief immediately following the killing and the horrible violence know as the White Night Riots that followed was particularly touching to me. I feel so proud that so many people in a time when homosexuality was still taboo in all aspects of society could go out onto the street and march in a show of solidarity. Harvey Milk did so much in his relatively short political life and I just hope that in another 24 years we can look back and be proud of how much further we've come.

The Times of Harvey Milk was released in 1984 and Dan White committed suicide in 1985. The film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, which feels like it should be seen as very significant although queer cinema has never been particularly embraced by the Academy. Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk is set for release later this year with Sean Penn in the role of Harvey Milk.

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