One thing I am especially thankful for this year is the fact that I was in the States on the opening day for Gus van Sant’s newest film, Milk. Seeing the film reminded me of the many thanks I owe my gay forbearers.
Yesterday I found myself outside the Mayan box-office window in Denver a few minutes before 12:30 waiting to buy tickets for the 1 o’clock showing. By the time I got in line, I was not first, I was maybe tenth, and by the time the sales started, the line progressed down the block nearly reaching the front door of the nearby drug store. The queers were out in force.
For those of you unfamiliar with the subject of the film, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay individual elected to office in the United States. Coming at the height of the early anti-gay Anita Bryant efforts, his election to office helped give voice and recognition to underappreciated and underrepresented parts of the San Francisco community: Gays, Lesbians, and Hippies.
As a member of the city’s Board of Supervisors, Milk was responsible for getting the city’s gay rights ordinance passed and for making people pick up after their dogs. I’d support him for either one of these causes. Put them together and he’s my personal hero. Unfortunately, Milk and the San Francisco mayor were assassinated by a disgruntled fellow member of the Board of Supervisors.
I’m not spoiling anything by announcing this here—this fact is made clear in the first 5 minutes.
Instead the film is a story of how the individual came to be somebody—it wasn’t until his 40th birthday when a one-night-stand helps him understand that he could do more with his life. Moving from New York City to San Francisco, Milk opens a camera shop, supports businesses that supports gays, and helps negotiate a tenuous détente with the police. His impassioned plea is to “never blend in”. He was a three-time loser: two times for Supervisor, one time for Assemblyman—and then he got into office.
Yet even as a loser he was making a difference in the lives of gay people all over the United States. Even on the news as a loser, he was giving hope to people growing up in rural areas. As a winner he gained the power to make an impassioned and effective argument that banning homosexuals from the classroom, plus those supporting them, was not good public policy—convincing voters to vote that way.
Gus van Sant did a wonderful job and his selection of Sean Penn was brilliant. He’s clearly established himself as one of the best directors going right now. It was just over a year ago I watched Paranoid Park, a film about skateboarders in Portland, Oregon. A decade ago I found My Own Private Idaho, with River Phoenix, to be engaging and well done.
With the film, he’s reminded me of the huge gratitude owed my gay-forbearers. Had the drag queens in Stonewall not fought back, had Harvey Milk not sacrificed his life, had ACT-UP not fought so loudly and vibrantly, gay marriage wouldn’t be up for discussion right now. I am thankful to these pioneers. I am thankful to drag queens who ruined their nails fighting the police; I am thankful to Harvey Milk for pushing the envelope against a more conservative gay power base; and I am thankful to every GLBT individual who has ever come out and been disowned.
Without these individuals, life would be a lot harder for a lot of people.
Of course we still have a long way to go, but in the meantime: Happy Thanksgiving.
And Thank You.