Protest vote by members of the Academy against the passage of Proposition 8 banning same sex marriage in California
Would Harvey Milk Have Opposed Gay Marriage?
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Recently I viewed Gus Van Sant’s biopic Milk based on the life and death of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Regardless of its politics it is compelling movie. Its eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor for Sean Penn in the title role and Van Sant for Best Director are well deserved. Although Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire has emerged as the movie favored to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards ceremonies this Sunday one cannot count out Milk as the possible victor. However, the main reason Milk is a factor this Sunday is not so much due to its considerable cinematic merits but rather as a protest vote by members of the Academy against the passage of Proposition 8 banning same sex marriage in California last November.
After all much of Milk centers around the opposition he organized against Proposition 6 (a.k.a. The Briggs Initiative) back in 1978. Had Proposition 6 passed it would have been legal to fire teachers who were gay or lesbian as well as anyone in the California public school system who supported them. However, Proposition 6 was so egregious that Ronald Reagan publicly came out against it (a fact acknowledged in the movie.) It could be said that while Milk organized the gay community against Proposition 6, Reagan took care of the rest of the Golden State.
But if Academy members have voted for Milk in protest of Proposition 8 there is an underlying assumption that had Harvey Milk would have supported same sex marriage had he lived. To start with the very concept of same sex marriage didn’t exist in the political lexicon of 1978 let alone in the political lexicon of the gay community. If anything there tended to be hostility towards the very idea of marriage. In his review of Milk, John Podhoretz quotes The Mayor of Castro Street, a biography of Milk written by Randy Shilts in 1988. (Shilts, a journalist who himself was openly gay, died of AIDS in 1994.) In explaining his love life to Shilts, Milk said, “As homosexuals, we can’t depend on the heterosexual model. We grow up with the heterosexual model, but we don’t have to follow it. We should be developing our own lifestyle. There’s no reason you can’t love more than one person at a time.” (Link)
To be fair, Podhoretz acknowledges that Milk died three years before the AIDS virus was identified. Given the devastation AIDS wrought on the gay community had Milk lived into the 1980s it is quite possible Milk might have tempered his behavior and modified his views. Indeed, when Andrew Sullivan (then a conservative) first wrote in support of gay marriage in The New Republic in 1989 one of the pillars of his argument was that it would promote monogamy. There can be little doubt his argument was formed in reaction to the catastrophic consequences of AIDS. Monogamy was an argument he would return to in an article he wrote for Newsweek in June 1996. Calling same sex marriage “a deeply conservative cause” Sullivan argued:
It seeks to change no one else’s rights or marriages in any way. It seeks merely to promote monogamy, fidelity and the disciplines of family life among people who have long been cast to the margins of society. And what could be a more conservative project than that? (Link)
Yet Sullivan’s arguments were not embraced wholeheartedly by the gay community at least not initially. Now before I go any further let me state the obvious. Gays and lesbians who oppose same sex marriage are likely to object on grounds different from what James Dobson or Pat Robertson would. Their arguments would likely be along the lines of those made by Michael Bronski, a professor at Dartmouth College who has been a gay activist for four decades.
Shortly after the Supreme Judicial Council made same sex marriage the law of the land in Massachusetts in 2004, Bronski wrote an article titled, “A Gay Man’s Case Against Gay Marriage.” (Link) Bronski begins the article by stating, “The best argument against same-sex marriage is the argument against marriage.” While not opposed to the right of same sex couples to marry, Bronski wonders why they would bother given what he views as the ambiguous attitudes of heterosexuals towards marriage. He also questions whether marriage adequately addresses the emotional and social needs of people whether they are gay or straight. Finally, Bronski firmly dismisses the notion that same sex marriage promotes monogamy. “Well, that just seems silly to me,” Bronski writes, “Heterosexual marriage has not guaranteed better behavior once men and women tied the knot.”
Curiously, Sullivan himself would eventually dismiss the notion of monogamy a year before marrying his partner. Writing in his blog in May 2006, Sullivan observed that “monogamy is very hard for men, straight or gay.” ( Link)
If Harvey Milk were still alive today he would be three months away from his 79th birthday. He would have been an elder statesman. Given all that has happened in the three decades since his death I believe it is plausible that Milk could have just as easily been an opponent of same sex marriage as a supporter of it. Of course we will never know what Harvey Milk thought of same sex marriage. But we must not assume he would have automatically supported it. At least not in the beginning.
What we do know is that if his former colleague Dan White hadn’t brutally murdered him it is entirely reasonable to conclude he would have gone on to achieve other political success and have attained higher political office. Mayor of San Francisco? Speaker of the California State Assembly? U.S. Senator? Maybe even further? While it might be far fetched to speculate Milk living in the White House given his mantra that politics was theater perhaps it wouldn’t have been Dianne Feinstein serving as master of ceremonies during the inauguration of President Obama.
Aaron Goldstein was a card carrying member of the socialist New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP). Since 09/11, Aaron has reconsidered his ideological inclinations and has become a Republican. Aaron lives and works in Boston.