The Dark Side of Milk

The explosive political battle over the passage of Proposition 8, the 2008 California initiative opposing same-sex “marriage,” arrives at an ideal time for Milk. That’s the newly released biopic about Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor and gay-rights activist who was killed in 1978 by a disgruntled colleague. Recent news clips of protests against bans on same-sex “marriage” supply Milk with a crucial injection of urgency that might otherwise be lacking.

But Milk also returns the favor. The “gay-rights” movement, facing a string of political defeats in the last election, requires an inspirational vehicle to advance its agenda. Milk performs this task reasonably well — that is, when the filmmakers don’t overreach in their attempt to transform a small-time politician into a messianic figure.

Destined to become required viewing for every public school tolerance program, the film tells the story of an ordinary closeted homosexual who achieves self-acceptance by openly declaring his sexual orientation and then organizing his peers to fight for their political rights.

Thus, Milk provides the template for a tidy resolution to the spiritual and emotional difficulties that often plague individuals with same-sex attraction: Join the gay-rights movement and discover the meaning of life. Viewers who don’t accept Milk’s “happily-ever-after” narrative, which ends before the outbreak of AIDS, will leave the film with a very different interpretation of this surprisingly honest depiction of the gay subculture — from the omnipresent lure of anonymous sex to the dark undercurrent of shame.

Directed by Gus Van Sant and graced with an exceptional performance by Sean Penn in the title role, the story begins with a 1972 encounter in a New York City subway between buttoned-down Harvey Milk and an aimless hippie, Scott Smith (James Franco). The two end up in bed and then concoct a plan to move out to San Francisco, the epicenter of a burgeoning counterculture. There they open a camera shop, sport ponytails, and entertain their neighbors with public displays of affection.

But San Francisco doesn’t live up to its free-spirited reputation. Milk and his friends confront routine police harassment. He retaliates by organizing his peers into a pressure group. They deliver votes and organizational muscle to mainstream politicians. After several failed political campaigns, Milk is finally elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He is the first openly homosexual man to win public office in the nation.

By now, Milk has exchanged Scott for his “first lady,” an immature neurotic who ultimately commits suicide. The lover’s death, like others in the film, underscores the shadow side of this modern cultural movement. For some mysterious reason, transgressive desire is often matched with self-destructive habits that radiate a profound sense of alienation.

The film suggests that the high rate of suicide among homosexual men — four times the national average — remains the bitter fruit of social stigma. Indeed, homosexual activists have used this argument as a weapon against groups that oppose homosexual activity on religious or moral grounds. Yet, Milk’s casually exploitive treatment of his troubled lover hints at a more complex explanation for the systemic mental-health issues that plague this community.

We follow Milk’s struggles against the backdrop of an evolving national effort to penalize and suppress homosexual behavior. Among the most moving images are news clips — presented as authentic — that depict homosexuals hiding their faces as the police haul them off during raids of gay bars.

The film ties the trajectory of individual lives to the fortunes of the larger “gay-rights” movement. For Milk, political change fuels personal transformation. An updated version of this position argues that individual happiness is secured through expanded political freedoms and legal protections that allow homosexuals to either take part in institutions once reserved for heterosexuals, such as legal marriage, or establish an alternative universe, such as San Francisco’s circus-like Castro district.

This aggressively secular and implicitly amoral argument demonizes individuals and ideas that take a different position and downplays individual moral responsibility. Not surprisingly, the film lingers on the Catholic beliefs of Milk’s assassin, implying that bigoted religious values led to the killing. In fact, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who knew both men well, has long asserted that mental illness prompted Milk’s troubled colleague to shoot him.

Thirty years after Milk’s death, mainstream society has largely repented of its intolerance. Anti-discrimination laws are on the books. Brokeback Mountain, a love story about two cowboys, won several Academy Awards. U.S. corporations donate to homosexual political action committees. But one key hurdle remains — legalizing same-sex “marriage.”

The film never mentions the subject, but it cannot be far from the audience’s thoughts, and the shame-filled glances of the men rounded up by police officers hint at the complexity of the challenge before us.

Once the culture turned its back on such men. Now there is an easy embrace of homosexual partnerships as one more entrée in a smorgasbord of possibilities. Both approaches reflect the force of social conformity, and neither affirms the fundamental truth that each person possesses an inalienable dignity, worthy of unconditional love and respect.

Joan Frawley Desmond

lives in Maryland.

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