23 February, 2009Issue 8.5Film & TVNorth AmericaPolitics & SocietySocial PolicyThe Arts

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False Idols and Golden Statuettes

Ryan Thoreson


Gus van Sant
Focus Features, 2008
128 minutes

When Brokeback Mountain (2005) hit theatres in the US, the newspaper Christianity Today began its review with a lengthy disclaimer: “After much discussion”, the magazine has “decided to review the film despite its controversial subject matter”. The editor emphasized, however, that the review was neither a “‘recommendation’ to see the film” nor a “rating of the ‘moral acceptability’ of homosexuality”.

The ambiguous, furtive sexuality of Brokeback contrasts with the militant pro-gay politics of Milk (2008), Gus van Sant’s biopic about the first openly gay elected official in the US. Thirty years after his death, Harvey Milk has become iconic—as an unapologetic organiser, as a vocal opponent of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay morality crusades, and later, after his assassination, as a martyr of the movement. But when Christianity Today reviewed Milk, there was no disclaimer or warning about the “controversial subject matter”. In fact, the magazine described the movie as “an inspiring tale of one man’s quest to legitimize his identity, to give hope to his community”.

With Brokeback, the question was whether America was ready for a blockbuster about queer relationships, however ambiguous. If the disclaimer from Christianity Today or the 2005 Best Picture award (which went to Crash over Brokeback) were any indication, the answer to that question remains unclear. With Milk, which won Academy Awards for best actor and best original screenplay last night, the question is whether America is ready for a truly robust queer politics. If the film’s warm reception from critics and pundits alike is any indication, the answer might finally be yes. Queer cinema, Brokeback included, has long been dominated by debates about who is depicted and how they are represented. But in Milk, the focus is on who is elected and how they agitate for change.

In context of US politics, it is easy to see why this change is happening now. Queer activists face a better chance of passing pro-gay legislation under the Obama Administration than they ever have in the past. In many ways, Milk’s victory in 1977 and the subsequent passage of San Francisco’s ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation foreshadowed the next three decades of queer politics. Since then, the battles have been overwhelmingly fought at the state and local level, where even relatively modest demands for non-discrimination protections, the right to assemble and participate in public life, and benefits for same-sex partners have been won.

But the victories came only after countless setbacks. It was not until 1982 that the first statewide non-discrimination ordinance went into effect in Wisconsin, and it was not until 1989 that Massachusetts followed suit. Even today, 30 of the 50 US states still lack any such protections. The federal government has been even slower to change. Visitors suspected of being gay or lesbian could be barred at the US border until 1991; sodomy was not nationally decriminalised until 2003 in the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas; and as late as last November, it was still considered newsworthy when gay candidates were elected to any kind of public office.

Obama’s victory has to be understood in light of the series of setbacks for queer activists on the national scene. The hope that many activists placed in Bill Clinton after his election in 1992 quickly dissipated. His “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise meant that queer service members would be discharged if they acknowledged their sexuality. He also signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which defined “marriage” federally as “a legal union between one man and one woman”. George W. Bush, for his part, stalled legislation on hate crimes and employment discrimination.

In such a hostile political environment, the LGBT rights movement in the US rarely could make headlines by tackling substantive structural problems ingrained in law and policy. Instead, the movement turned much of its attention to the only front where it was routinely playing offence and winning—the politics of representation. If the presidential administration would not budge, organisations like the Human Rights Campaign could at least win symbolic victories, as in when Grey’s Anatomy ‘s Isaiah Washington was written out of the show after allegedly calling a co-star a “fag”, or when Human Rights Watch successfully pressured Mars to pull homophobic ads for Snickers.

But lately, the politics of representation seem to be going out of style. In the hyper-political climate of the recent presidential election, headline-grabbing superstars like Lindsay Lohan and Kanye West took a back seat to speculation about Nate Silver’s polling models and the width of the Bering Strait. In the end, the 2008 US election was not about being black—or female, or Latino, or Mormon, or a septuagenarian, or a hockey mom from Alaska or an average Joe from Scranton. Voters were motivated less by identity politics and more by the economy and a desire to break from the policies of the past. They wanted a candidate would improve their lives substantively in uncertain times.

The shift seems to have catalysed a strain of the LGBT movement that has been slowly amplifying its demands for actual, practicable policy change, rather than gunning for wins on the playing field of identity politics. Waves of protest swept the country after California passed the Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban in a statewide referendum. Cities and counties across the country—including Salt Lake County, the home of the Mormon Church—have passed measures that extend health insurance to same-sex partners. States such as Wyoming, North Dakota, Kansas, Montana and Utah are all considering non-discrimination bills this year. Maine is contemplating civil unions. Vermont and New Hampshire, which already offer civil unions, are mulling over full marriage rights. LGBT community members seem to be emboldened to demand actual, practicable victories that would have symbolic and material changes in the lives of LGBT Americans.

The emboldening of the LGBT movement in the US is too easily chalked up to the presence of a sympathetic president and the wave of hopeful Obamania that has swept the left. It is more diffuse and pragmatic than that. It is fuelled just as much by the Democrats wresting control of the US Congress in 2006, by a series of victories at the state level that seem to be tipping the political scales in the movement’s favour, and by the newfound support of rising political stars like Jeff Merkley, Kirstin Gillibrand, Al Franken and even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who are rapidly recognising that the stranglehold of the religious right is weakening, and that championing gay rights is no longer a radical or career-killing move. The movement is at a turning point, one that owes as much to the country’s backlash against social conservatism in the wake of the Bush Administration as it does to those activists whose perennial demands suddenly seemed moderate once the contentious issue of same-sex marriage became a prominent goal.

Issues of representation and identity politics are still valid concerns. But they are not the sum total of the movement’s goals, and they become particularly dangerous when they get in the way of larger kinds of cultural or structural change. The flare-up over Rick Warren, the controversial pastor of the Saddleback Church, is symptomatic of this type of politics. By asking Warren to give the convocation at the Inauguration, Obama attempted to reach out to the 26.3% of Americans who consider themselves evangelical Christians.

Of course, representation matters here. Allowing an evangelical who opposes same-sex marriage to give the invocation does little to challenge that sector’s monopoly on faith-based discourse. But it also offered an opportunity for progress that was overlooked in fits of rage-blindness. Instead of focusing on Rick Warren as a figurehead for the evangelical community and for the anti-gay marriage movement, activists could have stressed that Warren has been an outspoken advocate for HIV/AIDS funding, a supporter of non-discrimination laws and sympathetic to civil unions—all positions that put him squarely to the left of recent federal policy.

There is space for action if the movement is bold enough to seize it. Immediate goals include the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act, which would give federal “hate crime” protection to victims targeted based on their sexual orientation, the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and federal recognition for civil unions. But all of these are widely supported by the American public already, which has left a lingering sense that the movement could be demanding—and receiving—more. Stalwarts like the Human Rights Campaign, with its massive fundraising and lobbying capabilities, are at risk of becoming obsolete in the face of local pro-LGBT rights grassroots campaigns, such as the ones that popped up during the wave of protests in California against the passage of Proposition 8.

The seismic shift in queer activism that seems to be occurring is the recognition—by activists and LGBT people themselves, if not by the iconic organisations of the movement—that the movement no longer has to play defence, reacting to every homophobic salvo fired in its direction. Instead, there is a real opportunity to show what structural discrimination and violence look like and why they need to be addressed immediately.

Milk’s Oscar nods will predictably be seen as a victory for queer visibility, and another battle that has been won on the representation front of the culture wars. But it will also celebrate a politician whose stock phrase—”my name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you”—not only failed to confront stereotypes, but strategically and unapologetically embraced them and played into them for political gain. If there is any lesson to be learned from Milk in the post-election world, it is that it may be time for the movement to take a break from Hollywood and start demanding change from Washington.

Ryan Thoreson is reading for an MPhil in Social Anthropology at Hertford College, Oxford.