Harvey Milk stood unsuccessfully for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors twice before winning election in 1977. He walked arm-in-arm with his lover to take up the role, having campaigned against hate crusades like Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children. Ms Bryant believed if queer people were allowed equal rights, gay men would recruit children for sex.
“If gays are granted rights, next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters.”
Sexuality then, as now, a battleground – and Harvey Milk was brave enough to stand up against hatred and discrimination and assert the importance of love in his life and the lives of other queer people.
He was murdered, shot in the head in cold blood by another city supervisor, Dan White (who also killed Mayor Moscone). Mr White had been the only city supervisor to vote against a Milk-sponsored successful gay rights ordinance for San Francisco.
San Francisco Police openly wore “Free Dan White” tee-shirts leading up to the trial, and when Dan White was acquitted of murdering both men and sentenced to just 5 years for voluntary manslaughter, the city of San Francisco rioted for hours.
The film is getting good press, with brilliant craftsman Sean Penn likely to pick up awards.
The idea that Penn is becoming a gay hero because of this role is problematic for some in the queer community.
Penn, a vocal lefty, regularly defends Cuba, where immediately post-revolution queer people were killed, deported, or placed in what can only be described as concentration camps. At that point, the Cuban regime believed capitalism caused queerness.
[Aside: Has anyone ever been shopping and been struck by this connection? Is mass same-sex love maybe more likely in malls than the second-hand cd and bookshops which tend to be my main port of call? Or do I need to look around the vege section at Pak ‘n Save a bit more closely?]
Since then Fidel Castro has changed his mind and affirmed same-sex love as a natural part of human life. Cuba decriminalised sodomy in 1979, though queer groups have reported being unable to organise, police harassment continues to be reported, and public attitudes remain hostile. A Cuban soap opera featured queer characters for the first time in 2006.
I cycled around Cuba for three weeks several years ago, wearing a rainbow flag cap which, everywhere else I’ve been, has meant queer people have come up to me to chat. Not in Cuba. While I talked politics and the economy, people’s access to food, education and health-care, people’s attitudes to travel and freedom of movement, why so many women were selling sex to foreign men on the street, nowhere did I meet anyone who wanted to talk about same-sex love.
Cuba aside, Sean Penn is an odd kind of hero in other ways too. He has continually used violence to get what he wants, having been imprisoned for assaulting a movie extra, arrested for assaulting members of the press, and charged with spousal assault before Madonna divorced him.
He also likes to put cigarette burns in “funny places” on a barbie-doll he keeps to play with when he’s angry. Nice guy alright.
I’ll still be going to the movie – after all, we live in a world where the first ever statement supporting human rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the United Nations was read out less than a month ago. 66 countries (including Cuba) signed the statement, which pointed out that homosexuality is still illegal in 77 countries around the world, and still punished by death in 7 (Sudan, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Iran). For a great world map graphic check this out.
Noticeably absent (thanks for this No Right Turn), the United States. Where more than 1,400 were the target of homophobic hate-based crime in 2004 according to the FBI. We don’t keep those figures here in Aotearoa.
Also noticeably absent – the 60 countries who signed a counter-statement, sponspored by Syria – which said attempts to introduce universal guaranteed human rights for queer people could destabilise the entire international human rights framework as well as:
the social normalization, and possibly the legitimization, of many deplorable acts including pedophilia.
Not so sure even the heroic Sean Penn is going to be able to change some people’s minds about hating someone purely because of who they love. Leave you with Michael Franti – delicious enough to make the most homophobic of men think twice I reckon 😉