Marriage on the Rocks
Dianne Feinstein is not sure she’ll ever be able to watch the movie “Milk,” even though she’s in it.
There is 1978 footage of a stricken Feinstein in the opening minutes of the new Gus Van Sant biopic of Harvey Milk, her colleague on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first openly gay elected official in American history. (Sean Penn soars as Milk.)
“I was the one who found his body,” the California senator told me Friday, on route from the airport to her home in San Francisco. “To get a pulse, I put my finger in a bullet hole. It was a terrible, terrible time in the city’s history.”
The movie, chronicling the rancorous California fight of gay activists against church-backed forces in the ’70s to prevent discrimination against gays, is opening amid a rancorous California fight of gay activists against church-backed forces to prevent discrimination against gays.
Milk was gunned down by Dan White, who had served on the board with Milk and Feinstein. White, an Irish Catholic former policeman and Vietnam vet, opposed Milk’s equal rights initiatives for gays. He resigned and immediately wanted his seat back, a move Milk helped persuade the mayor, George Moscone, to reject. White climbed through a City Hall basement window with a loaded gun and shot down Moscone and then Milk. (In the infamous “Twinkie defense,” White argued that junk food had left him stressed out.)
I asked Senator Feinstein, who became mayor after the tragedy, if she would see the movie.
“It’s very painful for me,” she replied. “It took me seven years before I could sit in George Moscone’s chair. It took me a long time to talk about it. I was only recently able to talk about it.”
This month, gays who supported Barack Obama had the bittersweet experience of seeing some of the black and Latino voters who surged to the polls to vote Democratic also vote for Proposition 8, which turned gay “I dos” into “You can’ts.” About 20,000 gay couples had exchanged vows before Prop 8 passed, backed by a coalition that included Mormon and Catholic opponents.
Now that donor information can be found on the Internet, gay activists have called for boycotts of anyone who contributed to the law’s passing, from businesses small (El Coyote restaurant in L.A., where Sharon Tate had her last meal and Fabio and George Clooney nearly came to blows) to large (Utah ski resorts and Park City, Utah, theaters where Sundance movies are shown).
Feinstein felt sure that gays who have been married in the state since June are still married. “You can’t redact it,” she said. “You can’t blot it out. It’s so intrinsic to the Constitution that you cannot remove it by a vote of the people.”
Jerry Brown, the California attorney general who is also featured in the archival reels in “Milk” from his days as governor, agreed: “I believe those are valid,” he told me, saying that he will argue in the appeal before the State Supreme Court that there cannot be “a retroactive invalidation of these marital contracts.”
Brown harked back to the defeat of the Milk-era Prop 6, which sought to root out gay teachers from California public schools. (“If it were true that children mimic their teachers, we’d have a hell of a lot more nuns running around,” Milk says in the movie.)
“Any time you take an issue that has such deep feelings connected to it and you frame it in terms of a political initiative,” Brown said, “you drain out some of the anger and convert it to an issue that people can approach in a more reasonable, open-minded way.”
Feinstein agreed: “I think as more and more people have gay friends, gay associations, see gay heroism, that their views change.”
The gays were outfoxed by their opponents. In both Prop 6 in 1978 and this year’s Prop 8, the specter of children being converted to a gay orientation was raised. Feinstein said the TV ad of Prop 8 supporters insinuating that “gay marriage would be taught in school really hurt.” (“I can marry a princess,” a pigtailed girl told her mom in the ad.)
“I think people are beginning to look at it differently, I know it’s happened for me,” Feinstein said of gay marriage. “I started out not supporting it. The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve seen the happiness of people, the stability that these commitments bring to a life. Many adopted children who would have ended up in foster care now have good solid homes and are brought up learning the difference between right and wrong. It’s a very positive thing.”
I e-mailed Larry Kramer, the leading activist for gay rights in the era that followed Milk’s, to get his read on Prop 8. (In 1983, I interviewed Kramer about the new scourge of AIDS, and he read me a list from a green notebook of 37 friends who had died. )
“DON’T WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO HAVE RIGHTS?” he e-mailed back, blessedly cantankerous. “I AM ASHAMED OF YOU THAT YOU HAD TO ASK ME THAT QUESTION.”