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What "Milk" Gets Wrong

This week's print edition of the Independent features a package focused on "Milk," the new biopic about Harvey Milk, including my first-person remembrance about the life and times of the slain, pioneering gay San Francisco supervisor.

I wrote the piece before seeing "Milk," because I wanted to be sure my ancient memories weren't misshapen or shaded by the film's version of historic events. I did finally see it, however, and it's a terrific, entertaining movie. You read it here first: "Milk" will win Best Picture Oscar in 2009, and Sean Penn will walk away with Best Actor for an extraordinary character portrayal.

That said, the film is less reliable as a solid source of political history, and its portrayal of Harvey as the moral center of the political universe of the time is overly broad, to say the least. Because countless more people will see "Milk" than will ever see or read any number of other, more nuanced and historically accurate sources, it seems a reality check is in order.

Some of my issues with the film are simple matters of fact that, well, matter. For example, there's a head-scratching bit in the first half-hour about the murder of a gay man named Robert Hillsborough. The movie presents the slaying as occurring sometime in the early 1970s, and inexplicably pictures Milk/Penn showing up at the crime scene to identify the body to homophobic police investigators. It's just plan wrong, and it matters because the portrayal misses an important point in the development of the gay rights movement.

A gardener for the city, Hillsborough was murdered on the Tuesday night of June 21, 1977 outside his Mission District apartment. A few minutes before, he and his lover had gotten into a beef with a group of Latino teenagers at Whizburger, an old-style hamburger drive-in (which among other things featured a roller skating car hop) on South Van Ness Avenue.

The youths followed the two gay men home and one of them viciously stabbed Hillsborough 15 times in the chest with a fishing knife while screaming "faggot, faggot, faggot." Far from being another so-what killing of a gay man for ho-hum homicide cops, as depicted in "Milk," the Hillsborough killing was huge, front page news.

Coming in the wake of Anita Bryant's triumph over a gay rights ordinance in Florida, the Hillsborough murder galvanized the gay community, as well as the SFPD, which was anything but disinterested. Chief Charles Gain, then recently appointed by liberal Mayor George Moscone, threw all of the resources of the department at the crime; the Gay Pride Parade was scheduled for the following Sunday, and there was tremendous political pressure on investigators primarily from the mayor, not Harvey Milk to catch the killer before then.

The cops did exactly that; working night rewrite just one month after catching on at the Chronicle, I covered the bust on Friday night, and also the parade two days later, when the Hillsborough murder put a sober tone on the anything-goes event as stunned police, who had planned for 50,000 marchers, estimated 200,000 took part.

"The mood of the parade, though spirited, was more subdued than it had been in recent years, and many marchers seemed almost somber as they chanted, 'Gay rights are human rights,''' my Chronicle piece reported, noting that, "there were significantly fewer drag queens in evidence this year than in gay parades past."

Hillsborough's murder and the 1977 parade, together with the Anita Bryant crusade, brought a seriousness of purpose to the gay movement in San Francisco. In "Milk," Harvey is portrayed as the singular architect of that transformation; in life, he was more of a political beneficiary of broader cultural forces then reshaping the city.

My biggest beef with "Milk," though, is its portrayal of the late Mayor George Moscone. In the movie, Moscone is shown as an affable, rather hapless figure whose political role is limited to reacting like a knee-jerk to Milk's pioneering stances. This is not only flat-out wrong but also deeply unfair, and does a disservice to an extremely gifted politician and passionate liberal leader.

Moscone was smart, stylish, sophisticated and very persuasive, and he was the first, prominent pol in California with the courage to take on as a cause the rights of gay people. In 1975, just a few years removed from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Moscone had already climbed to Majority Leader of the state Senate, where he made repeal of California's anti-sodomy laws which effectively criminalized homosexuals a priority.

After then-Assemblyman Willie Brown, Moscone's close ally in what was called the liberal "machine" of the late Rep. Phil Burton, passed the measure in the Assembly, Moscone called in every political chit he had to get 20 votes for it in the 40-member senate; with the vote tied 20-to-20, Moscone then ordered the sergeant at arms to lock the doors of the chamber so no senators could leave. A short time later, Democratic Lt. Governor Mervyn Dymally, who had been in Denver, flew back to Sacramento to cast the tie-breaking vote on behalf of gay rights.

"The demise of the anti-sodomy statutes had far-reaching implications for gays' legal status around the country," the late Randy Shilts wrote in "The Mayor of Castro Street," his first-rate biography of Harvey Milk. "California had long been a leader in criminal justice law; the fact that the nation's largest state legalized all sex between consenting adults gave the libertarian posture new credibility. By the end of the year, fifteen more state legislatures took up the issue. Four struck down sodomy laws, some of which dated back to the Colonial era."

Later that year, Moscone won election as mayor of San Francisco. Once in office, he began to transform the city's political power structure through his appointments to boards and commissions. Not only gays, but women and representatives of every ethnic minority group for the first time began to hold political power. One of his first appointments in 1976 was Harvey Milk, who was given a seat on the powerful Board of Permit Appeals. He didn't hold it long, as Moscone fired him a short time later when Milk insisted on running for the state assembly (against a Moscone ally) while still sitting on the commission.

Harvey lost that race, but a year later won election to the board of supervisors after the city adopted a new system of electing its board by district, his first successful campaign of the four he ran in four years. His triumph, while hard-earned, also owed much to the changed political landscape of the time, which had shifted in large part due to the actions of George Moscone.

"There's no doubt that Harvey Milk made history and changed gay politics forever and he's certainly deserving of a biography like the new movie 'Milk.'" Willie Brown wrote in his Chronicle column recently. "But many people forget that it was George Moscone who made San Francisco the city it is today."

Harvey Milk truly was a pioneering political figure. But it's one of the sad ironies of history that George Moscone has become the forgotten man of the time the "other guy" Dan White assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978.

Speaking of forgotten men, the late Randy Shilts gets short shrift in the credits of "Milk," which instead heaps hosannas on "The Times of Harvey Milk," the award-winning documentary that was based on Randy's biography of Harvey. Shilts went on to become an internationally best-selling author with "And the Band Played On," his epic history of the first years of the AIDS epidemic. But he also put the narrative frame around Harvey Milk to establish the slain politician as an historic figure.

I worked with Randy for several years, and our old city editor, Alan Mutter, offered a boffo appreciation of Shilts on his "Newsosaur" blog this week.

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