‘Milk’ Does the Man Proud

The first major Hollywood film portraying a gay historic figure, Milk pushes gays to come out and fight for equal rights

Gary Barlow

Sean Penn (center) and Diego Luna (center right) star as real-life gay rights icon Harvey Milk and his lover Jack Lira, respectively, in director Gus Van Sant&#8217;s <i>Milk</i>.

In death, as in life, Harvey Milk defied expectations.

Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in a major U.S. city, was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. But because of fear, he didn’t come out of the closet until he was in his 40s. His public life as a gay leader lasted only five years, when he and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down inside City Hall on Nov. 271978.

Now, 30 years after his death, Milk’s life is on the big screen. In the first time a major Hollywood film has portrayed a gay historic figure as the central hero, Milk, starring Sean Penn in the title role, hits theaters nationwide on Dec. 5.

Milk gained fame as an unusually skillful politician, despite winning only one out of his four attempts at public office. He served less than a year as a San Francisco supervisor before being killed, yet he left a legacy that influences that city three decades later. 

Milk grew up spending Saturdays at the opera, where he also found men who shared other interests with him. Ever the quick study, Milk learned how and where to cruise for sex, always keeping an eye out for cops. Burned in his mind, though, were images of police arresting men simply for being gay.

In Milk, director Gus Van Sant uses grainy, 50s black-and-white newsreels to depict police barging into gay bars and lining up patrons. Many of those arrested tried to hide their faces from the leering news cameras – to no avail. Their names and addresses ended up in the morning newspapers.

Such raids were common well into the 60s, just before Milk and his lover, Scott Smith, moved to San Francisco from New York. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s script picks up Milk’s story from there.

As soon as Milk and Smith opened a camera store on Castro Street – which was morphing into San Francisco’s gay business district – it became clear that business took a back seat to politics. Milk wasted no time getting involved, striking an alliance with Teamsters’ drivers, who had been trying to organize a boycott against Coors to protest the beer company’s anti-union policies. Milk won the Teamsters’ undying support in his election campaigns by getting gay bars to stop serving Coors. The union also agreed to provide jobs for gay men on Teamsters’ beer trucks.

Soon after the alliance, Milk became known as the Mayor of Castro Street,” a moniker he admitted he may have come up with myself.” Within months, he jumped into his first race for the city’s board of supervisors. He lost that 1973 contest but won 17,000 votes, enough to demonstrate that the gay vote” was real.

Two more unsuccessful campaigns followed – one in 1975, the other in 1976. Each time he lost to machine candidates but moved closer to victory. And when San Franciscans voted in 1977 to elect supervisors by district, rather than at-large, Milk won in a landslide.

Also winning a supervisor’s seat in that election was a young Irish Catholic cop named Dan White. Milk tried to make an ally out of White, but it was an effort largely sabotaged by White’s erratic personality. Eleven months after Milk was sworn into office, White – who had resigned from the board, then tried unsuccessfully to persuade Moscone to reappoint him – snuck a gun into City Hall and coldly assassinated Milk and the mayor, the two people he blamed for not allowing him to reclaim his seat.

Milk’s death was not just a tragedy for gays in San Francisco. In his rise to power, he also became a champion for the city’s Chinese-Americans, union workers, the elderly and people being squeezed out of their neighborhoods by developers, speculators and downtown corporate interests. With much to say in a two-hour film, Black’s script manages only to hint broadly at these aspects of Milk’s career.

In the movie, Penn’s dead-on portrayal brings to life Milk’s ability to channel people’s desires. Penn embodies Milk’s charisma, drive, power and empathy. At the end of the film, when an image of the real Milk supersedes a similar photo of Penn as Milk, one can scarcely tell the difference.

The other performances are nearly as good. Josh Brolin as White, Emile Hirsch as gay activist Cleve Jones and Diego Luna as Milk’s doomed lover, Jack Lira, are particularly notable. There should be no shortage of Oscar nominations for this film, with Van Sant and Penn leading the list.

Many of the battles Milk fought remain un-won today. People still get fired for being gay in this country. People still get beaten up and killed for being gay. Parents still send their gay kids to quacks who try to scare them, condition them and coerce them into being straight. Gay couples can be married in only a few states.

And while Milk fought for gay rights at large, he also waged battles within the gay community. The film portrays how he railed against elitist gays who provided cover for liberal politicians with weak commitments to gay rights. Were he alive today, Milk likely would have shared in the outrage of many gay activists in 2007, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats, with cover from elite gay backers, dumped protections for transgender people from the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The difference is that Milk would have made Pelosi pay at the ballot box.

At a time of deep national uncertainty for many who feel marginalized in America, Milk reminds us of the singular vision of a man who wanted to fix things for everyone who felt left out of society. Milk cajoles and pushes gays to come out and fight for equal rights. 

It’s not my election I want, it’s yours,” Milk once said. It will mean that a green light is lit that says to all who feel lost and disenfranchised that you can now go forward. It means hope and we – no – you and you and you and, yes, you, you’ve got to give them hope.”

He did, and the film not only reminds us of that hope, it also rekindles a bit of it for a new generation. There could be no better tribute to Harvey Milk than that. 

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Gary Barlow is a Chicago-based writer. He is a former managing editor and staff reporter for the Chicago Free Press, the Dallas Voice and Windy City Times. In the 1990s, before becoming a full-time writer, he helped organize campaigns that defeated anti-gay ballot initiatives in Florida and Idaho, and worked as well on environmental and HIV/AIDS issues.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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