Based on the life of gay activist and Californian politician Harvey Milk, this film raises quite a few timely issues about attitudes towards homosexuality. At the beginning of the film, Milk, played with pathos and dignity by Sean Penn, moves to San Francisco with his boyfriend, an act that would change his life forever. Following a number of failed election campaigns, he was finally elected as a member of the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, thus becoming the first openly gay person to be voted into public office in the history of the United States. His brief tenure as a city supervisor, before it was interrupted by his assassination, helped a law barring anti-gay discrimination pass into legislation: a small step in the struggle for equality, but a significant step, considering that back then, in the 1970s, homosexuals either lived covert or ostracised lives, and, in the words of TIME’s John Cloud, “To be young and realize you were gay in the 1970s was to await an adulthood encumbered with dim career prospects, fake wedding rings and darkened bar windows." The film chronicles Milk’s struggles: with his relationships, his campaigns, death threats, and politics; his life was never easy, and he was far from a saint. Yet this is an inspirational figure – one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Important People in the Century – because he helped demystify homosexuality. He helped the public “adjust to a new reality he embodied: that a gay person could live an honest life and succeed." Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (the latter an Oscar winner for this work) did Milk’s life justice, and the cast (James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Joseph Cross, Diego Luna, Alison Pill…) was a solid ensemble, with Penn outstanding and Oscar-worthy in the lead role: sincere and never overplayed. (I am still split over Penn’s Harvey Milk and Frank Langella’s Richard Nixon – both real-life personalities incidentally. Let’s wait till I see Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.)
Another step in the quest for equality that Milk played a role in was the defeat of Proposition 6, an initiative on the California State ballot in 1978 that stated that teachers could be fired for “advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting” homosexual activity, essentially allowing job discrimination based on sexuality. It was a major triumph at the time considering the conservative attitudes of the public and the relentless campaigning of the religious right. Whilst it would be a lie to say that progress hasn’t been made, true equality is elusive: Milk came out in a year when Proposition 8, restricting the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples and banning gay marriage, passed into legislation in California. Even though at the end of the day a wedding certificate is just a piece of paper, what Proposition 8 represents is a line drawn between straight and gay people, depriving the latter of certain rights. Musician Marc Shaiman satirises the whole Prop 8 drama with, rightly enough, a hilarious musical with Jack Black, John C Reilly and others:
We in Hong Kong are several steps behind in this, and despite the distinctly secular politics of the past, we now have a vocal religious community which dominate not only the political stage but also education. This was recently brought into the limelight in the debate over the Domestic Violence Ordinance, with proposals to include same-sex cohabitants under the protection of the law. Conservative legislators have expressed concern over the “distortion" of the concept of a family by including same-sex cohabitants, even though divorced couples and (current or former) opposite-sex cohabitants (with no nuptial bond) are already covered. Frankly I am tired of these self-righteous prats pontificating about concepts of right and wrong based on that one book. I acknowledge that not all religious people are offensive: some actually practise what they (and their gods) preach, and show kindness and love for others. What I am glad to see is that others are feeling similarly irked, and have taken to the streets opposing the moral bullying by the religious right. Dissent, followed by discourse, might – just might – one day lead to progress.
Addendum: One last complaint. I spotted this ad below on my way to work, and was rather baffled at first as to what this was supposed to convey. What is the take home message from this? Who on earth decided to spend taxpayers’ money to come up with something so lame? I had to pause and reflect before I understood what the ad symbolises – that straight and gay (or “bent") people, represented by the straight and bent chopsticks respectively, can both earn their daily bread, represented by the rice with the vegetable grin. A friend makes a good point: how are bent chopsticks supposed to function? How do they compete for the rice? Either way, enough beating around the bush – if we don’t bring these issues out in the open, they will never be resolved.
Addendum 2: I encountered another variation of this anti-discrimination ad, this time with a bent spanner. So wrong…