A Tale of Two Anti-Gay Propositions and How They Relate to”Milk”

Sean Penn, Gus Vant Sant and Dustin Lance Black
(Photo credit: Wire Image/Eric Charbonneau

In Gus Van Sant’s upcoming biopic Milk, powerful California Democrat Phil Burton shows Harvey Milk a flier the Democratic Party created in opposition to Prop 6, a 1978 statewide initiative that would have fired every gay teacher and anyone who supported them from their jobs, a law of dubious constitutionality that had nonetheless already been passed in other states. He says, "We want to send one of these to every home in California."

"Proposition Six is an affront to Human Rights," reads Harvey. "An invasion of the State into the private lives of California citizens." He points to the photos on the flier. "Does it even say the word ‘gay’ on this thing? Anywhere?"

"With the heat bearing down on your movement right now, we think it’s best to dodge the ‘gay’ bullet," Burton replies. "Go for the human rights angle."

Cut to today, and reality. Take a look at the campaign ads for California’s "No on 8" if you haven’t already. Do any of them mention the word "gay"? Are the faces of lesbian and gay Californians and our families featured anywhere?

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"I saw two commercials last week that do have gay people in them," Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black told AfterElton.com the day after the film premiered in San Francisco. "I do think it’s important to have self-representation, and I hope we have more of that. That’s why I think this film is important because we are sort of repeating that history of Prop 6 in so many ways, and so to get this out there, to have this documented piece of history so we don’t keep repeating those mistakes, I think, is very, very important."

The struggle over how "gay" to make the fight isn’t the only resonance between Prop 6 and Prop 8 (hopefully including the defeat of Prop 8). But it had to have been synchronicity rather than strategy, since Prop 8 didn’t exist when Black wrote the screenplay. I asked him how it happened.

"I didn’t know specifically there’d be a Prop 8, but I don’t think that this fight [for gay rights] is over," he said. "I think that there’ll be more propositions, and each time there is one of these propositions, it’s a great opportunity to continue that sort of education campaign, and it kind of gives us an opportunity to get out there and say, ‘Hey, this is who we are,’ and break down some of those myths that Harvey talked about so much."

"That’s the irony of Prop 8 being what it is now and Prop 6 being what it was then," said actor Josh Brolin, who portrayed Milk’s killer, fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White. "The fact of the matter is that Harvey came up against a lot of obstacles…. I think that’s the case for any gay man even now. But you know, obstacles are okay to me. Anita Bryant, all these guys that are represented in the film are okay. But when you resort to the violence that Dan White resorted to, that’s when it turns into something else."

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