Film | Gus van Sant | Harvey Milk | News | Sean Penn

Milk Inspires Roger Ebert to Come Out as Straight


Ebert, like nearly every other reviewer in the nation (I said nearly), is raving about Milk and Sean Penn's performance, noting Milk's 70's campaign to bring gays out of the closet. Ebert notes that Milk's campaign for sexual openness has had much success, and suggests in not such explicit terms that he's behind efforts to make the Mormon church (and others against equality) pay for its anti-gay initiatives:

"In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. Yes, but I have become so weary of the phrase 'openly gay.' I am openly heterosexual, but this is the first time I have ever said so. Why can't we all be what we prefer? Why can't gays simply be gays, and 'unopenly gays' be whatever they want to seem? In 1977, it was not so. Milk made a powerful appeal to closeted gays to come out to their families, friends and co-workers, so the straight world might stop demonizing an abstract idea. But so powerful was the movement he helped inspire that I believe his appeal has now pretty much been heeded, save in certain backward regions of the land that a wise gay or lesbian should soon deprive of their blessings."

I object to Ebert's use of "prefer" but his sentiment is in the right direction.

PennPenn said, in an interview late last week, "I think less people would have died of AIDS [if Harvey Milk had not been assassinated]. I think Ronald Reagan would have been forced to address it. [Milk] was a leader, and he happened to be focused on the gay movement. He would have advanced that argument a lot sooner. I think people are dead because he died too soon."

Penn also condemned Prop 8: "If we could have no excuse for being ignorant in human history, then the punishment for support of Proposition 8 would be minimally manslaughter. There will be teenage boys who will hang themselves [because of this]."

Earlier this month I saw Milk (which I should also disclose, and you may have noticed, advertises on this site). As I noted back then, it's a powerful, classy, elegant, film. If there's anything I would add to that review is that if you see the film (it opens today) this weekend (whether it's at a Cinemark theatre or not), you should take a straight friend, preferably one who's not fully convinced that gays deserve rights under our Constitution.

MilkcastroBecause Penn's Harvey Milk will likely, to use the leader's phrase, recruit them.

Yesterday it was announced that Penn would be the one to present Gus van Sant with a special tribute award at the Gotham Awards at Cipriani in New York City.

A.O. Scott of the New York Times said in his review of Milk: "...[it's] the best live-action mainstream American movie that I have seen this year. This is not faint praise, by the way, even though 2008 has been a middling year for Hollywood. 'Milk' is accessible and instructive, an astute chronicle of big-city politics and the portrait of a warrior whose passion was equaled by his generosity and good humor. Mr. Penn, an actor of unmatched emotional intensity and physical discipline, outdoes himself here, playing a character different from any he has portrayed before."

Penn image from GQ's Men of the Year issue.

For all of our Harvey Milk coverage, CLICK HERE.

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  1. Don't be so quick to wrap Roger on the wrist. His focus was on whether gays prefer to be out or in, not so much whether they prefer to be gay or not. Everyone take a deep breath. Didn't see you focus on Franco's statement on Letterman about Prop 6 and the possibility that gay teachers could effect kids... or maybe I missed it.

    Posted by: Donovan | Nov 26, 2008 10:28:34 AM

  2. I don't have any straight friends who need convincing that gays deserve equal rights.

    I do have some gay ones though. Sigh.

    Posted by: crispy | Nov 26, 2008 10:28:55 AM

  3. Like so many straights Roger has no understanding whatsoever of LBGT life or issues. But since, like all straights, he was raised to believe his kind his kind alone rule the world he's quite put out by our existence. This is what "tolerance" is all about -- and why it's such condescending bullshit.

    Meanwhile. . .

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Nov 26, 2008 10:33:38 AM

  4. PLEASE, HELP!!!

    I'm dying to understand why people are obsessing so much about the question whether homosexuality is inborn or just something you choose. If I understand correctly, Andy objects to the use of the term „prefer“ here, because it implies a choice. But why should it be bad to choose to be gay? Is homosexuality such a negative phenomenon that it is only tolerable if one just can't do anything about it? I don't think you choose to be gay, but I also don't think this question is of such paramount importance. Things are good or bad regardless of whether they are inborn or a choice. Black people should have all the rights white people have even if skin colour was a matter of choice. Indeed, why can't we all be what we prefer as long as we don't hurt others? And by hurting I don't mean going against some bigots' religious or other convictions.

    Posted by: borut | Nov 26, 2008 11:03:17 AM

  5. Wait. Roger Ebert isn't gay?!?!

    Posted by: freddy | Nov 26, 2008 11:11:23 AM

  6. I'm with Borut.

    Sexual preference is a lot more fluid than "born that way" might indicate. We can be born with a certain chemical preordination, but life shapes us as well. I actually like having sex with women. But I am more strongly attracted to men not only for sexual activity but romantic affiliation. I prefer men, and that is my nature. And I'll bet people who identify as bisexual might not have such a problem with the term "prefer" either.

    But where I most agree with Borut is the concept that "choice" may indicate that one thing is preferable to another. That being gay is something that one doesn't choose and can't help. Although I believe that there is a genetic basis for homosexuality, I also believe that it ought not be anyone else's business. I believe that if I choose to be with a man, it is my business and no one else has a right to express an opinion or enact regulations that lead to my oppression. Being (or preferring) gay is not inherently bad. In a free country, I ought to be free to do as I please as long as what I do harms no one. I understand that practically speaking, the world is not so open and understanding and needs the comfort of immutable principles. But wouldn't it be nice if we all just lived and let live.

    Posted by: JT | Nov 26, 2008 11:36:57 AM

  7. I'd cut him a little slack on the "preference" thing. He's still an old man. So, he often has "Oh, Grandpa" moments when it comes to language usage.

    Ebert has always been a very vocal defender of gay rights though. As a movie critic, his overall impact on the debate over depictions of homosexuality within Hollywood is fairly limited. But if you watched his TV show over the last 30 years, it isn't hard to figure out where he stands politically.

    Posted by: John in CA | Nov 26, 2008 12:55:39 PM

  8. "Sexual Preference" is fine for bisexuals. It doesn't work for Kinsey's 6s like me.

    Roger would do well to remember "Loving" -- which made it possible for him to marry Mrs. Roger.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Nov 26, 2008 1:03:36 PM

  9. Am I alone in thinking that Sean Penn's statement that in a world where there's no excuse for ignorance "the punishment for support of Proposition 8 would be minimally manslaughter" is at best incomprehensible and at worst really scary? I'm pretty sure I have no idea what he's talking about, bit then I'm not sure he does either.

    And why the hate for Roger Ebert, David Ehrenstein? I didn't get out of his comments what you did, mere tolerance for gays. I thought what he was saying was why does it matter what a person's sexuality is? That's where I want us to be.

    Posted by: Hermes in DC | Nov 26, 2008 1:04:23 PM

  10. Like so many straights Roger has no understanding whatsoever of LBGT life or issues. But since, like all straights, he was raised to believe his kind his kind alone rule the world he's quite put out by our existence. This is what "tolerance" is all about -- and why it's such condescending bullshit
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    What's David Ehrenstein on about? Roger Ebert is one of the staunchest supporters of gay rights!

    Posted by: klamms uk | Nov 26, 2008 1:38:43 PM

  11. No "hate" for Roger, dear. Just criticism.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Nov 26, 2008 1:39:17 PM

  12. "Staunch"? Very Edie Beale.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Nov 26, 2008 1:40:27 PM

  13. knowing Roger, he was NOT referring to sexuality as a "preference". i'm sure he was being much broader than that. he was talking about life and everyone choosing to do what he/she thinks best without anyone questioning who they are. i didn't even think in the terms brought up here when i read it earlier this morning, and i would be inclined to believe he didn't even think it when he wrote the review

    in fact, Roger's own marriage would have been illegal in the U.S. until 1967 in many places. His wife, Chaz, is African-American. he has a firsthand understanding of intolerance. to jump to conclusions of what he thinks, feels and believes without knowing him is a disservice not only to him but to ourselves.

    his support for the LGBT community in Chicago, and the nation as a whole, has been unwavering. to interpret the entire review based on one word is very limiting. it would also be wise to read Roger's entire review at his website - - especially the last paragraph. as i read it, his point is we are who we are because of who we are.

    Posted by: mike/ | Nov 26, 2008 2:04:42 PM

  14. JT,

    I don't even understand the practicality of basing the fight for gay rights on the we-can't-help-it argument. I think you can't achieve much in the field of civil rights by proclaiming anything less than an ideal. But maybe I'm just too principled.
    And if by people who are not so open and understanding and need the comfort of immutable principles we also intend Christians, I really don't see how the fact that homosexuality is inborn should make any difference to them. According to Christianity we are all born with faults and urges we have to fight. You can have an inborn quick temper but that doesn't make it o.k. to be abusive to people. So I don't understand how the mere fact that you were born gay should make it o.k. with God to act on your homosexual instinct. The whole debate around these issues just seems such a waste of time to me.

    Posted by: borut | Nov 26, 2008 2:16:37 PM

  15. Someone who knows what a "Kinsey 6" is! Bless you, David!

    And not to in any way throw shade, but, all please repeat after me:

    "Harvey Milk was the SECOND openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. Minnesota legislator Allan Spear was the first. Harvey would want us to know that."

    Ebert, after raving about BBM, eventually became an ass during the debate about it vs. "Crash," but I give him a pass here.

    "Out gay" sounds less "revealing something shamefulish" than "openly gay." Let's use that from now on, shall we?

    What I'm confidant Penn meant was that voting for Prop H8TE was like committing manslaughter, not that such voters should be killed. And, yes, he's right, such public approvals of gay hatred DO contribute to the self-loathing and sometimes self-destruction of gay youth. I can cite examples for those doubting me.

    Finally, here's a link below to a fresh interview with one of those who was THERE. Dianne Feinstein is still far from perfect, but, as Harvey did himself, she has evolved into a person better than she originally was. The link below is to an interview with her about those days published this morning, and also contains a video portion of it, along with a vintage TV salute to Moscone and one of Harvey’s earliest TV interviews.

    Having been close to Dan White [she owns his personal diary], she still believes she might have dissuaded him from going to his darkest side from which he decided to assassinate Milk and Moscone. Inheriting Moscone’s office, she still could not bring herself to sit in his chair for seven years, and chooses not to see the film. It’s fascinating to read and listen to, though I feel she underestimates how much White’s homophobia influenced his premeditation. But, of course, he didn’t kill Moscone because he was heterophobic either.

    And, let's have some thanksgiving for ALL those whose shoulders and sacrifices we stand on today.

    Posted by: Michael Bedwell | Nov 26, 2008 5:43:46 PM

  16. Yeah, but did anyone choose to be bisexual?? I don't think so. There is a lot of research that shows that gay acceptance improves dramatically when people understand that it is innate and not a choice. This makes our job a lot easier.

    I basically stopped reading Ebert after he was instrumental in ruining BBM's chances for the Oscar by stridently supporting the awful movie "Crash" (a gift for his wife??). As a critic, he just doesn't play fair--more by giving positive reviews to bad movies, but still.

    For those who don't know, Dave E. here is also a movie critic.

    Posted by: anon | Nov 26, 2008 10:14:29 PM

  17. "I object to Ebert's use of "prefer" but his sentiment is in the right direction."

    Psychologically speaking, the word "preference" doesn't always indicate choice. The tendency toward extroversion or introversion, for example, are "preferences" and yet are inborn. One does not choose to be extroverted or introverted, though one can choose extroverted or introverted behavior; in that way, the phenomenon is very much like sexual orientation.

    However, like others on this comment thread, I choose not to engage in the "choice vs. trait" issue whenever possible. While I did not personally experience my orientation as a conscious choice, to insist that it chose me sounds an awful lot like "it's not my fault; I didn't choose it, and therefore you cannot blame me" and it's so tragically victimized. If I could take the magic pill tonight and wake up straight tomorrow, I'd refuse it -- wouldn't you? And while I didn't choose to be gay, I did choose to be out, and I take a lot of pride in that particular choice.

    Posted by: Red Seven | Nov 26, 2008 11:58:56 PM

  18. It seems to me that this debate about Ebert`s use of the word ``prefer`` is being taken totally out of context. He was talking about LABELS.
    He is suggesting that everyone respect the LABEL that individuals prefer to use for themselves. He is NOT suggesting that actually BEING gay or straight is what anyone prefers, just that some prefer to be CALLED gay and some prefer to be CALLED straight and some want to call themselves something else or nothing at all.
    It would be like saying that we just not argue over whether Thomas Beattie (the pregnant man} is a man or a woman or a transgender, let`s just let him label himself and respect it. Thomas says he considers himself a man, so, good enough. (Or for a racial example, if Obama were to say he`s brown rather than black, then let`s call him brown.}
    I do have my own definitions for using words like gay or black to refer to others, but I understand Ebert`s point.

    Posted by: GregV | Nov 27, 2008 1:07:59 AM

  19. "Roger has no understanding whatsoever of LGBT life or issues." Well, that may or may not be the case, but he's ON OUR SIDE. Good grief, can't we even agree on the very basic idea that people who are pro-rights are our FRIENDS? I'm an all-the-way-out gay man, and I firmly believe that sexuality (for gay people and straight people and trans people and bi- people and everyone in between) is the result of some combination of nature and nurture, and is BOTH an inborn characteristic AND a choice. Am I evil for saying this? Well, I don't think so. Ebert used one word - "choose" - to talk about how gay men live, whether out of the closet or in. This is certainly a choice - unless you now want to argue that the ability and desire to come out of the closet is genetically determined. Please, get a grip. We've been polarized and angry long enough. Do we deserve more? Yes. Most importantly for my partner and I, I believe that loving same-sex couples deserve the same legal rights as married opposite sex couples. Do I care if it's called marriage? No. But that's just my opinion. Yours might be different. Or you might feel like another issue is more important. Maybe you live in Florida and you and your partner want to adopt a child. Maybe you are a pre-op transsexual dealing with issues unique to your situation. All I know is that we're all in this together, and it's utterly ridiculous to get so worked up over one word from someone who is so obviously a friend of our cause.

    Posted by: moviejonny | Nov 27, 2008 11:16:12 AM

  20. me thinks he doth proteth too much. strange words he used, considering that back in the day in chicago there was much speculation and rumors as to what team roger preferred to play with.

    Posted by: james | Nov 28, 2008 2:21:19 AM

  21. what is UP with everyone on here criticizing roger ebert? his statement is PRO gay and PRO liberation. why are you all on him.

    i appreciate his support.

    Posted by: logan767 | Nov 30, 2008 4:10:32 PM

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