We’re missing Milk’s legacy
by Mark Puleo
We’re missing Milk’s legacy Even today, the depiction of gay characters remains mostly caricatured.
I was about to write another missive on our dreary economy until Dustin Lance Black, who won best original screenplay for Milk, jolted me to attention with his Academy Awards acceptance speech. Its touching exhortation that all young gays and lesbians grow up in a world where they’ll enjoy equal rights under the law was followed by Sean Penn’s more political, but equally poignant, award speech scolding those who would deny same-sex marriage rights in California. But is Hollywood — historically a bastion of closeted actors and entertainers — ready to embrace the message of the man these awards ultimately honor?
Slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, whom Penn portrayed in his winning role, advocated for gays to come out of the closet, regardless of their fears. Not only for the psychological peace it would provide, but also to educate an unfamiliar straight society to gay people. If they didn’t know we existed, how on earth would they treat us equally, Milk asked.
But despite its “liberal” reputation, the entertainment industry has a rather conservative history when it comes to most things gay. For years, it perpetuated the image of masculinity through the chiseled leading man. Even today, the depiction of gay characters in mainstream media remains mostly caricatured.
Worse, there has been reluctance on the part of gay and lesbian actors to be open with their fan base about their sexuality. Although Ellen came out on national television over ten years ago, it was still novel when Neil Patrick Harris disclosed his sexuality in 2006. Many chortled over the fact that a talented gay man was playing a heterosexual.
Lest anyone doubt the social impact of more openly gay actors, consider the public policy implications when Rock Hudson reluctantly disclosed his battle with AIDS in 1985. Prior to his revelation, the disease remained an obscure threat for many; yet at the time of Hudson’s untimely demise, incredibly over 6,000 Americans had already died.
There are plenty of straight actors supportive of gay rights in Hollywood. But where are the gay ones living out Milk’s message? Surely, there are a few more than Neil Patrick Harris.
Mark Puleo is co-editor of the Brazilian Journal, a bilingual publication in Greater New England.
Published February 25, 2009 in METRO NewYork.