Sunday, December 14, 2008

We needed some Harvey Milks this year

Milk the movie didn't quite do it for me. But there was a huge lesson in it for the disastrous No on 8 campaign -- and that is, you don't win a gay rights battle by making gays invisible, as No on 8 did in its $40 million of TV ads.
Back in 1978, when Californians defeated Prop 6 ("The Briggs Initiative") by a landslide, nobody pretended the proposition wasn't about gay people. (Prop 6 would have banned anyone "advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting" homosexuality from teaching in California public schools.)

Here's how Wikipedia summarizes the anti-Prop 6 campaign (with tidying up by me): A huge coalition of predominantly progressive grassroots activists, led by out gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, teacher (now California Assemblyman) Tom Ammiano, activist Hank Wilson and many others -- under the slogan "Come out! Come out! Wherever you are!" -- mobilized to defeat the initiative. In what became the "No on 6" campaign, gay men and lesbians went door to door in their cities and towns across the state to talk about the harm the initiative would cause. Gay men and lesbians came out to their families, neighbors and co-workers, spoke in their churches and community centers, sent letters to their local newspapers, and otherwise revealed to the general population that gay people really were "everywhere" and included people they already knew and cared about.

Prop 6, which had been ahead in the polls 61 percent to 31 percent in September 1978, went down to defeat in November 1978 by over 1 million votes, losing even in dreaded Orange County, where Assemblyman John Briggs lived.

This year, of course, the clique that headed the No on 8 campaign was seemingly blind and deaf to weeks of howling from progressives and activists of many stripes who kept telling them their TV ads were duds, that invisibilizing gay people was a bizarre miscalculation, and that various no-brainer strategies and approaches seemed to be mysteriously missing from the campaign, which, instead, seemed almost singlemindedly focused on internal daily tracking polls of some allegedly undecided voters.

If for no other reasons than seeing the remarkable parallels -- Save the children! -- and tactical contrasts between 1978's Prop 6 success story and this year's unnecessary Prop 8 disaster, you should go see Milk. Even though, yes, it otherwise didn't quite do it for me. It was too programmatic, too mechanical, too busy, too obvious. Rather than getting sucked in (and, granted, it was a story I already knew by heart), I instead was aware of the filmmaking conventions that were being employed. And that is never a good thing.

(Here are a couple of my blog posts from before the election in which I kvetched about the No on 8 ads: Post 1 - Post 2.)
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