The more things change...

By Jeff Walsh

So, I attended a press screening of Milk tonight, the new Gus Van Sant movie about the first openly gay elected official who was assassinated in 1978 (sorry, can't say much more about that, my review is embargoed until the movie's release late next month).

But one thing in the movie completely yanked me out of the moment.

In the movie, Harvey Milk is meeting with some gay leaders about a mailer they want to send to every California resident. The mailer is about 1978's Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would have made firing gay teachers (and any public school employees who supported gay rights) mandatory.

In the movie, Milk (played by Sean Penn) looks at the flier and is outraged that the mailer avoids using the word gay. It talks about rights and other high-minded things, but completely avoids the issue. The other people in the room say it is the right approach if they want to win.

Upon hearing this, Milk says it isn't the right way to win and tosses the mailed in a nearby fireplace.

I don't know the historical accuracy of this particular exchange, but in that moment, I wasn't really thinking about Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk in a Gus Van Sant movie. I was thinking that this moment in history happened 30 years ago... that an anti-gay ballot initiative was ahead in the polls, that our community was being maligned by unnecessary legislation, and that our reaction was to retreat into legalese and moral language that feared how it would change the result if we used the word gay.

That isn't really history. It is exactly where we are today. In 2008, it's Proposition 8. It opposes gay marriage instead of teachers. We're currently behind in the polls. And in our most-recent ads from the official campaign, the word gay is nowhere to be found and marriage is only said once per ad.

30 years ago, former governor Reagan opposed the measure, along with President Jimmy Carter, current governor Jerry Brown. Today, Schwarznegger opposed Proposition 8, but even Obama seems to be avoiding the issue, although his running mate Joe Biden did mention he opposes Proposition 8.

Let's hope history repeats itself and that, despite any political concessions, we will keep gay marriage legal in California. But one hopes there are more Harvey Milks out there today who want to win arguments with truth and not poll-driven, number-crunched misdirection and cowardice.