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Queering Dan White

By Elizabeth Erwin

[1] Here are the undisputed facts. On November 27, 1978, former Supervisor Dan White entered the San Francisco City Hall and assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. White fled the crime scene only to turn himself in to police the next morning. And here is the place where the story gets murky. From tales of Twinkie-eating-bred insanity to suggestions that White was acting out a homophobic rage, the truth of that day is now at odds with public memory because of a number of suggestive film and theatre depictions. One film that has rewritten effectively the facts of that day is Gus Van Sant's moving biopic, Milk (2008).

[2] With history curriculums being cut across the country, it is not a great leap to think that most people will get their understanding of history through fictionalized accounts. Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan refers to this phenomenon as the creation of one nationalized collective memory: "Nobody took into account the tremendous impact that would be made by the fact that films are permanent and easily accessible from childhood onward. As the sheer number of films piles up, their influence will increase, until we have a civilization entirely molded by cinematic values and behavior patterns" (66). By their very nature, films are designed to provoke emotions as a means of facilitating storytelling. For biopics, this objective is fraught with an additional obstacle: historical accuracy. Capable of redefining collective memory, the biopic occupies a unique position within American cinema. This genre, by design, straddles the line between fictionalized narrative and factual accuracy so effectively that the audience is never quite sure where story ends and truth begins (Toplin 19-21). And while there are ample films that have colored how subsequent generations view pivotal incidents in American history, perhaps none is so successful in redefining the collective perception of an event as Milk.

[3] Billed as the true story of gay activist and pioneer Harvey Milk, Milk follows the rise of America's first openly gay politician elected to public office from his early days in the Castro until his assassination in 1978. And while Milk does, at times, fall into the trap of exalting its hero to the point of ignoring his human foibles, it is generally a film devoted to illustrating Milk's unquestionable contributions to the Gay Rights Movement -- with one exception. The decision to portray Milk's killer Dan White as homophobic and potentially closeted is a calculated one designed to elicit audience sympathy. And yet neither of those suggestions is born out factually. Rather, there is significant evidence that indicates White's murder spree was the result of political frustrations coupled with mental illness and not the result of extreme homophobia (Geluardi 1). By examining how Milk massages history to support an agenda and then considering how that manipulation benefits a disenfranchised community, Milk emerges as a landmark biopic.

[4] All films have an agenda. Whether it is to highlight an injustice or to advance a political agenda, biopics expose audiences to history in ways that show how past events have bearing and worth. That Milk effectively reintroduces Harvey Milk to the masses as a skilled orator and activist has value, especially in a time at which the equality for which he advocated is coming under increasing attack. That the film elects to misrepresent his assassination by turning it into a hate crime is deeply problematic, both for its factual inaccuracy and its blatant agenda setting.

[5] The suggestion of White's repressed homosexuality is used in the film to advance the theory that White's murders of Milk and Mayor Moscone were fueled by his homophobia. And here is the point at which the film's disavowal of history becomes not just inaccurate but dangerous. Not only does it attempt to pass conjecture off as fact, but it mitigates the need to search for the truth behind White's actions. Writing off White's decision to assassinate two public officials because of homophobia is effective because it is easy to understand that motive, but it also creates a public perception of an event that settles debate. If we have an easy answer for why the murders occurred, there is little reason to probe further. This is troubling not only for its historical inaccuracy but also for the narrative it gives to the queer community.

[6] Before delving into those issues, it is first necessary to examine the assumption that White acted as a result of his extreme homophobia against the historical record. In his chilling confession, White said the following:

I left his [Moscone] office by one of the back doors an, and I started, I was going to go down the stairs and then I saw Harvey Milk's aide across the hall at the Supervisors and then it struck me about what Harvey had tried to do and I said, well I'll go talk to him. I said, you know, at least maybe he'll be honest with me, you know, because he didn't know I had, I had heard his conversation and he was all smiles and stuff and I went in and, like I say, I, I was still upset an ah. . . .then I said, I wanted to talk to him and just try to explain to him, you know, I, I didn't agree with him on a lot of things but I was always honest, you know, and here they were devious and then he started kind of smirking cause he knew, he knew that I wasn't going to be reappointed. And ah, . . . .it just didn't make any impression on him. I started to say you know how hard I worked for it and what it meant to me and my family and then my reputation as, as a hard worker, good honest person and he just kind of smirked at me as if to say, too bad an then an then I just got all flushed and hot and I shot him........I never really intended to hurt anybody. It's just this past several months, it got to the point I couldn't take it and I never wanted the job for ego or you know, perpetuate myself or anything like that. I was just trying to do a good job for the city. (Linder, Transcript")

[7] Granted, White's words could be construed as self-serving since he gave the confession knowing full well that he was about to go to trial for the murders of two men. And yet White's contention that he was spurned to violence over a sense of political betrayal is supported by a number of sources. Anne Kronenberg, Milk's campaign manager, argues that "its just too pat to say Harvey was killed because he was gay" (Weiss 468). Detective Earl Sanders, a close political and personal friend of Moscone, echoes that sentiment adding that the motive was likely a combination of anger and depression from a very troubled individual (Weiss 456). Ray Sloan, White's campaign manager, reveals that White knew Sloan was a gay man and had no issue with Sloan's sexual orientation. Rather, Sloan believes that White's anger on that fateful day was fueled by White's belief that he had been lied to and manipulated repeatedly by the political system and its players. Because Mayor Moscone refused to reinstate White after White resigned, largely because of political pressure exerted by Milk, White held the two men responsible for his troubles. In his book Double Play, Mike Weiss reveals that White's basement desk where he cleaned his gun prior to the shootings was littered with a collage of newspaper clippings detailing many of White's political failings (258). In the end, most of the people intimately involved in the case agree that White was a deeply troubled man whose numerous political defeats coupled with his perception of himself as a victim resulted in the tragic assassinations.

[8] Do murderers deserve to have their motives explored in nuanced detail? In many respects, that is a central question underlining Milk. By introducing the suggestion that White was closeted and that his murder spree was the result of internalized homophobia and shame, the film deliberately advances a theory for which there exists no conclusive proof. The suggestion of White's homosexuality is made in the film by Sean Penn's Milk in a bid to elicit sympathy from his inner circle for White. It's not a moment that is overplayed but, when combined with a later scene of Josh Brolin's White drunkenly hitting on Milk, is clearly is meant to convey queer repression and self-hatred as a fundamental part of White's character. However, according to White's closest friends, this was not an issue with which White struggled. If there is no indication that White was at odds with his sexuality, the question then becomes one of what the filmmakers have to gain in floating this theory.

[9] Because the central theme permeating Milk is the injustice of the inequities, both legal and social, experienced by the queer community, it makes narrative sense to underscore those injustices through the acts of the main characters. In the film, White's presumed homosexuality is a means of illustrating how sexual-identity repression may lead to violence. Just as the wheelchair-bound character thinking about ending his own life because of the stresses of staying in the closet illustrates this violence turned inward, White's story becomes a cautionary tale for what happens when repression-created violence is turned outward. It is effective storytelling and helps the audience to have empathy for a man they well know will soon assassinate the film's hero. Without the underscore of White's struggle, it is possible that the narrative punch of the film would be dampened because the audience wouldn't have as much of a reason to see him as multi-dimensional.

[10] And yet if this suggestion of conflicted sexuality is merely a plot device as Van Sant acknowledges, what are the ethics of coding a character based on a real person with a sexuality and a struggle that is not his own? Does it mock the lived experiences of queer men and women for whom this struggle is so intimate? These questions are particularly apt given that this film is designed to memorialize a man whose work was vital to the LGBT community. While the film does not purport to be a documentary, it was marketed as the telling of a story history had largely forgotten. This then begs the question as to where the tipping point between fictionalized story and biopic actually exists. Similarly, does the film do an injustice to both victims by making Milk the ultimate target of White, thereby making Moscone an afterthought? It is not unreasonable that a film titled Milk would be concerned primarily with the story of its titular character. But two men were assassinated, and that is a fact that gets muddled by the film's focus on homophobia as the cause of White's murder spree.

[11] What then should we make of the role this historically inaccurate depiction plays in forming collective memory? In his book History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past, film historian Robert Toplin argues: "To claim that anything goes in the name of artistic license is to invite fictional excesses that can grossly distort the public's understanding" (225). Milk, with its insistence that Harvey Milk's assassination was fueled by homophobia, participates actively in this public perception distortion by utilizing this false fact to martyr Harvey Milk. In his review of the film, critic Luke Davies writes:

While the film is a political narrative in a grand historical sense, the murder of Milk is neither a political assassination nor an act of homophobic rage. Rather, it is an act of revenge for perceived wrongs and public humiliation. . . . It seems as likely that Milk would have been murdered were he heterosexual. So the film can't be the heroic tale of a political martyr it needs to be in order to hold us and take our breath away. It's a simpler story, about a man who fought an extraordinary political fight and who was killed, arbitrarily and unnecessarily. (1)

And yet, if traditional history is largely silent on the gay rights movement and its forefathers, a problem in its own right, do the filmmakers have a greater responsibility to present the issues more accurately than does a film that reinterprets an event in which a traditional historical account is already known?

[12] Further complicating matters is that Milk is the retelling of an historical event that shaped a marginalized community's identity. Harvey Milk's assassination and the subsequent White Night Riots in the face of White's conviction on manslaughter charges was a seminal moment in the construction of the movement's identity. If martyring Milk on the back of a lie told about his assassin works to create empathy for a traditionally discriminated group, thereby serving a greater good, does that justify the decision to fabricate White's motive? For both members of the queer community and for the general public, the answer must be no. It's bad enough that history textbooks lie by omission when it comes to celebrating the achievements of the queer community. It's even worse when the community itself elects to honor a fabricated history over its actual one.

[13] In the end, Milk works as a film because of the empathy it elicits for Harvey Milk and his tireless work for equality. Yet, it fails as a conduit of exploring a history because it chooses to fabricate a vital element in understanding the events that transpired on November 27, 1978, and how those events shaped a burgeoning gay rights movement.