By Robin Miniter
Riding on the coattails of our nation’s current pursuit of change, last week’s 81st Annual Academy Awards was the scene of renewed optimism and activism surrounding the national battle for marriage equality.
Winning top honors for his leading role in ‘Milk’ as Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay elected politician and gay rights activist, actor Sean Penn took the opportunity to use his spotlight to urge supporters of California’s Proposition 8 to rethink their stance.
“…It is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grand children’s eyes if they continue that way of support,” Penn said, “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”
A portion of the film highlights Milk’s fight against California’s Proposition 6 of 1978 which would have made the firing of openly homosexual teachers mandatory. The timeliness could not have been more evident with California’s Proposition 8 ballot being reheard in only a few days.
Passed on November 4, 2008, Prop. 8 changed the California’s Constitution, solidifying the traditional definition of marriage and thereby repealing and eliminating same-sex couples’ rights to marry. Since then the public outcry has been enormous. The Los Angeles Times reports that on March 5th the California Supreme Court will hear arguments debating the constitutionality of the bill. Over 18,000 marriages hang in the balance.
“It amazes me how the pendulum swings – a little step forward in equality, a bigger step back – a leap forward, a skip back,” said Andrea Sciacca, professor of Literature and Gender here at Marist College. “It shouldn’t have to be in such measured and calculated blocks…”
In an interview with Bob Tourtellotte of Reuters, Phil Curtis, the director of government affairs for AIDS Project Los Angeles said, “ ‘Milk’…has reintroduced a period in the fight for gay rights to a younger crowd that may have not have been so familiar with that period.”
“Members of the gay community say Milk has been like a tonic that has renewed a sense of activism…which is expected to last long into the future,” said Tourtellotte.
Sciacca said that a question still remains in finding out if, “…it [the film] is enough to sway those who are not deeply opposed, but those who are on the fence…I guess we won’t know until the next matter of hearings on the law books.”
As a journalism and political science major here at Marist College, senior Joe Gentile thought Penn and [the script’s author] Dustin Lance Black made very eloquent speeches about, “the importance of equal rights and respect for love, regardless of gender.”
He saw the passage of Proposition 8 as a, “mixed positive.”
“The obvious downside to that was the marriages of several thousands couples were invalidated by the tyranny of the democratic majority,” Gentile said. “However, it’s passage wasn’t just a shot in the arm for a brand-new generation of gay activists. It, like ‘Milk,’ awoke their heterosexual friends to the unfairness of the situation.”
Here in New York, the battle still rages on. On February 27, 2004, New Paltz mayor Jason West (G.) defied state law and married 25 same-sex couples in front of the New Paltz Village Hall. Soon after, the Ulster County District Attorney charged West with nineteen misdemeanors in connection with these marriages. For more than a year, he was threatened with prosecution for performing them. Though both Nyack mayor John Shields and Ithaca mayor Carolyn K. Peterson declared they would support these marriages, in July 2006 the New York Court of Appeals decided that there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage and therefore, New York law would not permit them.
Elected in November of that same year, Gov. David Paterson begs to differ. In an interview with CNN, his spokeswoman Erin Duggan said that he, “…informed state agencies that failing to recognize gay marriages would violate the New York’s human rights law.” According to the New York Times, he is directing all state agencies to begin revising their policies and regulations to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions [such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and Canada]. He sees this as a, “strong step toward marriage equality.”
The New York Times reports that this would make New York the only state that did not itself allow gay marriage but fully recognized same-sex unions entered into elsewhere.
As an active member of the Marist College LGSA, Gentile is hopeful for the future both locally and nationally. “I personally believe that it [Prop. 8] shall be overturned by the California Supreme Court,” Gentile said. “And to not credit ‘Milk’ for the reversal would be to deny a film’s possibility of changing hearts and minds.”