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February 23, 2009

Dustin Lance Black champions gay rights in Oscar acceptance speech for Milk screenplay

When Dustin Lance accepted his Academy Award for best screenplay for Milk, he addressed the bulk of his remarks to the gay and lesbian youth of America, promising them that the dream of Harvey Milk would one day would soon be fulfilled with full federal rights for all, including the right to marry:

Here's part of the text of Dustin Black's Oscar acceptance speech, courtesy of ThinkProgress:

BLACK: When I was 13 years old, my beautiful mother and my father moved me from a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas, to California, and I heard the story of Harvey Milk. And it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life; it gave me the hope that one day I could live my life openly as who I am and that maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married. […] Most of all, if Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he’d want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told 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 everyone 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.

I hate the Oscars, but that was really beautiful.

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Beautiful indeed. I ignored the Oscars completely this year, so thanks for pointing me to this, Lindsay.

Is there any evidence that Harvey Milk had a dream that gay and lesbian people would have the right to marry? Many in the gay rights movement in the 70s were influenced by feminist analysis, which revealed marriage as a patriarchal institution that played a large role in the oppression of women. It may be true that Milk felt some sympathy for this failed heterosexual institution, but I've never seen any sign of it. It's unfortunate that much of the GLBT community today has been convinced that the goal of "equality" is the only thing worth purusing. Harvey Milk's gay politics were based on the demand for sexual liberation, and marriage, in my experience, was never considered part of that vision.

It would've been even more beautiful if they hadn't deliberately delayed releasing the movie until after the election in order not to get embroiled in Prop 8 politics.

Parse, the feminist analysis you talk about was subsequently discredited. The people who believed in it spent most of their political efforts on banning pornography and attacking the transgendered, who they viewed as gender traitors, and gay male culture, which they viewed as hyper-masculine. Catharine MacKinnon, for example, complained that gay men were focusing too much about "the right of the penis to penetrate the anus" and thus proclaimed the gay rights movement "male supremacist."

From wikipedia:

"The film's release was tied to the 2008 statewide voter referendum on gay marriage, Proposition 8, when it made its premiere at the Castro Theater two weeks before election day."

That was a one-off premiere. The widespread release was in November, after the election.

Dustin Lance Black had nothing to do with the release dates for the movie. Screenwriters don't decide that stuff.

Is there a special variant of Godwin's law for mentioning Catharine MacKinnon?

The people who believed in it spent most of their political efforts on banning pornography and attacking the transgendered, who they viewed as gender traitors, and gay male culture, which they viewed as hyper-masculine.

Really? Because I'm one of the people who believed it. Oddly enough, I just spent Saturday afternoon at a protest at Sheridan Square which supported both pornography and transgender rights. If you want to attack a particular critique of marriage, why not do so, as opposed to attempting to paint a negative picture of those who you believe agreed with it?

Finally, the validity of that critique is less important to the question I'm asking about Harvey Milk than its influence at the time he was politically active. There's nothing in your reply that hints that Milk had a dream of gay marriage. I don't think it's right to claim the legacy of a gay activist to advance the cause of gay marriage without some evidence that it was a cause he supported.

I'm not a believer in the institution of marriage either, but I support equal marriage rights because its 1.) equality under the law, and 2) a necessary stop on the way to better things. As a canny politician I'm guessing Milk would've understood and agreed with the reasoning of #2, whether or not it accorded with his idea of a final destination or not.

I'm a believer that gays should be able to marry, but somebody needs to tell Dustin that his Oscar is not a great turning point in history and as such didn't require a policy statement.

As a canny politician I'm guessing Milk would've understood and agreed with the reasoning of #2, whether or not it accorded with his idea of a final destination or not.

He may well have, and it's certainly fair to say "I'm guessing he would." But maybe he wouldn't have, which is why I don't think it's appropriate to claim that the dream of Harvey Milk would one day would soon be fulfilled by gay marriage.

Black's speech as quoted here doesn't make that claim, only that Milk's work inspired Black's dream that he might, as a gay man, be married one day. Again, I don't have a problem with that. It's identifying the desire for marriage as part of Milk's agenda, without any evidence to indicate that it was, that I think is wrong.

Cass,regarding your point about equality under law, it's useful to remember that the legalization of gay marriage doesn't deliver equality for all, but merely allows gays and lesbians to enjoy legal privileges conferred on married couples but withheld from those who are not married--so in fact it enshrines disparate treatment, rather than guaranteeing equality. Here's an interesting take from Nancy Polikof, author of Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage. She writes about the experience a member of an unmarried couple might one day face:

Maybe she or her partner will be unemployed, or have a job with no health insurance, and the employed one of them may only be able to cover a spouse on his or her policy. I could face this myself if the District of Columbia ever allows same-sex marriages. My university grants domestic partner health insurance only to same-sex couples; it expects different-sex couples to marry. So it's reasonable to think if we could marry, American University would expect us to do it. Although I am a prominent critic of marriage, I couldn't let my partner, with her history of medical issues, go uninsured. I hope it doesn't happen to Courtney, that she keeps spreading her skepticism, and that she joins the effort to unhook marriage from a unique set of legal consequences.

Really? Because I'm one of the people who believed it.

Nowadays, the radical feminists who are still in business are pro-porn and pro-trans, but they're still more pro-SSM than anti-marriage. For example, Susie Bright outsourced her take on Prop 8 to Pam Spaulding. This is a tendency that split off from mainline radical feminism around the time Dworkin and MacKinnon started supporting censorship.

The reason I mention this is that you have produced no evidence that Milk was against SSM. It's quite common for movements to invoke the names of past leaders who may not have supported what they believe in right now. The 1960s' civil rights movement used Lincoln's name even though Lincoln wanted to send all blacks back to Africa. The modern feminist movement uses Susan B. Anthony's name even though Anthony was anti-abortion. The burden of proof is on you to show that Milk considered the issue of same-sex marriage and was against it.

Wow. Thanks parse & Jack, for taking a nice big dump in everybody's drink as we rose a toast to Mr. Black for being one of the best things about the Oscars. It was nice seeing someone who's directly affected by the kind of hate-fueled legislation like Prop. 6 (Milk, then) & Prop. 8 (Black, now) handling themselves with such grace, eloquence & wit. & then the bitter pill naysayers just have to take the shine off of things.

Let's get real here: Harvey Milk would have fought against Prop 8. Do you think he would have stood by while religious zealots rewrote the Constitution of California to take rights away from gay people that they already had under the state law and their state's constitution?

Gay marriage was a fact in California, as much as straight marriage. Because a court determined that marriage had always been open to everyone in principle and that the State of California had been violating its own prohibitions on discrimination all these years. Regardless of where Milk stood on the theoretical tenets of gay liberation, as a political matter, there's no way he would have stood the State of California create a brand-new category of permitted discrimination against gay people.

It's fair to point out that agitating for gay marriage wasn't on anyone's political agenda in Harvey Milk's day. That question wasn't even relevant to activists like Milk who were still fighting for gay employment in the public sector.

The reason I mention this is that you have produced no evidence that Milk was against SSM.

Nor have I claimed that Milk was against same sex marriage,

It's quite common for movements to invoke the names of past leaders who may not have supported what they believe in right now. The 1960s' civil rights movement used Lincoln's name even though Lincoln wanted to send all blacks back to Africa. The modern feminist movement uses Susan B. Anthony's name even though Anthony was anti-abortion. The burden of proof is on you to show that Milk considered the issue of same-sex marriage and was against it.

It may be common to make claims that are contrary to fact, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to do so. It's one thing for the feminist movement to use Susan B. Anthony's name, but if they claimed she dreamed of a day when abortion would be safe and legal if she was in fact opposed to abortion (or even if she took no position on abortion at all), I would find that problematic.

And since, as I pointed out, I haven't claimed that Milk was against same-sex marriage, why would I have the obligation of proving he was against it?

Let's get real here: Harvey Milk would have fought against Prop 8. Do you think he would have stood by while religious zealots rewrote the Constitution of California to take rights away from gay people that they already had under the state law and their state's constitution?

But Lindsay, you didn't just say that if Milk were alive today he would have fought against Prop 8. You said that legal gay marriage would be part of the fulfillment of Harvey Milk's dream. As a gay man who is against same sex marriage, I find that presumptuous.

Parse, surely you're not arguing that Harvey Milk wanted fewer rights for gay because he didn't trust gay people to make the authentically liberated choice.

Milk was no paternalist.

Milk wasn't a marriage abolitionist in his political career. Did he ever argue that marriage rights should be taken away from straight people? Did he ever try to get the Board of Supervisors to strip married couples any of their privileges to make them equal with gay people? I'm sure he had plenty of real-life opportunities to rule on benefits for the employees of the City of San Francisco.

Do you think Milk wanted to eliminate straight marriage in California in the next hundred years? Doing so would involve stripping rights from opposite-sex couples who'd gotten married with every expectation that they'd entered into a lifetime covenant? You know, like what happened to same sex married couples in California after Prop 8?

Do you think Milk wanted to eliminate straight marriage in California in the next hundred years? Doing so would involve stripping rights from opposite-sex couples who'd gotten married with every expectation that they'd entered into a lifetime covenant?

Do you think abolitionists wanted to elminate slavery in the south? Doing so would involve stripping "rights" from owners who bought slaves with every expectation that they'd made a lifetime purchase.

Where do you get the idea that couples are entitled to rights that single people aren't entitled to?

And those opposite-sex couples who had every expectation that they'd entered into a lifetime covenant are in for a surprise when they learn their partner can go to court and dissolve the covenant whether they consent or not.

As long as we're indulging in thought experiments, do you think Harvey Milk would have objected if gay people in the anti-bellum south were prohibited from owning slaves, while straight people were free to buy and sell them?

I don't know what Harvey Milk would think if he were alive today. But I do think if you are going to say that he had a dream of marriage rights for gay people you should be able to point to some evidence that he actually had such a dream, rather than argue that he surely would have had such a dream if things back then were the way things are now.

Okay, here's some evidence. Cleve Jones, Harvey Milk's longtime friend and colleague from San Francisco gay politics, went on the Rachel Maddow Show to commend Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black for their fitting tributes to Harvey Milk's legacy. If anyone is in a position to know, it's Cleve Jones--who was also a primary source for the Milk screenplay so when Dustin Lance Black spoke about what Harvey Milk would have wanted, he was doing so in part on the basis of first-hand testimony.

There should be a Godwin award for likening marriage to slavery. It's nutty when fundamentalist Christians argue that failure to marry is an abomination, its just as nutty to say that marriage is an abomination. Yes, contracts give the people who make them rights and marriage is just a subspecies of contract.

If you want to argue that the world would be a better place if the government voided straight married people's automatic adoptions of their partners' children and canceled their spouses' health insurance and mandated that only blood relations can visit each other in an intensive care unit--just so they'd be on an equal footing with gay people--be my guest.

Are you seriously likening yourself as a single person to a slave? Now that's presumptuous.

As far as I know, the gay rights activists of the 1970s didn't argue against marriage because it was so unfaiiiir to single people. They were arguing that marriage wasn't the right model for the full development and flourishing of gay culture as they envisioned it. That might well be true. But it's not an argument against the existence of the institution of marriage for those who want it--provided all adults are free to take it or leave it, according to their own assessments of their best interests. I'm not in a limited liability partnership or an incorporated business, or a marriage--but I don't go around seething that people made those agreements have different rights than I do, because I could make those kinds of contracts if I wanted.

A lot of feminists argue(d) the same thing about marriage, but their preferred solution was/is to point out to women why it was in their individual and collective best interest not to marry. They weren't out to retroactively abolish everyone else's marriage because disapprove of the lifestyle, or because they didn't trust women to make their own choices.

The basic assumption is that not marrying contributes to liberation and liberation contributes to not marrying. If we were all maximally liberated, i.e., free and unburdened by sexism, then the institution of marriage would wither away and become an anachronism. Maybe, maybe not. Who knows?

There's another school of thought that says that gays shouldn't actively fight for gay marriage because marriage just isn't important enough to spend the political capital on. Sure straights have it and gays don't, and maybe that's kind of unfair in the abstract, but why fight to join some institution modeled on straight culture (or patriarchal culture or cis-gendered culture) when there are much more pressing things to spend political capital on?

But on those assumptions, fighting to take away straight marriage would be totally out of the question because it would be infinitely more politically expensive and totally irrelevant to the liberation of gay people.

It's hard to argue that in a state where the courts have ruled that gay marriage was a right all along that gay activists would have any moral authority to refuse that right on behalf of all gay people, including those who want to marry, or who have already gotten married.

Eventually there'll be a Loving v. Virginia type decision by the supreme court and single sex marriage will be legal. Being straight and never married with no intention of ever being so, it's sort of neither here nor there with me. When it happens though, I'll be glad for whoever wants to get married, and I'll love the spectacle of the wingnut Christo-fascists shitting bricks. I'd like to think that the bible-thumpers are right and that straight marriages will come unhinged and America will unravel, but what will actually happen is that SSM will become as unremarkable as mixed race marriages or tattoos have and no one will care anymore.

Are you seriously likening yourself as a single person to a slave? Now that's presumptuous.

Clearly not, Lindsay. I'm sure you know that an argument by analogy isn'tt a suggestion that two things are identical, so your quip wouldn't be true in any case. But I didn't even suggest an analogy of single people to slaves. Maybe you could cut and paste the part of my post that gave you the impression that I did.

Yes, contracts give the people who make them rights and marriage is just a subspecies of contract.

No, marriage is not just a subspecies of contract. It's a contract between two people who are granted legal privileges by the state when they enter into the contract. In the sense that marriage is merely a contract, gays and lesbians are already free to marry--they are free to form a domestic contract.


If you want to argue that the world would be a better place if the government voided straight married people's automatic adoptions of their partners' children and canceled their spouses' health insurance and mandated that only blood relations can visit each other in an intensive care unit--just so they'd be on an equal footing with gay people--be my guest.

How about extending the rights granted to married straights to everyone, gay or straight, married or single? As Polikoff pointed out, why should it be only spouses who gain rights to health insurance. Why not extend them to any person the policyholder chooses, whether they are married to them or not? I'll ask the question again: why do you think married people are entitled to rights that non-married people are not?

But the specifics of the desirability of marriage are only part of this discussion. My belief is that the gay movement in which Harvey Milk was an important force was a movement with sexual liberation as the fundamental value, and the gay movement which is most prominent today is one with equality and assimilation as the fundamental values. I think there's an important difference there, and I think remarks like yours write the gay liberation movement out of history.

Why not extend them to any person the policyholder chooses, whether they are married to them or not?

In order to avoid cheating, or a secondary health insurance market where I pay you to designate me as the person you put on your policy. There are already problems with marriages of convenience for immigration purposes, which will only multiply if immigration rules change to "Every citizen can sponsor another person to immigrate."

In order to avoid cheating, or a secondary health insurance market where I pay you to designate me as the person you put on your policy. There are already problems with marriages of convenience for immigration purposes, which will only multiply if immigration rules change to "Every citizen can sponsor another person to immigrate."

Well, if it were the rule that you could add anyone you wanted, it wouldn't be cheating, would it?

And you can end the "problems with marriages of convenience for immigration purposes" by having open borders.

You seem to start with the premise that it's fair to have your spouse qualify for immigration or insurance, but unfair to have a non-spouse qualify. But I haven't seen anyone articulate a reason why we should consider it fair to reward married couples with those benefits but deny them to others. That's why I said gay marriage doesn't deliver equality for all but merely increases the pool of people eligible for special treatment.

Right, and you can end every problem in the world by having a utopian government. To advocate for a political position, regardless of whether it's no recognition of same-sex couples, SSM, or Beyond Marriage, you have to argue for it within the existing political framework.

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