Milk Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black on Milk, 30 Years Later

In the following years, I watched careers, political and otherwise, cut short through revelations of this or that official’s sexuality. And in 2004, I looked on with horror as a President won re-election by pitting homophobes against gays and lesbians. If there had been a Harvey Milk, if there had been a movement of great hope and change, I certainly couldn’t see it from where I stood four and a half years ago when I started this journey to tell Harvey’s story.

Thirty years after Harvey Milk was assassinated, in the summer of 2008, with antigay measures on the ballot in several states, I tuned in to the Democratic National Convention to see how his message had fared. Back in 1972, Jim Foster, an openly gay man, stood up in front of the convention and on prime-time national television said, “We do not come to you pleading your understanding or begging your tolerance, we come to you affirming our pride in our life-style, affirming the validity to seek and maintain meaningful emotional relationships and affirming our right to participate in the life of this country on an equal basis with every citizen.” What did I hear at the DNC in 2008? Almost nothing. And then there was the Republican National Convention: Sarah Palin, John McCain, flashy, divisive, patriotic speeches. And even there, not a mention of gay or lesbian people. . . bigoted or otherwise.

I left those conventions with a deep, sinking fear. They’ve found the surefire way to kill the gay and lesbian movement for good. They’ll make us invisible. They’ll make us all disappear. It’s happened before. Reagan did it in the 80s with six years of silence about the AIDS crisis.

You see, one of the biggest hurdles for the gay community has always been invisibility. Unlike the black movement and the women’s movement, gays and lesbians are not always immediately identifiable. People still go their entire careers without coming out to their co-workers, not to mention their relatives or their neighbors. Harvey Milk saw this problem, and shouted out the solution, “You must come OUT!”

The entire concept of coming out was devised and pushed for by leaders like Harvey Milk back in 1978 as a way to counter this visibility problem. If people don’t know who they are hurting, they don’t mind discriminating against them. Watching these two conventions, I got a sinking feeling that Milk’s beloved gay and lesbian movement was off the table. I felt myself slowly vanishing, and for gay and lesbian people, invisibility equals death.

Thirty years after Harvey began his fight for GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) equality, I am still “less than” a heterosexual when it comes to my civil rights in America. If I fall in love with someone in a foreign country, I can’t marry him and bring him home. I can’t be out in the military, there are inheritance rights issues, adoption rights, social security, taxation, immigration, employment, housing, and access to health care rights, social services, and education rights, and on and on. The message to gay and lesbian youth today is that they are still inferior.

Today, in 2008, The Gay and Lesbian Task Force reports that a third of all gay youth attempt suicide, that gay youth are four times more likely than straights to try to take their own lives, and if a kid does survive, 26 percent are told to leave home when they come out. It’s estimated that 20 to 40 percent of the 1.6 million homeless youth in America today identify as gay or lesbian. Harvey Milk’s message is needed now more than ever.

So much of what I’ve done in this business up to this point has been to make myself ready to take on the overwhelming responsibility of retelling Harvey’s story. It took many years of research, digging through archives, driving up to San Francisco in search of Harvey’s old friends and foes, charging a couple of nights at the Becks motor lodge on Market and Castro with my principal source, Harvey’s political protégé, Cleve Jones.

What I discovered on those trips wasn’t the legend of the man that I’d heard in adolescence. What I discovered was a deeply flawed man, a man who had grown up closeted, a man who failed in business and in his relationships, a man who got a very late start. Through Harvey’s friends, foes, lovers, and opponents, I met the real Harvey Milk.

Those I interviewed also shared stories of a time in San Francisco when it seemed anything was possible. The Castro was booming. Gay and lesbian people were making headway in the battle for equal rights. And from the ashes of defeats in Florida, Kansas, and Oregon rose a big-eared, floppy-footed leader who was able to reach out to other communities, to the disenfranchised, and to unexpected allies. He convinced an entire people to “come out,” and against all odds, he fought back and won on Election Day.

So what happened on Election Day, November 4, 2008, thirty years later? When I began this project, I could never have predicted the parallels between Proposition 8 in California in 2008 and Harvey’s fight over Proposition 6 in 1978. Both statewide initiatives sought to take away gay and lesbian rights. By the early hours of November 5, though, it became clear this modern-day fight wouldn’t echo Harvey’s victory in 1978. Only weeks before Milk’s biography would hit the big screen, Proposition 8 in California passed. It changed the state’s constitution to revoke the right of marriage to gay and lesbian citizens who had already been enjoying that right. Thirty years, almost to the day, after Harvey Milk had successfully defeated Proposition 6 in California, the pendulum had swung back.

One week later, Cleve Jones and I picked up the torch of his former mentor and father figure with these words (as published in the San Francisco Chronicle):

We have always been willing to serve our country: in our armed forces, even as we were threatened with courts-martial and dishonor; as teachers, even as we were slandered and libeled; as parents and foster parents struggling to support our children; as doctors and nurses caring for patients in a broken health care system; as artists, writers and musicians; as workers in factories and hotels, on farms and in office buildings; we have always served and loved our country.

We have loved our country even as we have been subjected to discrimination, harassment and violence at the hands of our countrymen. We have loved God, even as we were rejected and abandoned by religious leaders, our churches, synagogues and mosques. We have loved democracy, even as we witnessed the ballot box used to deny us our rights.

We have always kept faith with the American people, our neighbors,
co-workers, friends and families. But today that faith is tested and we find ourselves at a crossroad in history.

Will we move forward together? Will we affirm that the American dream is alive and real? Will we finally guarantee full equality under the law for all Americans? Or will we surrender to the worst, most divisive appeals to bigotry, ignorance and fear?

I imagine Harvey would be surprised that words like these would still be needed in 2008. What went wrong? Why did the GLBT community lose a civil rights fight that Harvey could likely have won thirty years ago?

To me, the answers are clear. GLBT leaders today have been asking straight allies to stand up for the gay community instead of encouraging gay and lesbian people to proudly represent themselves. The movement has become closeted again. The movement has lost the message of Harvey Milk. Who is to blame? The philosopher George Santayana said so long ago,

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I didn’t grow up with any knowledge of GLBT heroes, but there are many. I didn’t grow up with any instruction about GLBT history, but it is a rich history, filled with valuable, universal lessons. It is only in recent years that Hollywood has agreed to risk its dollars on films that depict gay protagonists, and only now, thirty years after Milk’s assassination, that Hollywood has agreed to risk its dollars to depict one of the gay movement’s greatest heroes.

Now, thanks to the bravery of directors like Gus Van Sant, producers like Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, and companies like Michael London’s Groundswell and Focus Features, I was given a shot at creating a popularized history that young people, GLBT leaders, and our future straight allies can look at and learn from. With this and the many other films I hope will follow, perhaps we are not doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes of our past.

But even in these difficult times, all is not lost. By example, Harvey taught us that from our darkest hours comes “Hope.” The night after this year’s election, I attended a rally against the passage of Proposition 8, and the speakers onstage were mostly the folks who had waged the failed, closeted “No on 8” campaign. Yes, they were saying inspiring, fiery words about the injustice. Yes, there were some cheers, but mostly the mood was restless. And then something magical happened.

The young people in the crowd started to move. Perhaps it was instinct, perhaps they knew more about their own movement’s history than the folks onstage, perhaps they just weren’t willing to continue the current leadership’s policy of closeting and good behavior. They started to move. They marched away from the stage. They started to march out of the gay ghetto of West Hollywood and up to a straight neighborhood. Within minutes a public march, eight thousand strong, had begun. It looked almost identical to Harvey’s marches up Market Street in San Francisco in 1977. Young people, old people, gay people, lesbians, bisexual folks, transgender ones, and many, many straight allies marched up to Sunset Boulevard, took over the city, and started doing what Harvey had talked about. They started giving a face to GLBT people again. They showed the world who was hurt at the ballot box the night before. They came out. They weren’t asking straight people to advocate for their rights. In their chants and on their signs, they demanded equality themselves.

In 1977, Harvey Milk claimed Anita Bryant didn’t win in Dade County when she overturned all of their gay rights laws. He claimed that the defeat in Florida had brought his people together. It seemed the same thing had happened thirty years later.

And yes, those demonstrators on television, and Harvey’s message in theaters, are exceedingly important in the continued fight over Proposition 8, but they are important to me for another, more personal reason. . . because I feel certain there is another kid out there in San Antonio tonight who woke up on November 5, 2008, and heard that gay people had lost their rights in California, that they were still “less than,” and I know all too well the dire solutions that may have flashed through his or her head.

Those demonstrators on television sets all across the country aren’t just making a statement against the bigotry of Prop 8; they are sending a message of hope to that child in San Antonio: “You are not less than,” “You have brothers and sisters and friends, thousands of them,” “There is hope for a better tomorrow,” and like Harvey said, “You can come to California. . . or you can stay in San Antonio and FIGHT.”

These photos and the accompanying quotes from my research interviews in this book don’t tell the story of a man born to lead, but of a regular man with many flaws who did what many others wouldn’t . . . he did what his people need to do again today, thirty years later . . . Harvey Milk stood up and fought back.

Dustin Lance Black
November 2008
Los Angeles


Excerpted from MILK: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF HARVEY MILK, published by Newmarket Press, www.newmarketpress.com Copyright © 2009 by Dustin Lance Black. All rights reserved

Photographer Jerry Pritikin has a new blog.

Special Thanks to Focus Features.


  1. Eric says

    Reading these types of things always make me cry.

    I can’t imagine what life for gay men must have been like in the past. I was born in 1986. I came out in high school. My gay life began after the police riots, after Harvey Milk, after the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, after Matthew Shepard. It began during the time of Will & Grace and Queer Eye.

    I’ve never had to face such hatred. Though I have friends living with HIV, they are strong and healthy; I’ve never had to witness them die with the same pain as men in the 80s. I’m so fortunate that so many strong men came before me, like Harvey Milk.

    Everyday now I walk down Castro Street like it’s nothing. It is so easy to forget how difficult it once was to be an out gay man. I’m fortunate that this history has being recorded since it is so easy to lose it.

    I don’t know that I would have been strong enough to have lived through the 70s and 80s. I’m so fortunate that there were men that were.

  2. Leland Frances says

    Jessica H. Christ! If you hate “sacrilege,” prepare to flame it now because I am about to rip on someone who is getting a great deal of undeserved praise just because of his long distance association with a hero.

    Before reading this, I figured that all the factual “mistakes” in “Milk” were because Black was just a gullible youngin’, deepthroating Cleve Jones’ hagiagraphy about Harvey. Milk’s REAL accomplishments were great enough. Why did Black/Jones feel the need to make so much shit up?

    While Black does describe Jones as his “principal source,” he also claims to have done “many years of research, [dug] through archives” and STILL he somehow missed the fact that Harvey was NOT [contrary to what his script claims twice]the “first out gay elected to office.” He was the FOURTH.

    Black failed to discover that, contrary to the script, Anita Bryant did NOT create Prop 6, had virtually nothing to do with it beyond encouraging CA troglodyte Lou
    Sheldon to help its creator Briggs [tho Sheldon quickly smelled Briggs’ purely political motivation]. The newsreels in the film that portray her talking about it are from a year before when she was talking about the fight in Miami.

    Bryant did NOT “[overturn] all of their gay rights lawS”—there was ONLY ONE LAW in Miami at the time.

    Jim Foster did NOT give that speech in “prime time” at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. It was FIVE A.M. East Coast time before he and lesbian Madeline Davis were allowed to speak. CBS still had their cameras on, but how many do you think were still watching across the US? [Foster was interviewed for a couple of minutes by NBC around 6 pm but that’s not what Black said.]

    Harvey did NOT defeat Prop 6, at least not by himself as the film, and Black here, keeps insisting. OBJECTIVE historians include the fact that there was an entirely separate gay group fighting from LA, and two of its leaders, David Mixner and Peter Scott, scored what was clearly THE biggest reason 6 was defeated: a statement from Ronald Reagan against it. After he was quoted in TV and print ads, support for 6 went from 61% for/31% against to a statistically insignificant 45-43% split.

    Black can’t even get CURRENT facts right such as the name of the group whose statistics he quotes: it’s the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force not “the Gay & Lesbian Task Force.”

    Black trumpets that his “answers” are “clear.” From his script and, now, this egregious essay, he has NOTHING clear. His good intentions don’t make up for the fact that his brain is a toy box turned upside down.

    I genuinely hope “Milk” wins the Oscar, but Black should be sent back to the historical drawing board.

  3. peterparker says

    Leland…while I often agree with you…and while I will concede that Black has perhaps gotten a few facts wrong…the message of his essay here is so much more powerful than any small mistakes…focus on the forest and not the trees, and you will see that Lance Black’s essay is one of the most important, most relevant and most NECESSARY things Andy has posted in a long, long time. It matters little whether Harvey is portrayed as the first out gay elected official or the fourth one. What matters is that queer folk today get the message that we must be OUT and we must continue to fight, otherwise we will never achieve full equality.

  4. Jim/Charlotte, NC says

    It is an excellent commentary and it’s important to keep true the history of movement as written by Mr Frances.

    But I must concur with Peterparker that we must be OUT and continue to fight.

    We need the fight our our lives.

  5. says

    I grew up in a small town in the west and I remember growing up in the church, the only things I knew about sex was what was covered on Geraldo or Sally Jesse, including gay topics, and the only gays on TV then were usually flagrantly flamboyant, a lifestyle that in my ignorance didn’t seem to be what I wanted.
    But by the time I was twelve I had a nagging feeling that I was somehow different, and it wasn’t until I was almost 18 that I was able to discover my sexual orientation. But emotionally I found myself suddenly alone with noone like me to talk to, my newfound lifestyle was inconsistent with my family and church. And it was frankly a terrible time in my life. I was unable to accept myself, I thought I was some sort of freak and I was going to hell. I went through years of heavy denial, interspersed with times of sexual discovery, running away, bouncing in and out of the closet, and alcoholism. I went to a church college (although I didn’t start there) thinking that finding a girl and getting married could easily remove me from this. But there was never any real attraction and I always felt that I was dating my sister or something, and definitely no sexual attraction. Fortunately that in itself was enough to keep me from marching down the aisle. And I got kicked out of school when it was discovered that I was experimenting with men. Then I was shunned by family AND church, running away and getting drunk seemed the only things available to me, and kind of became a lifestyle in iteslf. But eventually I was able to look myself in the mirror and call myself a fag. I remember the day quite well. I was 23.
    And it was at that point I started to get better. I stopped running away, but my alcoholism stayed until I was in my thirties.
    So it took all of that time until after I was in recovery from alcohol that I finally was able to get better and be a true contributer to society in a positive way. And I didn’t really feel connected until I got online in my early forties and was finally able to connect with like minded people.
    So for me it was a very long road to acceptance and adulthood, and I can’t help but think my road would have much easier for me had I had access to any kind of gays at all, let alone gay history and gay icons. I hope that young people will see this movie and read these commentaries and know that they are NOT alone, that many of us have gone through exactly what they’re experiencing. That’s a very empowering messsage and can help others move towards better emotional and mental health.

  6. Leland Frances says

    OF COURSE we must encourage people to come out—to help both themselves and their fellow LGBT brothers and sisters. I have said that DOZENS of times on Towleroad, other places on the Net, and for the 38 years I’ve been involved in the movement myself. Just consider the number of times I have flamed Anderson Cooper for being such a coward.

    And, with respect Peter P., YOU know that there were MANY gay leaders BEFORE Harvey and THEY were saying “come out” BEFORE Harvey was…[before Harvey publicly had come out HIMSELF]….including his lover in NYC Craig Rodwell who opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the first gay bookstore in the world. Did Harvey even do that after coming out publicly and moving to SF…no, he opened a camera store.

    There is more here than Black’s false claim to scholarship, and his falsification of history. It is his insult to the memory of those who fought BEFORE Harvey did and paved the way for HIS success. Can anyone disagree that emerging gay kids would be more empowered if they knew that they have MANY forebears and not just one?

    From the movie, one could think that Harvey was creating a gay movement out of a bunch of closet queens frozen in the ground in Fargo rather than in the warm, fertile ground of San Francisco that had been plowed and sown by others before him for years, including Jose Sarria who ran for the SF Board of Supervisors ELEVEN YEARS before Harvey did.

    Per Randy Shilts, the same year that Harvey was campaigning for Barry Goldwater, Rick Stokes, whom the film chews quickly and spits out and at, was starting the first gay group in Sacramento—after having endured the “unspeakable pain” of shock treatments forced upon him by his family to try to turn him straight, years after he’d come out to them at 17.

    My shock comes from seeing Black finally mention Jim Foster, even if he gets the time wrong of when Foster made history speaking to the DNC when the only “gay activism” Harvey cared about was fucking. Of course, Black follows his hagiagraphic script and fails to add that Foster had cofounded an out gay political group in SF TEN YEARS BEFORE Harvey became active.

    Could not Black/Van Sant at least have used a few SECONDS of screen time to display a text “slide” mentioning those whose courage and sacrifices were the shoulders Harvey stood on? Like Sarria and Foster and Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon and Harry Hay and Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings and Troy Perry [who fasted for 16 days to raise seed money for the SO CA anti Prop 9 group] and Leonard Matlovich and Dave Kopay and Elaine Noble and Allen Spear…. and Oliver Sipple who saved President Ford’s life but whose own life was ruined by Harvey after he outed Sipple to the press …and to Sipple’s parents. [Harvey had remained closeted to his own family for years.]

    Most of those HEROES are dead, and Black’s “success” is centered around willingly and needlessly trampling on their graves. Don’t ask me to give him a pass for what he does, however lamely, get right.

  7. Jeff Kurtti says

    I don’t think the film “Milk” has either all of the possibilities or the intentions in detail and storytelling that Leland Frances has criticized it (and Dustin Lance Black) for.

    Like “Philadelphia,” the film “Milk” is not for historians, activists, or even biographers. It is not a film for knowledgeable gay people who have spent a lot of time living the movement, or studying the movement and its players. It is a film for a mass audience, in many ways doing what Harvey did: putting an actual person in front of the feared stereotype.

    The very notion of the film, it seems to me (and that is reflected in DLB’s essay), is not to give credit for the movement that Milk was a part of, but to portray the way Harvey took the risk (self-serving, perhaps, but once again, not the point) to make himself symbolic and thus make a feared movement more personal, and less simple to attack.

    The fact that DLB begins the film with Harvey, alone, speaking his thoughts in the most intimate record we have of the man, indicates where he is going with his storytelling.

    For those who are inspired in any way by Milk’s story, DLB and Van Sant have done an exceptional work, and one that will ideally lead people to see “The Times of Harvey Milk” and read “The Mayor of Castro Street,” and (as DLB explains doing) discover the many layers, opinions, nuances, and facts of Harvey, his times, and what meaning it has to us, and to our times.

  8. Dave says

    Yes, Leland, they could have taken a few seconds to mention your favorite activists pre-Milk. Then you or someone like you would have the same rant that they didn’t mention enough of them or the right ones.

    I did not take away from the film Milk any disrespect or glossing over of the giants that came before Harvey Milk. In fact I think just the opposite has happened. It’s sparked an interest in learning about all those that came before him.

    If you really like to split hairs and it seems you do, Black didn’t claim Bryant overturned all their gay rights laws (plural), he claims Milk said that. Unless your compliant is that Black misquoted Milk, which your post doesn’t note, your beef with law vs laws is with Milk. The pedantics of this complaint is staggering.

    And all this bickering over who was the first openly gay man elected to significant public office can get silly as the years go on. There’s the first this and the first that, the first statewide, the first campaign and loss, the first national, and so on. Of those 4 that are commonly listed before Milk, I believe 3 were not out for their first election so technically they would be the first openly RE-elected. Wisconsin’s Jim Yeadon was out on his first election in Madison and it preceded Milk by 6 months or so, but his campaign was quiet and he did not campaign for gay rights as he campaigned. He even was quoted as saying he had no gay agenda. And at the time Milk won, his national exposure vs Yeadon’s quiet election probably had Milk himself and most of his peers unaware of Yeadon’s accomplishment. So they thought themselves he was the first elected openly gay man. Depicting this in the film is certainly not unreasonable nor dishonest.

    Milk ran an outspoken and loud campaign as a openly gay man and he did so explicitly to create visibility for gay issues and other gay men and women in the country. Yeadon did not. Also, Milk had run a campaign as openly gay before Yeadon and lost. So Harvey Milk can still make a reasonable claim to breaking ceilings for gay and lesbian history. I believe that Harvey Milk WAS the first openly gay man (not woman) elected (not re-elected) who ran on a platform that he is gay and that is why you should elect him. That is something to celebrate, not nit-pick.

  9. Dave says


    I think you’re asking the wrong person this question when you ask Dustin why god would not love him. You should ask the people from his youth that told him god didn’t love him and made him believe god didn’t love him.

    There are many people today telling gay children this and making them believe it.

  10. Dan says

    I knew I was gay from a early age but felt as you did and “had” to keep it secret due to family, school and friends. After trying to kill myself and failed I joined the Mormon church, went on a mission, married and had a family. After 27 years of marriage and three children I was ready to kill myself again due to pushing the desires to be with another man out of my mind everyday it came up. After separation and divorce I now live with my partner of 10 years, my e-wife and children/grandchildren are accepting of me and my partner and I feel I can now live the truth and not a lie. I only wish other gay men and women were as lucky and happy as I am today.

  11. Leland Frances says

    “[MY] favorite activists”? “Nit picking”? You arrogant, ignorant prick!

    The inconvenient truth:

    Kathy Kozachenko was OUT when she was first ELECTED to the Ann Arbor City Council THREE YEARS before Harvey was ELECTED.

    Elaine Noble was OUT when she was first ELECTED to the Massachusetts state legislature THREE YEARS before Harvey was ELECTED.

    Allen Spear was OUT when he was reELECTED to the Minnesota state legislature A YEAR before Harvey was ELECTED.

    Jose Sarria broke that “ceiling” of running as an OUT gay man ELEVEN YEARS before Harvey stepped through it; Frank Kameny two years before.

    But it’s okay, kids. Treating our history and its heroes who didn’t get assassinated like Kleenex you can selectively wipe your asses on, and Harvey like the unrisen Messiah and Black as one of his sainted disciples is but another manifestation of the pathetic need for “religion.”

    This just in: Harvey Milk discovered gravity. Harvey Milk discovered America. Harvey Milk discovered penicillin. Harvey Milk first to walk on moon. Harvey Milk walked on water…turned water into wine…healed the sick and raised the dead….is alive and living in Argentina with JFK and Elvis……

  12. TANK says

    You’re a real prize, frances. Personally, I’ve no interest in the ephemera of lgbt american activist history, only their results. And what are those? Not impressive…failure. So what’s it matter?

    Nonetheless, it is important to remind people that leaders aren’t drawn from the ether, but that the sacrifices and actions of countless others created the circumstances in which they are able to make their mark. Do you know how many people did what Rosa Parks did before she did it? Many…many…many, and she was a longtime activist, too. Contrary to myth, leaders are neither born nor self made.

  13. says

    Leland, I think that Jeff Kurtti has the best point here. This movie was made for mass consumption and the reason that it’s not completely accurate in every detail is because the entertainment industry is about upping the drama. First gay elected official sounds much more dramatic than fifth or sixth gay elected official. Whether this is the fault of Lance Black, Gus Van Sant, or the numerous producers and studio executives working on the film, we will not know.

    We should take the film for what it is: a film about Harvey Milk. This does not change the fact that people came before him, but the film is not about them. The thing about making a film about a certain person is that you don’t necessarily have to discuss every person that came before them unless it is completely necessary to the story-telling. Once again, this is a Hollywood film and the most important thing to most of the people who have their hands in the filmmaking is UPPING THE DRAMA.

  14. says

    I’m not going to dismiss Leland for calling attention to errors of history he sees in Black’s message. I think the “ephemera” of LGBT history is important as long as the bigger message doesn’t get lost amid the correction of details. Harvey was a flawed human being, as Black points out, who has become larger than life and overly mythologized. Yet his core message of casting off shame to live open gay lives and taking our lives to the streets to fight fiercely and flamboyantly for our rights couldn’t be more pertinent today. The film may not be entirely accurate, but to me it was truthful to that spirit and captured it beautifully. I’m glad that my 25 year old straight niece living in SF now knows who Harvey Milk is and knows something of the history of the Castro and the gay movement. And I find it affirming that a guy like Harvey, who didn’t blossom until he was 40+, was able, in a few short years, to make a lasting difference. It’s perhaps unfair that others equally worthy have been overshadowed by his life and death, but the necessity of living out lives is the ultimately lasting message, whether it’s being delivered by Dustin Lance Black or any of us working more quietly around the country.

  15. Carl - Michigan says

    Leland, Please calm down! I want to thank you for your historical knowledge. While DLB does have some of his facts out of line, probably due to his fascination with Harvey Milk, at least he was willing to do some research into the history of the gay movement. Also realize that the time limit in a theater film is unable to get every historical fact in and liberties are taken to advance a story or make it more theatrical.
    I am glad that you could at least enlighten the readers of this post on the actual historical timeline of other out politicians before Harvey.
    While taking nothing away from those couragous leaders, the fact is that Harvey’s assassination and the slap on the wrist for Dan galvanized a number of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender persons like nothing since Stonewall.
    Leland, are you an historian or is this just a passion of yours? It would be nice if you were able to lend your knowledge to other young gays who do not know their history either through a website, documentary, or book.
    Thank you for keeping our history accurate, but I must also commend DLB for his youthful exuberance.

  16. TANK says

    It’s too bad that gay activism has turned into a support group where we get to share our stories and struggles and process, process, process. It’s about older gays sharing their first reading of “faggots” on the beach under an umbrella…oy vey. “Cherish our history…remember the message!” There is no unique underlying message we’ve got; we simply want the discrimination to end. How does that differ from any other rights based movement? Or some guy talking about his closeted life until he had an epiphany or some traumatic event and blah blah blah.

    I’m not alone in being disgusted and sick of this kind of “activism” or the so-called radicals who, for all their big talk and dramatic showy performances, provide no results. Or the professional activists we’ve got representing us today (who’ve made marriage the big priority because they’re largely out of touch with what’s more important like workplace antidiscrimination laws…), whose interests are served in the failures they can’t seem to avoid.

  17. TANK says

    And that’s great that there are out public figures who may express to some depressed young closeted queer in the midwest that they’re not the only ones who are virulently despised and discriminated against…hey, maybe you, too, can be a second class citizen in the public square. That’s the important work that needs to be done, of course. Like marriage.

  18. Paul R says

    Leland, if you watched Dustin’s acceptance speech on the Oscars and are still able to muster such vitriol, then I really feel very sorry for you.

    It’s no exaggeration to say that his beautiful speech will save lives and inspire considerable activism. But I have a feeling that’s probably not enough for you.

  19. kjb says

    As a man who was late to “come out” in life – one of the things that always struck me was the infighting and oneupsmanship I saw among the gay communities. So many folks are willing to criticize one another and note who did what first and how significant it is. I had the opportunity to march in Chicago last fall in the “no on 8″ march that entered Michigan avenue on a Saturday and stopped traffic. At the age of 49 – near the anniversary of six years from when I came out I have worked hard to make up time the last six years and in working with community organizations I have learned that we make it is easy to divide us. We were together in Chicago, cold as it was, on November 15 and I will always remember it just as I remember watching a young man be assaulted for being gay on a city street in 2003. Correct the record, vent a bit, but come together and realize that DLB has a gift and he has shared it with all of us.

  20. Patrick M says

    Congratatulations to Lance (and to Sean). Wonderful speech too. Here is the conclusion:

    “I heard the story of Harvey Milk and it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life openly as who I am, and that one day I could even fall in love and get married.

    “I want to thank my mom, who has always loved me for who I am even when there was pressure not to.

    “But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he would want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you God does love you and that very soon I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.

    “Thank you and thank you God for giving us Harvey Milk.”

  21. Patrick M says

    Congrats to Lance and Sean. Here is the conclusion of Lance’s speech:

    “I heard the story of Harvey Milk and it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life openly as who I am, and that one day I could even fall in love and get married.

    “I want to thank my mom, who has always loved me for who I am even when there was pressure not to.

    “But most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he would want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you God does love you and that very soon I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.

    “Thank you and thank you God for giving us Harvey Milk.

  22. Jon B says

    Leland, you’re a real dickbag. Lance Black made a movie about his hero. That doesn’t take away from any other LGBT activist. Just because Martin Luther King Jr. is the most celebrated activist of The Civil Rights Movement doesn’t mean that others didn’t exist, or that by highlighting MLK’s achievements you are somehow denegrating the achievements of others.

    No movie is going to fit the plot into perfect context with history. This is entertainment buddy, not history class. If you want to spread the word about all of the leaders of the LGBT movement prior to Milk, go out and make a biopic like Black did, or you could make a documentary, or you could write a novel, or article, or pamphlet. I don’t care what you do, just stop being such a freaking dick about Milk and Lance Black. Your comments make you seem really bitter.

  23. Leland Frances says

    His careless, willful mistakes with the script and the book’s introduction remain, but I was EXTREMELY impressed and moved by Black’s eloquence tonight in his acceptance speech. It was close to perfect, and much more focused than the film from which different viewers take different “Harveys.”

    Such “witnessing” does/will indeed literally save the lives of kids still hungering for just a few words of affirmation.

    BRAVO to Mr. Black!!!!

    And Penn’s win will draw a few more nongays into the theatre. Hooray for that, too.

    I was just about to start painting my protest sign about the exclusion of gay images from the romance montage when “Harvey” and “Scott” suddenly appeared, and several seconds later were shown in full-on lip lock. Bravo for that, too, albeit I think we deserved more screen time than the ROBOT lovers got.

    Progress nonetheless.

    And I firmly believe that the many teary eyes we saw when Heath Ledger’s family accepted his posthumous award were because most of those people were recalling his shattering performance as Ennis del Mar in Brokeback which, regardless of his own sexuality, finally made gay love real for millions of movie goers around the world.


  24. Ron says

    “His careless, willful mistakes with the script and the book’s introduction remain” Careless, willful? Honestly Leland, take out your anger with a psychologist, not with someone celebrating a gay hero. Any mass consumption media product is going to be compromised. But sir, give Mr. Black his due reward. Black just reinforced the cause of gay rights to the world stage tonight! That is no small task.

  25. TK1946 says

    …Ode to Harvey Milk

    ” No Milk Today ”

    Your time so brief we hardly knew
    the depth of Love inside of you
    a truth for all those fellow souls who watched intrepid plans unfold

    A Milk of human kindliness
    your heart it yearned for truth no less
    you gave your life
    to free a knife
    plunged deep within our souls

    You showed us how to be ourselves
    to be so truly free
    to want no more or less in life
    than pure equality

    The hope you kindled in our hearts
    exploded into times to last
    if future were to be our past
    untimely death may not be cast

    Then sadly with your life you paid,
    tore hearts and minds and dreams away
    but left us with our self respect
    exposing all our past neglect

    Five bullets sent you to that place
    where life meets death with all it’s haste
    your dreams will live on through the years
    amongst the stars who know your tears

    Your soul has gone to places new
    crossed over thresholds not for view
    until we reach that sacred place
    where life began with all it’s grace

    There is no freedom worth it’s par
    that does not come from pain
    to out oneself, fall off that shelf
    it is the bravest gain

    Your sparks of life still live today
    in hearts and minds of those who say
    thank God you came along this way
    with visions for a better day

    TK Feb 09

  26. John in CA says

    I’m sure, if we all looked hard enough, we can find plenty of faults with the script. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” script anymore then there’s a “perfect” movie.

    For example, I thought Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) got the raw deal. We barely saw enough of him to care when the “reckoning” came. He had little more than a cameo in the movie. Assembly Speaker (deputy speaker at the time) Willie Brown – the African-American lawmaker who pushed for sodomy decriminalization and loathed Dan White – didn’t even appear in the movie.

    Regardless of my personal feelings about certain aspects of the storytelling, however, I recognize that an Oscar win is a considerable achievement. And there’s a thin line between constructive criticism and sour grapes. Just because it wasn’t exactly the movie I wanted, doesn’t mean it wasn’t effective. The Academy apparently liked it enough. And they’re the ones who count.

  27. Paul R says

    It was the gayest Oscars ever, and would have been with or without Hugh Jackman. They actually put creative thought into it—amazing!

    Leland, I’m glad you’ve made your peace with Black.

    On a side note, has anyone ever met a straight guy named Lance?

  28. Rowan says

    Everyone’s said it all.


    Though I’d like to say ‘spot on’ to TANK’s comments and ‘exactly’ to comments made by the posters who said that their were many, many Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks and many, many MLK’s before MLK but lets stop nitpicking, take what we can and FIGHT.

  29. Bret says

    I guess I’m the only one who appreciates Leland’s posts. The movie really did make me think that Milk was the first gay rights activist to enter politics as an openly gay man. And I have to say I’m grateful to hear about some of the unsung heroes who preceded him.

    I was even fascinated to hear that Milk’s lover in NYC had opened the first gay book store in the world and had encouraged Milk to be less closeted. Thanks Leland.

    I also have to say that I, too, hate inaccuracies in movies. But I realize that movies have to tell a story, which means that sometimes several characters are condensed into one, or time periods are fudged a little, or events are altered to heighten drama. This has the positive effect of better story-telling (and higher ticket sales), and the negative effect of distorting history.

    I appreciate people like Leland who remind us to separate fact from fiction. The inaccuracies in this movie may be innocuous, but there is always a potential danger, though it may not be immediately apparent, in believing things that aren’t true.

  30. Don Lakesider says

    I think he gave a nice speech, but the fact remains for many, many of us that we are treated with respect by straight friends and with nothing but cruelty in the gay so-called community. If you are young or have money like old Gus, maybe you will find acceptance, but I have experienced brutal shunning and casual indifference as an over-40 man in the gay world. So, before you all go asking the straight world to accept you, maybe you better look at your own gay house and get your acts together. The Academy gave MILK a couple of awards to assuage their Prop 8 guilt.

  31. FunMe says

    “Am I the only one who gets the feeling that LELAND FRANCES is an unsuccessful and frustrated writer who is jealous of Mr. Black’s success?


    Nope you are not the only one.

    All I hear in Mr. Black’s blah, blah, blah is:

    “Who me jealous? I’ve been on MTV!”

  32. Anthony in Nashville says

    This has been an interesting thread. Leland Frances brought up some information I was not aware of, and I appreciate the pointers provided for more research.

    In my opinion, Milk was a big-budget Hollywood film and as such was not going to concern itself with presenting all the facts about gay history. That would have turned off the straights who were the target audience.

    Since the film, I’ve seen several articles stating Harvey Milk was not the first out gay politician. But for some reason, he had the personality, marketability, or historical circumstance (getting killed) to be the one that people remember.

  33. NoCaDrummer says

    Mr. Leland – If you’re all gung-ho on people like Kathy Kozachenko, Elaine Noble, Allen Spear, Jose Sarria, Frank Kameny, Oliver Sipple, etc. then write a screenplay about them, get it into a film production, and get it onscreen.

    Anybody can write a story. A few can get it published. Even fewer can get a film done about it. And, apparently, an infinitesimal number can have a film good enough to be considered for an academy award. The film “Milk” has a wider appeal than one for any one of those people you mention. Perhaps it’s because those people were not murdered, and did not become martyrs.

    There’s been thousands of kids beaten up by homophobic a–h0les over the centuries, but Matthew Shepard became national news in the U.S. “The Laramie Project” was written with that story, not the story of any other kid who may have been beaten or killed. Was Matthew any more deserving of a play than others? Maybe, maybe not. But at this point, there’s a better chance of it becoming a movie than any story you’re likely to write.

    If I’m wrong, I’ll be first in line when it shows at the Castro Theater. And I’ll wear a T-shirt that proclaims “I was wrong.”

    In the meantime, switch to decaf.

  34. says

    From the movie, one could think that Harvey was creating a gay movement out of a bunch of closet queens frozen in the ground in Fargo rather than in the warm, fertile ground of San Francisco that had been plowed and sown by others before him for years, including Jose Sarria who ran for the SF Board of Supervisors ELEVEN YEARS before Harvey did.

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