Last night I went to see the movie 'Milk', about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major office in the US, and a significant force in the activism for gay rights. I'm depressed. Don't get me wrong, the movie was awesome, and if the Oscars had anything to do with real merit, Penn should win an Oscar for his performance.
The reason why I am depressed is this: Harvey Milk hoped, in a recording he made in anticipation of his assassination that 'if a bullet should enter [his] brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door...' Well, sure enough, Harvey got shot to death (and the guy who did it got away with it, essentially), but the closet door remains firmly closed.
I live on the other side of the world. I know who Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker and Betty Friedan and Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers and Angela Davis are, though some of the oppressions they fought are not oppressions I face. For fuck's sake, I even know who Camille Paglia is, though I could live without her. And to be fair, I knew roughly who Harvey Milk was, though I knew very little about him--even though the oppression he fought is one I face, to a lesser degree than many of my comrades, to be sure--I pass, making me one of the lucky ones--but I face it nonetheless. Let me be clear, I am not trying to diminish the achievements of any of the civil rights activists I listed, nor I claiming any one of them was a paragon of virtue, but...
Why isn't Harvey Milk's name up there in the pantheon of American civil rights heroes? Because that closet door is made of kevlar. Because sexuality isn't visible, and because there seems to be an insidious sense that it is a choice, and because it is about sex, GLBTQI civil rights just aren't an issue that many people are interested in.
Except they are interested. Just not in a good way. It is still bizarrely acceptable to poke fun at gay people in movies. Obama is seen by so many as ushering a new era of human rights, and being fabulous for gay people, but as Ann at Feministing points out "not-Bush" is a pretty low threshold. He didn't come out openly against any of the anti-gay-marriage bills in the US, and all 11 of them passed, including one in California, Milk's adopted home state, and the place where he did such amazing work (and this is similar the world over--there are few places that recognise full marriage equality). I'm aware of the arguments against state-sanctioned marriage--this post isn't about those--but while the state does sanction marriage, to deny it to people because they happen to be the same gender is unacceptable. Saying "that's so gay", and calling someone a faggot are not seen as the slightest bit transgressive. People still ask each other about partners in gendered terms, and it is still up to those in non-heterosexual relationships to explain themselves. For those of us who are in a heterosexual relationship, our orientation is considered confirmed. Gay people are still beaten for who they love (though probably not nearly as statistically frequently as trans people).
30 years after Milk's death, not much has changed. Gay people are still told consistently in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they are not acceptable. I still cannot imagine an openly gay leader in New Zealand (which is fairly diverse in its political representation--we've had female leaders, openly gay and lesbian MPs, a trans MP, MPs of many ethnicities...), much less the US. The closet door is still firmly closed. And the biggest shame of all? Until the movie, the world didn't even know Milk's name.
Update 28 Jan 09: Iceland has just gotten a female, openly gay prime minister (thanks, Shakesville, for bringing me the news). Yes, she has been appointed, not elected, but--was that the sound of one more closet door shattering?