Betrayal and optimism
Eli Sanders has a really interesting post up explaining why the Prop 8 fiasco was so devastating, beyond just the size of California and its relative impact. And it seems to have occurred to him after watching “Milk”. (Which I still haven’t had a chance to get out and see.)
In the scene, Sean Penn, playing the gay rights icon Harvey Milk, celebrates an almost diametrically opposite moment in history: the gay rights movement’s 1978 victory over California’s Proposition 6, which would have banned homosexuals, or anyone who supported them, from teaching in public schools.
“We can come home,” Milk, as played with impressive intuition and bravery by Penn, tells a cheering crowd of activists in San Francisco on the night that Prop. 6 was defeated.
If you think about it, the statement doesn’t make much literal sense. Milk, the first openly gay man to serve in elected office in the United States, was not himself from San Francisco. He was, instead, like most of the people he befriended and worked with in the gay rights movement there, a refugee (in his case, from a closeted life in New York’s financial world) who had come to the Castro to start over as an out gay man. If San Francisco was Milk’s home, it was a new one, and in any case he hadn’t left it. So what was he talking about coming home to?
He was talking about coming home to the idea of California, to the sense of the state as different, more tolerant, and therefore psychologically habitable for gay Americans at a time when most places were not.
I think anyone who has fled to a blue oasis can relate just a little to the sense of betrayal you feel when the hate from other parts of the country seeps into your home. It certainly explains my ambivalence towards the capitol building in the middle of Austin. On one hand, it’s an icon of a city I love. On the other hand, every other year it hosts a hit parade of hate towards women and gays coming from the Republican lunatics that populate the state legislature. So, take that feeling and multiply times a million, and you’re just beginning to touch on how this must feel for gays and lesbians that feel that California is safe.
The “Prop 8: The Musical” video was fascinating, because they were able to pull up that star-studded cast on a moment’s notice, and I suspect it’s because a lot of Hollywood actors are also in love with the idea of California. That’s what has fascinated me over and over as I watch celebrities both gay and straight push back. They’re so angry. Many of these people come from all over the country, but it’s clear that they have a real stake in California. It’s not just somewhere they have to live for work. The frustration that drove that video is that specific frustration that you feel when you’re betrayed, when a strongly held belief is dashed out.
But that’s really why I think this horrible setback will end up being a battle won for the right in a war they’re losing. It’s really personalized the issue. If you know you live in bigot land, the bigots next door may annoy or be a source of mockery, but they don’t have the power to betray you, because you didn’t trust them in the first place. This loss has really shocked people, and that slap in the face is getting people moving. I don’t know how this will all shake out, but I’m surprisingly optimistic.