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Milk Toast: How Van Sant Cut Off Harvey’s Balls

By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeard on Guardian Unlimited, 28 Jan 2009)

‘If a bullet should enter my brain, let it destroy every closet door.’ So says Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the gay activist who became California’s first openly gay public official. Any concern that this may be a slightly melodramatic statement is quelled of course by the knowledge that Milk was famously killed by a bullet to the head in 1978 by a disgruntled, possibly anti-gay colleague. So instead it becomes an epitaph – and this film’s marketing slogan.

Lauded by critics, laden with no less than 8 Academy Film Award nominations, including Best Film, and Best Actor, lavished with praise from editorials in straight and gay newspapers, director Gus Van Sant’s Milk, recently released in the UK, is, everyone agrees, that avenging ricochet from Harvey’s skull shooting down prejudice, fearfulness and dishonesty.

There’s only one small problem, however. It isn’t. With award-winning hypocrisy, Milk actually bundles Milk’s sexuality out of sight. This movie, far from ‘destroying every closet door’, builds a brand new bullet-proof one around its subject’s sex-life. Milk you see is living a lie.

Harvey Milk, the famously horny middle-aged sexual libertarian in 1970s Free Love San Francisco, who combined cruising and political campaigning – and had a taste for men half his age – is presented in Milk as a serially monogamous chap looking for The One to make house with. True, Harvey is allowed to be a bit flirty, but essentially Harvey is presented to the world as a very domesticated Mary – apart, that is, from his political altruism and desire to battle homophobia which, sadly, stops him settling down into fully-fledged home-making bliss.

Likewise, apart from one safely post-coital moment, Mr Milk is allowed one brief, badly lit, giggly heavy petting scene in his bedroom (the one place where probably no one had sex in 1970s SF) – filmed in long shot from another room. I don’t really have any great interest in seeing Sean Penn shagging in close up (ten or fifteen years ago it would have been a different story), but given the reluctance of the film to acknowledge Milk’s real, radically libidinal lifestyle (you might just call it ‘slutty’) this just seems like more coy emasculation. Come out, come out wherever you are – but only if you’re decent.

Apparently a bathhouse scene was filmed, but it ended up on the cutting room floor. I have no idea whether this was Van Sant’s call or the studio’s, but with that snip Mr Milk was effectively spayed. Many gays and liberals are indignant that Milk didn’t win a Golden Globe this January, but they should be more concerned the movie has no balls.

So why did it happen? Why is the ‘closet-busting’ film about Harvey Milk so fearful of its subject’s own sex-life? His own masculinity? Well, partly because a glossing over of human details, especially in regard to sex, is what becoming a saint usually involves – even a gay one. But probably the main reason why his sexuality has been bundled back in the closet is because that’s exactly what today’s US gay rights campaigners are doing with gay male sexuality itself in their crusade for gay marriage. In order to try and persuade an unconvinced American public to support gay marriage under the rubric of equality, gay male relationships are being presented, rather disingenuously, as ‘just the same’ as male-female ones.

Van Sant and others have even suggested that if Milk had been released earlier it might have helped prevent the passage of Proposition 8 last November, which re-banned gay marriage in California. Personally I think that’s absurdly far-fetched, but the wishful-thinking involved does give you some idea of how Harvey’s actual lived life has been appropriated to current political expediency. Just as the campaign for gay marriage is sometimes more about respectability than equality, Mr Milk’s historical sexuality wasn’t respectable enough for his hagiography. So it was surgically removed.

It’s impossible of course to know what Milk’s own attitude towards gay marriage would be today if he had lived – though whatever you do don’t mention that to the gay marriage zealots who have installed him as their patron Saint – but it’s pretty clear that while he was alive he believed in relationships as open as his closet door:

‘”As homosexuals we can’t depend of the heterosexual model”,’ Randy Shilts quotes him as saying in his biography The Mayor of Castro Street (a book which also documents how many of Milk’s political and community contacts were forged in bathhouses). ‘We grow up with the heterosexual model, but we don’t have to pursue it. We should be developing our own lifestyle. There’s no reason why you can’t love more than one person at a time. You don’t have to love them all the same. You love some more, some less and always be honest about where you’re at. They in turn can do the same thing, and it opens up a bigger sphere”.’

When I tell you that middle-aged Milk was explaining to one 24 year-old lover in San Francisco why he had another even younger one in Los Angeles you may decide you find this view self-serving. You may find it inspiring. You may find it naïve. Or courageous. Or immoral. Or realistic. Or corny.

What’s not debatable however, is that this is how he lived his life and created his politics.

But you won’t find it in Van Sant’s pasteurised Milk.

19 thoughts on “Milk Toast: How Van Sant Cut Off Harvey’s Balls”

  1. I’m not sure who believes that this is a true story, Bruce, the level of distortion is so dedicated as to having left me dosing in my chair the first time I watched. There was virtually nothing recognizable as the world in which I lived a good part of my own life. All of the ambiance of gay San Francisco was edited out to leave us with the image of a Boy Scout meeting. Certainly what the Gay people did there by way of creating a community and sensability completely overrode Milk’s life. To reduce our influence to Castro Street (the respectable scene)is idiotic. Where is South of Market, Polk etc .

    The reason there was little bashing is that other minorities were afraid of us. I don’t know , either, where the Irish came from. I recall guys wearing different colored hankies to signal what kind of sex they liked. There was a whole large subcommunity of drag queens in the tenderloin. We were learning who we were as persons in a gay community.

    Needless to say the point of the film, by default and falsification, was to trash the most significant part of gay history in America. To present it as Milktoast. Which only gave the assimilationists a chance to falsify history.

    But at what price? I pity people who grow up with this lie. How else do we self correct.

  2. I really think I’ll be depressed for a month after seeing this. And yes, I totally agree with Mark’s take, but I have more to say as well.

    I lived in SF from 1969 to 1974, so I was there during the “installation” of the Castro area. Before that, the gay neighborhood had been Polk Street, which afterwards became the place for those not middle class enough to be accepted by the Castro (sound familiar? Christoper Street to Chelsea?).

    Even the gays who lived in the Castro wryly observed that the establishment of a gay mecca there was a ruthless gentrification of a neighborhood. When there was bashing, it was more likely to be the actions of resentful Latinos who were being pushed out of the adjacent Mission neighborhood by decorator gays who’d bought their formerly cheap homes and changed the neighborhood. My friend Stephen was bashed like that one night when he was coming home drunk from cruising. It was a Latino gang, not a resentful working class Irish person, as the film hints. The story of the Castro is the story of a middle class subculture. Van Sant’s account is devoid of class consciousness in the most callous of ways.

    I’ll tell you how “oppressed” gays were at the beginning of that neighborhood: the costume that was “de rigeur” was a pair of jeans that you prepared for strolls on Castro by inserting a cucumber into the crotch area and painting the material over it with bleach, using a brush. It was supposed to look like your enormous dick had worn away the denim in that area. We’re talking about a Saturnalia here, not industrious community groups struggling for the common good. All we were struggling for was dick and poppers. 

    As the movie shows, but fails to comment upon, the Castro was extremely segregated–no women, and almost a total absence of Blacks. At the moment that Sean Penn’s Harvey is mourning the death of a victim of gay bashing, there were probably about a dozen blacks and Latinos who had been pushed from the soon-not-to-be-Black Filmore neighborhood by gays and hippies into more dangerous neighborhoods either shooting themselves or being shot by cops. The film makes it seem like gay bashing was the primary motive for violence in SF, which is a boldfaced lie.

    The leniency of the cops and the city toward the promiscuous life style of gays in SF was mind-boggling. The film took one or two gay bar busts, which had a lot to do with the vast quantities of drugs and sex being consumed on the premises, as the status quo. Not. It’s as silly as focusing on one Dutch bust of a brothel in Amsterdam and talking about the terrible “oppression” there.

    Harvey Milk was a distinctly middle class politician who had been in the armed services and had once, I think, supported Goldwater. His one really impressive achievement was his defeat of the Briggs Initiative; but aside from that, he was a “dog shit” kind of politician. As a “gay art hippy” who hung out with the Cockettes, I had no interest in him and saw him as someone who had “sold out to the establishment.” Most of my friends thought the same, when we thought of him at all.

    It was merely an accident of time and place that won him a place in history. If he had not been shot, his status and identity would probably resemble that of a Barney Frank today.

    Since the late 60s we had been pushing the gay agenda politically. In 1969 and 1970 in San Francisco, I participated in impromptu gay rights marches through the streets of SF, a takeover of the convention of the American Psychoanalytical Association, to get them to take homosexuality off their list of illnesses, and a fuck-in in a church. Harvey was far from the originator of gay politics. He was the originator of gay mainstream politics, and for that he’s become a saint? The Saint of Compromise, I would say. 

    What really depresses me is that people like that young screenwriter from a Mormon family think that this is really the true story. Yet another convert to a politics that has no class consciousness and is narcissistically unaware of the reality of any other oppessed group. And who is he being fostered and educated by? Someone born in 1952 (Van Sant) who can’t possibly think that this is the true story.

  3. Very apt insights, Sisu. It is so incredibly strange that Mr Bush was widely praised for his tremendously expensive program of spreading the “abstinance” message and moreover of American gays being so puritanical as to buy into it and purforce condemn themseves to unhappy dreams of monogamy. It is not uncommon in the States for chaps who are 21 never to have had sex and to be waiting for the ‘right ‘person to marry. That is insanity.

    I think that as much as gays are moved by a lack of imagination in seeking ways to have freer love, they are hooked by the idiotic politics of assimilation promoted by bimbos like Andrew Sullivan in major journals where he has announced the “end of gay liberation’ i.e. that we will be just like heteros once we get married and join the military and move to the suburbs. Gays in wholehearted ignorance believe that they are fighting for ‘disingenuous” equality. Thanks for pointing that fact out Mark, nobody here is aware enough of simple points of law to understand that fact. I don’t know if Harvey would have died of AIDS; I was cerainly as active through most through the 80’s and came out well. While I’m probably very lucky, thats just not predictable.

    The clear fact about historical revision in this film is that gay people were celebrating the wonder of being able to touch and know one another without legal constraint or the yoke of any cramping morality and it seriously deforms the sense of what Milk knew and saw to miss that. In fact it perverts a potential that we discovered in ourselves, and may hopefully relive in some form.

  4. Thought Milk was absolutely brilliant. It’s not a film about BEING GAY. It’s a film about Justice/Equality/Freedom versus Ignorance&Bigotry.

    Harvey’s progressive, libertarian spirit is much more important than his sex life.

  5. If Milk had survived his assassin’s bullet, he would have likely been infected with HIV, and given the mortality rates of the 1980s, would have died. And this would have left the gay community without their new “patron saint of Homosexual Coupledom”.

    And yes, sexual behaviour did hasten the spread of HIV through the gay male community. But in some countries (Australia being one of them), apart from an early wave of infection a strong and community-minded awareness campaign taught everyone about condom-use and not sharing needles. We didn’t condemn the sexual behaviour, we gave people information to minimise their risk. It was countries like the USA, blinded by puritanic religious fervour, that did nothing to educate and were responsible for the high HIV-AIDS death toll.

    And if I was to write that another group affected very early by HIV-AIDS were somehow responsible for their infection, then that would be the same as “recognizing that HIV spread amongst gay men due to more promiscuity in that population.” After all, we must recognise and be responsible for high risk behaviours, right? So all those kids and adults that were so irresponsible to need blood transfusions due to haemophilia or accidents or cancers must be “recognised” as being responsible for their infections as well.

    Blaming the victims of HIV-AIDS is reprehensible; it isn’t promiscuity that causes HIV transmission but unsafe sex or other body fluid contact. And one can be a slut quite successfully (as I am) without getting HIV. And I am tired of these old arguments being trotted out everytime the New Gays want to condemn promiscuity in order to prop up their sad devotion to “normal and healthy monogamy”.

  6. “One charming (gay) poster went so far as to say that HIV and the loss of so many gay men was due to their sexual behaviour – as if they deserved it for being such sluts.”

    Recognizing that HIV spread amongst gay men due to more promiscuity in that population is not the same as saying they deserved to die because of their sexual behavior.

  7. I am on a BBS where the majority of posters are fawning over Milk. I naturally linked to your article Mark…and the reaction of course was predictable. Some said that the sex was irrelevant to Milk’s life – his relationship was all that mattered, others are glad it was glossed over because the sex is not what Milk is about.

    One charming (gay) poster went so far as to say that HIV and the loss of so many gay men was due to their sexual behaviour – as if they deserved it for being such sluts.

    When did we become such a puritanical, self-hating group?

  8. Van Sant hasn’t done anything worth watching since “Drugstore Cowboy”.

    Perhaps this movie should have been called “Good Harvey Hunting”.

  9. Mark, I have yet to see this abortion, and suspect I will just catch parts when it goes to cable.

    I recall reading that the chief target of Dan White’s emnity wasn’t Harvey Milk but rather cocaine-sniffing, tale-chasing, scofflaw mayor George Moscone, who among other things presided over San Francisco’s naughty ‘Hookers’ Ball’ along with 70’s porno icon and one time ‘Ivory Soap Girl’ Marilyn ‘Behind the Green Door’ Chambers. Does the movie present the Moscone story? Or does it simply portray White as a homophobe everyman? The latter, I’m guessing.

    Harvey Milk’s political career began as a crusade against dog shit in public parks. He just happened to be gay, but his appeal was to all of us who come home only to discover we have brought a little bit of Man’s Best Friend in with us.

    I can just hear it now: ‘after dissing “Brokeback Mountain” Oscar needs to smile on “Milk”!’

  10. If you want to see a well-done documentary, go to hulu.com and look-up THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK – it talks to the folks who were there, and isn’t censored like MILK was…..

  11. God damn, you’re the best, Mark! I haven’t fried my brain so badly that I can’t remember the 70s.

    As a woman, I need you to keep on telling it like it was, ’cause otherwise people just think I’m a slutty chick who likes slutty guys–which I am and do–but I also like people to know the truth, that gay sex and the “gay lifestyle” was more than just imitating the straights.

  12. Gosh, the Gay People Who Matter will be after your balls (again), Mark… how dare you expose their historical revisionism to help The Cause of Gay Marriage?

  13. at the preview in the NFT, the script writer said that he had to conflate elements of Harvey’s lovers, in order to make the film work – a fairly common technique. also, it’s not unusual for scenes to be filmed, and not make it into the final version – that’s what DVDs are for !

    however, i did find the film rather boring, and nothing like worthy of the acclaim that is being heaped on it. maybe the defenestration you describe caused the film to end up so dull …

    having said that, it’s still worth seeing !

  14. You’re right on, Mark. I came out in San Francisco a short while after Harvey, and he would never have fit in to the scene if he was a prude, even if he was a nun. Then sex was not inhibited by any fear of disease and people fell in love 10 time s a day and got laid nearly as much. If he liked boys they were up and down Polk street, for the having.

    The director is obviously playing into modern America’s inability to comprehend the idea of free and easy shagging -“sport fucking” we called it. Milk would be out of step completely if he bought into todays ‘one and only’ sentiment(a la Sullivan).

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