I feel remarkably privileged to be in the United States today, and to experience the excitement, the optimistic anxiety, and tonight, the likely celebration, of the dawn of a new era. I hope to feel even more privileged to be in California, depending on whether the very tight Prop 8 ballot does or doesn’t go through.
Yesterday I decided to walk from my hotel to a screening of Milk in Beverly Hills… It was an over 2 hour venture, but it was the perfect opportunity to clear my head before experiencing the film, and to witness the onslaught of Obama signs and No on Prop 8 signs adorning lawns and windows. The walk put me in a very sentimental state, which was exactly the mood I needed to be in for the film.
Seeing Milk the night before the election was perhaps the greatest privilege of all. Mildly flawed to be sure, it was easy for me to set that aside and get drawn into a historical document that of a political movement that no doubt had a great effect on my own life. It also had an uncanny parallel to today’s events. Harvey Milk’s personal ideology, intense charisma, and underdog status obviously bring to mind Obama, and one of his core battles – the Prop 6 ballot that attempted to fire all gay or lesbian teachers in California – is essentially a 1978 version of Prop 8.
Don’t get me wrong, on a cinematic level I really liked the film. But for once that’s not how I was viewing it. I wasn’t viewing it as a student of cinema, as someone engulfed in the business of these images on a day to day basis. I viewed it as a young gay man, living in a very strange time, trying to negotiate his identity both as an adult and as a politically responsible gay man. I almost felt envious watching Milk and his team of activists, yearning to be a part of something that felt so important. The depoliticized nature of gay youth today comes into clear focus when you watch the film. It seems like our identities are based more around by a commercial market or a contrived media image than anything political. Sure we’re making strides with gay marriage, and are likely about to have a U.S. president more attuned to the needs of gay rights than ever before. But my greatest fear is that, like many political movements, gays and lesbians are reaching a point of plateau.. Where they say ‘I guess this is enough.’ But its not… the gay movement shouldn’t end with gay marriage. There are still massive problems even in the U.S. and Canada, where young gays are still committing suicide, being harassed. Certain races, classes, degrees of masculinity or femininity, and the trans-identity all together are finding huge disparities in public acceptance. And I don’t even feel entirely comfortable speaking to these problems. I’m a white, male middle-class Canadian who was watched Ellen come out with his mother when he was 13 years old. I’m not greatly effeminate, and I’ve been surrounding by people or urban areas that have protected my rights. It doesn’t get any more privileged than that, at least in terms of a gay personal history.
But then, how do I, as a descendent of Harvey Milk’s legacy, participate productively in some sort of gay politics? Especially when the Harvey Milk’s have become the Ellen deGeneres’ and the Rosie O’Donnell’s, people I most surely respect and enjoy, but people who are essentially products. They are not politicians. They are celebrities. In 1978, Harvey Milk participated in debates over Prop 6, travelling California to challenge the Anita Bryants of that world. Today, our advocation takes the form of YouTube clips, with celebrities telling us to vote “no” (though one actually used Milk’s infamous “Hope” speech). Is this progress? I’m not necessarily saying its not. Having the vast majority of celebrities – the most powerful type of American – on our side would never have happened in 1978. But in other ways, not much has progressed at all.
Obama, as much as I respect and believe in his potentially revolutionary words and ideas, did not make an ad opposing Prop 8, despite pressures from gay groups to do so. And I get it. He had to play it safe, or he might ostracize the way-too-many people in this country that oppose it. And part of me is glad he did. I’d rather have Obama in office than have him risk that by standing up against Prop 8. But part of me is angry, not at Obama, but at the fact that he is running in a country where he has to play it safe. Where a majority of people not only are against gay marriage, but where many of them gave their own money – in a time of significant economic despair – to make sure it doesn’t happen. Millions and millions of dollars were poured into the Yes on 8 campaign. This money could have gone to so many more useful things. And if they succeed, the state stands to lose more millions from the many gays and lesbians that won’t be spending a shitload on catering, clothing, china and cakes.
All of these thought processes haven’t really gotten me anywhere… and maybe they never will. Maybe I’ll just continue to sit back, enjoy my privileges, and watch as my fellow LGBTs suffer because they don’t have the urban setting that I do, or the supportive family or friends, or the class, or the (barely?) “passable” masculinity..
Or maybe I, and/or we, should take the intense sense of motivation that a film like Milk or an election this unexpectedly progressive that might elect a leader so unexpectedly named Barack Obama gives, and look at our identities, our histories, our fellow humans, our politics, our morals, and see what doesn’t seem quite right. And maybe Milk’s words he speaks in the below clip will actually one day feel outdated.