It’s difficult to explain the feeling that comes over me when I am sitting in a movie theater and see two men kiss on screen. To get the obvious out of the way, it’s as far removed from a sexual feeling as possible. The first word that comes to mind: comfort. A voice whispering, “it’s okay.” All of my life I have been an avid movie-goer, hooked since I saw Ariel fall for Prince Eric, and yet in my twenty-two years I can remember only a handful of on-screen same-sex kisses; the number of those that weren’t overtly sexual, aggressive, or a punch line is even fewer.
Within the first five minutes of Gus Van Sant’s newest film, the biopic Milk, two of the largest male stars in the world, Sean Penn and James Franco, not only kiss on a subway platform moments after the opening credits have faded from view, but lay in bed together, playfully wiping cake on each other’s faces as Harvey Milk rings in his fortieth birthday. “Forty years old, and I’ve yet to do something I’m proud of,” he says to his new companion. The film, while not perfect, has much to be proud of; first and foremost its balance of portraying gay rights with the weight it deserves in today’s society, while also portraying the love between two men as something not to be gawked at.
It is this shading that makes Milk so important. It is a reminder of how far we have come since the days of gay men being murdered in the streets of San Francisco. And it is a reminder of how much further we have to go.
This movie has an enormous amount of weight on its shoulders, especially coming in the shadow of the devastating outcome of California’s Prop 8. Iconic images of protests abound scene after scene, bringing to mind these recent struggles of the gay community. And while a thought running through my mind while watching the events unfold was how much I wish the bigots of the world would be forced to sit down and watch the film, I know it would be as pointless as getting me to sit down and watch football. (Some things just won’t happen.) What it does accomplish, however, in the process of preaching to the choir, is it gives the young gay community, a somewhat ignorant bunch in which I place myself, an education about our history.
The life of a gay people in my generation includes a fair amount of strident optimism, bucking the norm and declaring the lack of mainstream acceptance as superfluous to our existence. We have our own magazines. We have our own bars. We get by fine without the support, right? Some people do everything they can to distance themselves from conformity, defining themselves by their sexuality and donning sky-high wigs above piles of make-up. To me, while mainstream acceptance has never been my mission in life, it also seems a bit like a defense mechanism to declare we’re fine without it; putting up a front because it’s a goal we know is unattainable, foolish even.
Seeing this first on screen kiss in what is, to my knowledge, the first mainstream movie about the gay rights movement, felt like my reawakening as a gay man. Mainly because the love story in the midst of Harvey Milk’s empowering quest to be the first openly gay elected official in major office is presented with such delicacy and lack of salaciousness that it took my breath away. We don’t see Harvey spitting on his dick and fucking his lover like the characters in Brokeback Mountain. We see him making breakfast, taking photographs, walking up behind his lover and putting his arms around him on the street. It’s homosexuality portrayed in as innocent a way as those Disney heroines of my youth. For brief moments, it’s homosexuality portrayed with an air of nonchalance.
That word, “nonchalance” exists in this movie because of how completely Penn throws himself into the character. He is never a straight actor playing gay. He is Harvey Milk. But truth be told, however the love story is portrayed, little in Milk’s life—at least the chapters portrayed on screen—was nonchalant.
Milk’s mouth may as well have been a bullhorn. From the moment he moved to San Francisco he found a platform for his politics, made up of a dash of the typical scheming that is commonplace in today’s political climate and a bucket of infectious passion, which he poured over anyone he came into contact with.
“I am Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you,” he says while standing on a soapbox. And for the duration of the movie, that’s exactly what he does. By the time his assassination occurs—an event we know is coming since the beginning of the film—the on-screen Harvey Milk has managed to do for this generation what the real Milk did for his: inspire. We are human beings deserving of the same rights as everyone else on this Earth.
Harvey Milk was one person with passion who was able to make a change. We are all capable. Our biggest foe is our own complacency (and, in this case, people with guns…which is why you won’t find me supporting gun rights anytime soon). With a little work, we may be viewed as so regular that mainstream romantic comedies are made with two men as the leads. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But that’s just what Harvey Milk had. And that’s everything.