<i>Milk</i> and the Idea of California

There is a scene in Gus Van Sant's Milk that goes some way toward explaining the unprecedented nationwide protests that occurred after California voters, on Nov. 4, reinstituted a ban on gay marriage in their state by passing Proposition 8.

In the scene, Sean Penn, playing the gay rights icon Harvey Milk, celebrates an almost diametrically opposite moment in history: the gay rights movement's 1978 victory over California's Proposition 6, which would have banned homosexuals, or anyone who supported them, from teaching in public schools.

"We can come home," Milk, as played with impressive intuition and bravery by Penn, tells a cheering crowd of activists in San Francisco on the night that Prop. 6 was defeated.

If you think about it, the statement doesn't make much literal sense. Milk, the first openly gay man to serve in elected office in the United States, was not himself from San Francisco. He was, instead, like most of the people he befriended and worked with in the gay rights movement there, a refugee (in his case, from a closeted life in New York’s financial world) who had come to the Castro to start over as an out gay man. If San Francisco was Milk’s home, it was a new one, and in any case he hadn't left it. So what was he talking about coming home to?

He was talking about coming home to the idea of California, to the sense of the state as different, more tolerant, and therefore psychologically habitable for gay Americans at a time when most places were not. In the movie, Milk’s New York love life is depicted as furtive and cloistered -- a kiss on a vacant subway stairwell followed by a 40th birthday celebration for two inside his apartment. The man from that subway stairwell, Scott Smith (played by James Franco) convinces Milk he needs a change, and the two make the classic American journey west, sun shining and wind blowing through their hair as they drive to San Francisco, where they will kiss openly on the street, open a camera store, and successfully push back at a neighboring merchant who objects to sharing the block with gay business owners.

This idea of California -- which, as the movie powerfully shows, gave comfort to gay Americans far beyond the state's borders, including a number of desperate young gay teenagers who reached out to Milk from their homes in conservatives states as he grew more famous -- had been temporarily disrupted in 1978 by the possibility that Prop. 6 might pass.

The idea survived. But this year, that idea of California was decisively punctured by the passage of Prop. 8. The resulting alarm, not just among gay Americans, but among all Americans who take comfort from the notion of California as a haven of cultural tolerance, is what led to the protests in hundreds of American cities against the measure. A home had been lost.

For those who participated in or paid attention to the recent protests, it will be tempting, while watching Milk, to draw favorable connections between the scenes of 1970s San Francisco street activism and the similarly-impassioned marches around the country on Nov. 15. But the differences are huge, and when considered, they actually do not speak favorably about the current state of the gay rights movement.

The protests featured in Milk occurred before Prop. 6 was beaten, and they were galvanizing events that ultimately helped lead to its defeat. The major protests around Prop. 8 occurred after the election, and it is not yet clear what -- if anything -- will come of them.

Certainly they demonstrated the new ease of organizing protests over the internet (as opposed to the retro game of "Rally at sundown!" telephone tag that is depicted in one memorable Milk montage). They also showcased the breadth of national support for full equality for gays and lesbians (as opposed to the siege-mentality Milk and his fellow activists in San Francisco operated under). And they offered the gay community a way to work through their frustrations rather than stew over the easily grasped, and bitterly ironic, fact that one historic barrier had been smashed by the election of our first African-American president (with California's enthusiastic support) while at the same moment another historic barrier had been re-fortified (with the support of many African-Americans in California). But whether the Nov. 15 protests will help reverse the basic, jarring sense that California might no longer be a welcome home for social experimentation -- that remains to be seen. And the fact that the best moment gay rights advocates had in the fight over Prop. 8 was reactive, and came after the measure passed, is not a good sign.

It's hard to believe that this is the reality of the gay rights movement 30 years after Milk provided a template for beating homophobic statewide initiatives in California. A reckoning is already under way in gay rights circles, and one hopes it leads somewhere. As people look for guidance, there is a considerable amount to be found in the movie. Harvey Milk's activism, as depicted by Van Sant, was broadly inclusive and partly inspired by his jealousy at the way the African-American community had built up political clout in order to look out for its own interests. In one scene in Milk’s Castro camera shop, he briefly describes what the African-American community has accomplished to motivate fellow activists and give them a model to work from.  Milk also saw the need to reach out to communities who were not immediately sympathetic to the cause. In the film he tells the urban gay refugees, that the fight can’t be won unless they reach non-urban voters who don’t know any gay people. By contrast, the recent campaign against Prop. 8 failed to understand and successfully engage California's African-American community, among other groups. African-American voters were not, as some have suggested, solely responsible for Prop. 8's passage. But it is clear that more of them could have been brought into a winning coalition to defeat the measure.

Instead of building that winning coalition, the gay rights movement experienced a double loss. Just as a comforting idea of California was punctured by Prop. 8's passage, so too was a comforting idea about the inevitable success of the fight for gay civil rights. This idea of inevitability had started to become something of a conventional wisdom, rooted in demographic trends, recent court victories, and a long view of where the movement has been and where it is going. It's not necessarily wrong.

But it's not enough right now.

So how to get to full civil equality for gays and lesbians in manner that is speedier than waiting around for the "inevitable"? Again, Milk offers the simple cinematic lesson: fuse winning coalitions with winning ideas. In an echo of Barack Obama’s magic formula, Van Sant shows Milk finding his voice -- and his broadest base -- when he stops railing against legitimate problems all the time and starts talking about hope. Put simply, the campaign against Prop. 8 did not give enough Californians a way to share in the basic hope of the state’s gay citizens: the hope to be treated equally under the law.

It’s not all bad news. In the long view, the gay community in California really has just one last big battle left to win, the fight for equal access to the institution of civil marriage, and that's huge progress -- a state of affairs Harvey Milk probably never dreamed of. But what happened in California on Nov. 4 is quite clearly the opposite of progress, and it will have impacts not just in California but in states around the country where there is far more than just marriage left on the gay rights agenda. It's what Milk would have called, with his penchant for blunt declarations, a huge failure. It needs correction.

That correction may come, after a fashion, if the Supreme Court of California declares Prop. 8 unconstitutional and reinstates equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians in the state. But that will not change the underlying problem: at a time when we are celebrating 30-year-old street fights on the big screen, the gay rights movement is losing the street fight in the biggest liberal state in America.