15 December 2008


Saw the film Milk the other day and must say that while I've never been keen on Sean Penn and haven't been impressed by anything Gus Van Sant's done in the last ten years or so, both of them deserve Oscars. Penn, especially. I guess I haven't been paying that much attention to his career since, oh, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (and his Madonna period was a spectacle best left completely unwatched), but the guy really can act. Or has learned to do so along the way. Respect.

Since I lived in or near the Castro during several (1972-73 and 1976-77) of the years covered by the film (1972-73 and 1976-77), I was interested to see how accurately it was portrayed. When Van Sant was shooting, I saw some flyers asking for extras to re-enact a couple of the marches and protest rallies, complete with instructions of what not to wear (no designer or brand logos, for example; I'd forgotten that such things barely existed in the 70s and would have been considered mightily outré if they had). And the answer is: yes, they pulled it off pretty well. For some reason I found it especially poignant to see the Diesel outlet at the corner of Castro and Market restored to its original (at least as far back as my memory goes) incarnation as the Bank of America.

I did spot one glaring anachronism: as the marchers in one scene set off down Market Street they pass (and disable) a green and yellow F Market streetcar. The streetcar itself was the right style, albeit unnaturally clean, but in 1978 there was no F Market line. What's more, the spot on 17th Street where the marchers passed it is actually the end of the line, so there would have been no point in disabling the car; the track ends right there, so it wouldn't have been going anywhere.

Minor quibble, I guess. If I were going to quarrel with anything else, it might be with the film's idealization of early-to-mid 70s Castro Street as a romantic, halcyon age, more or less the gay equivalent to the hippie free love 60s, marred only by interference from the nasty old San Francisco Police Department. I guess such harassment did take place from time to time, though I had very little personal experience with it; what really felt like a time warp was the film's portrayal of San Francisco cops taking aggressive action of any kind, even if it was wrong-headed and mean-spirited. The SFPD riot squad charging in to stop some mustachioed hunks from dancing together? It's been decades since I've seen them get that excited about mayhem and murder.

But I think I'm in a tiny minority in feeling that the Castro wasn't all that. Most guys my age who have any experience with or recollection of the pre-AIDS Castro share Van Sant's rose-colored view, and telling them that I personally found it a little sordid, squalid, and tacky elicits blank stares at best and outright derision and hostility from those less inclined to listen to my nay-saying.

Maybe it was the mustaches, and the Marlboro Man clone look that overtook the street by 1974 or so: I found that style singularly unattractive (still do, in fact, despite periodic attempts, not least right here in Williamsburg, to revive it), and as a result spent less and less time there. Castro Street was the main shopping street for the neighborhood, and I also had a post office box at 18th and Diamond, so I had to go there on a pretty regular basis, but I didn't linger or socialize all that much. Some of my roommates did, so I heard plenty of stories, few of them appealing.

Probably because of that I never actually met Harvey Milk, though I'd see him around the neighborhood from time to time. I voted for him, too, though probably more out of left-wing political considerations than gay cultural ones. Revisiting that era by way of the movie brought up mixed feelings: while it was touching to see the difference that it made for young people to have somewhere to go and an ideal for living when they'd been repressed and ostracized in their own families and communities, I felt the same difficulty I'd felt in the 70s with seeing a political movement, identity, or culture constructed largely around who one happened to have sex with.

Very possibly this says more about me than about the gay movement, but while we're on the topic, I have to point out that I feel similarly ambivalent about the whole Proposition 8/gay marriage imbroglio. I have friends who ready to secede from the United States of America over last month's vote in California, or at least to withhold all support from Barack Obama, despite agreeing with him on 90% of the issues, because he didn't embrace the cause of gay marriage.

I, on the other hand, found myself respecting Obama more as a result of that decision. The incoming Prez clearly learned from history: before his Presidency ahd really gotten underway, Bill Clinton had squandered much of his hard-won political capital on the ill-starred gays in the military issue. It's not that I in any way support banning gays from the military, just that it was clear at the time that America was not ready for it (it would hardly be an issue if it were introduced today). Similarly, there will almost certainly come a time, and probably not too far in the future, when some form of gay marriage is unquestioningly accepted.

But that time is not here yet, and the aggressive push for marriage as opposed to the more innocuous-sounding (while accomplishing almost exactly the same purpose) civil unions has actually - at least in my opinion - set the cause back. If California had instituted civil unions instead of gay marriage, it's almost certain that the Mormons and Christian right wouldn't have been able to mobilize enough support for Proposition 8, and a prohibition against gay marriage would not now be part of the California constitution.

The same is true of at least some if not all the other states that have now passed laws specifically banning gay marriage. Sure, these laws can and no doubt eventually will be undone eventually, but it will make things that much harder, and why? All because - again, in my opinion - a few hardcore activists felt it necessary to tweak the noses of traditional Christians by appropriating a ritual that religious people felt - whether rightly or wrongly - to be part and parcel of their own belief system. It struck me as being kind of like the kid who's not satisfied just to come out to his parents as gay, but insists on doing so by showing up at their church in drag on Easter Sunday.

Oh well, what do I know? I'm not in line to get married to anyone of either gender, so it's kind of a non-issue to me. Sure, I would have voted against Prop 8 had I been a California resident, but mainly because nearly all of the wrong people were on the other side. In the meantime, go see Milk if you haven't already and be thankful it's not the 1970s anymore.


Ken said...

So, just because a whole bunch of bigoted American voters aren't "ready" for gay marriage, gay taxpayers should settle for separate but equal until such time as the neocons die off? I think not. There's precedent for not depriving minorities of their civil rights in this country, which is why Prop 8 is back in the courts and why California AG Jerry Brown (who, as part of his job, is supposed to defend Prop 8 now that it's law) has come out publicly in favor of it being repealed.

Waiting around endlessly for consensus rather than taking a stand and working for what's right is exactly the kind of flaccid centrism that progressives rightly fear the Obama administration will default to. Obama has little to lose by working with gay Americans to insure their full civil rights now that he's been elected...if he doesn't, well, I don't know about you, but I have no respect for members of one minority who snub others, whatever their rationalization may be. Is everyone so happy to be rid of Bush that they'll be content if Obama turns out to be a "Republicrat"? I freakin' hope not.

BTW, very nice article on Milk...it was nice to see Van Sant stay away from self-indulgence and just tell a good story.

Larry Livermore said...

I don't know that marriage, which is actually a hybridized institution originally created by the church and given greater legitimacy by the state is actually a "civil right" as the term is commonly understood, though of course the concept is constantly redefined. Allowing women to own property or vote was once considered downright bizarre, too.

That being said, I fail to see how civil unions that confer the same protections and privileges as marriage would be depriving gay citizens of any meaningful rights other than perhaps some nebulous value arising from being able to say, "I'm the same as Mr. and Mrs. Mormon across the street." In other words, it strikes me as pure symbolism, a feelgood gesture that is hardly worth jeopardizing the new administration's ability to enact many far more important legislative and structural changes.

If you had to choose, for example, between Clinton attempting to open up the military to openly gay people and getting his national health care program passed, which would you choose? Oh, you might protest, but I shouldn't have to choose, I want both of those things and I want them NOW. Understandable, but in politics and real life, we sometimes do have to choose, and Clinton's bullheadedness about the gays-in-the-military issue was at least part of the reason we ended up getting neither. I'm trusting Obama to be smarter than that.

Ken said...

Yeah, marriage is truly an odd beast. Personally, I'd like nothing more than to hand it back wholesale to the churches and see secular civil unions for everyone that cares to have one (gay, straight, whatever the hell). And yes, I can see how this whole argument over the semantics of gay partnerships might seem - and, in fact, is - merely symbolic on the surface. The problem is that by refusing gays the right to civil marriage in this day and age, our government fosters the idea of gay people as "less-than" straight rather than merely "different from", and in doing so, perpetuates other more serious slights against them (in the workplace, the housing market, schools...)

And while I'm actually very much a pragmatist - in no way do I expect Obama to make The Gays his top priority - I would certainly like for him to take an *honest* position (I would hope, in favor of) gay rights rather than being endlessly evasive and trying to placate people on both sides...as much as doing just that can sometimes be the bulk of what politics is all about, it's also very much about leadership and deal-brokering, both of which entail conflict as well as diplomacy.

I won't say it's without some risk, but I don't think Obama has anywhere near as much to lose as Clinton did in 1993 by taking on some gay rights issues. I guess I'm just not convinced that this has to be an instance of *either* gay marriage *or* something else. We'll see...