Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review of "Milk"

This is a slightly edited version of a review I posted elsewhere right after seeing the movie shortly after it came out.


Extremely well-done, and Sean Penn was excellent. I think even people who are tepid on him an actor will find that he's really remarkable in this role. I was blown away by how well he captures the marvelous joy and sensitivity of Harvey Milk.

Milk was murdered when I was just a little kid, and despite living in California for many years, including several in San Francisco, I never really got the whole story. It seems, sometimes, that it is our most recent history that is lost to us.

I owe much to Harvey Milk personally--were it not for him and those who stood up at Stonewall, I could never have stood on a San Francisco Chronicle box 15 years ago to look as far as I could see down Market Street and see 150,000 people in the streets for the Pride March. I could never have held a job as an openly queer woman. I could never have walked down the street with my arm around my girlfriend.

So last night I was reminded how much I owe my freedom to those who came before me. We would not now be fighting for equal recognition of our families under the law if those before us hadn't fought for our right to simply live without the constant threat of violence, police abuse, and loss of our jobs. There is still progress to be made on all of those fronts, to be sure. As I watched the old footage of the Bryant/Briggs campaign across America, stripping gay and lesbian people of their basic right to not be fired from their jobs for being gay or lesbian, it was like watching the news today as putatively 'Christian' crusaders make their rounds of the nation trying to "protect the American family" by repealing anti-discrimination laws that protect families from losing their income; by preventing children in need of loving homes from getting one because it might come with two mommies or two daddies; by making it so children who lose their biological parent are taken away from the only other parent they've known, so that widows and widowers are unable to keep the joint property together they accumulated over the years with their life partner when that person dies unless they pay punitive taxes that married couples do not have to pay....

Harvey Milk was a loving, generous, kind man. We all lost when he and Mayor Moscone were gunned down by Dan White, who clearly suffered from some sort of mental torment. As the credits rolled, I sat in the still dark theater wondering how the hell a man walks into the office of the mayor of a major American city and shoots him dead, walks down the hall, asks to speak to another elected official, walks into another office, and shoots a City Council member multiple times--and gets five years in prison for manslaughter?

Dan White murdered two elected officials, and gets 5 years because the jury bought some bullshit "twinkie defense?" The man clearly had issues, and the field of psychiatry was not what it is today, but however you want to slice and dice it, this was premeditated homicide. He snuck into City Hall with a gun, met with each man separately and killed them. This didn't happen by accident, by acting in a fit of rage or passion in which you do something rash which kills someone.

Murder 1 -- two counts. 25 - life at least, if not a death sentence for the added fact that they were elected officials, and we should take more pains to make murdering those elected to public office a greater crime, just as we do with cop-killers.

5 years, out on parole.

I called my dad (who has lived in California since 1981, less an 8 year stint in Texas) and asked him how the hell that happened, and he didn't know, and didn't think my stepmother (who is a native Californian) would have any better insight into it.

What the hell? Seriously?

But I owe even my right to be outraged at such a paltry penalty for his murderer to Harvey Milk and everyone else who suffered indignities and violence to try to make America more free, to make it so people need not be ashamed to have dark skin, practice a religion other than Christianity, or to love another person of the same gender.

I have been engaged in some dialogue with a friend of my dad and stepmom's regarding the success of Proposition 8 in last year's election, and I commented to my father about an e-mail exchange with said friend in which she asserted that I should not hold California to a higher standard. I was reminded of this conversation in the middle of the movie--when Harvey is talking about bringing Bryant and Briggs to California as they were fighting Prop 6--"All eyes will be on us, looking for hope." People in Minnesota, Kansas, Texas, Pennsylvania...all looking to California for hope. People leave their hometowns to go to the Castro to find safe haven, to escape the ungodly and unbearable pressure of a closeted life, or a life of harassment, shame, and violence, and those left behind look westward for hope.

California remains the standard bearer. When Prop 8 passed, it was a crushing blow for all of us. I know that California isn't a utopia of equal rights and happy shiny people holding hands. But the eyes of the nation are upon it again now, as they were then--if not there, then where? If you can't do it, how can Kansas?

Unfair? Indeed.

Just outside the safe confines of my city limits (I can see the next borough from this chair), I can be fired for loving another woman, though we're working on making a county-wide protection:

* (my friend and schoolteacher, Kris Rust, is quoted in that article. His partner, Hugh McGough, will be running for judge again in the next elections.)

I still owe California an apology for some misplaced anger and frustration when Prop 8 passed, but whether anyone likes it or not, California is still expected to be the leader when it comes to gay rights. Perhaps discovering that California is only human, and subject to the same fractious fear-mongering as the rest of the nation will be the motivation we need to regroup and rededicate ourselves to the fight for dignity and equality for all.

Post Script
Well, if not in California, then Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire (well, they're working on it), Connecticut, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Maybe New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Some people are upset at the California Supreme Court, but I am not among them. I think that Prop 8 should be repealed the way it was passed. The battle will be stronger if the decisions come from the legislatures and not from judges who will be simply labeled "activist" and accused of finding "new rights" in the state constitutions.

Perhaps California's failure to stop bigotry from being written into their constitution was a gift to the rest of us. Perhaps seeing the fragility of what so many see as the 'motherland' has made us stop waiting and start working.


Thank you, Harvey. May your precious gentle soul feel my gratitude and love wherever you are.

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Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.