Listen carefully: we gays will not go away

19 Dec 2008

The film 'Milk' is a reminder of the distance gays have come - and how far there is still to go, writes Quentin Fotrell

THERE COULD not have been a worse - or, given recent events, better - time for Gus Van Sant's Milk , a heartbreaking and powerful biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to major public office in the United States, who was assassinated on November 27th, 1978, by a discontented fellow city supervisor.

Sean Penn portrays Milk, who helped defeat the notorious Proposition 6, a measure which sought to fire gay teachers in Californian public schools. He rightly believed that gay people must come out and speak up, rather than quietly sit back. Milk started in the Irish-Catholic Castro district of San Francisco, one street at a time.

The film, released here next month, opened in the US three weeks after Proposition 8, which was passed the same day as the US presidential election. It reversed the California supreme court ruling that legalised same-sex marriage, and now has left tens of thousands of married couples in legal limbo. One step forward, one step back.

"My name is Harvey Milk," he used to say at the outset of each speech, "and I am here to recruit you." He said of Proposition 6, "If this thing passes, fight the hell back". As Ireland proposes an inferior, second-class Civil Partnership Bill, ignoring the children in same-sex families, the battleship Milk helped launch is more important than ever.

Those he would have fought in 2008 speak of marriage existing solely for children - that last, lonely firearm in their rusting cannon - as if marriage without children has less value and gay people don't and can't have children. By attempting to marginalise gays, they may even wish us to go away. Listen very carefully. We will not go away.

We will not only continue to push for laws, we will fight for them if we have to. We will not just give pretty soundbites to the news media, we will march if we have to. We will not merely allow our private family photographs to appear in newspapers to show we are just like you, we will shout from the top of Liberty Hall if we have to.

In one of the most telling broadcasts of the year, Questions and Answers recently invited an all-heterosexual panel to discuss same-sex unions. One panellist actually declared that he wished to minimise same-sex families. I gasped at the audacity of that and gasped again when it drew not one other gasp. But better that he came out and said it.

A more well-meaning panellist spoke of homosexuals as "they". The only gay people appearing on our State broadcaster that night were confined to the studio audience. In order to speak to those privileged enough to be cosseted by the warm embrace of the studio lights, "they" were forced to raise their hands like children in a classroom.

"They" is a misleading word. Gay people have a grandpa, nana, dad, mam, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, friends, colleagues, neighbours and, despite guff that gays don't have children, sons and daughters too. "We" is a better word. Including friends and family, we are far more than 10 per cent of the population.

"We" of Stonewall 2.0 are a growing civilian army. We buy your products. We pay your union membership. We use your banks. We read your newspapers. We eat in your restaurants. We fly on your airlines. We go to your theatres. We tune into your television stations. Or. . . maybe not. And, be warned all silent politicians, we also vote.

Milk was too late for Proposition 8. Recent social progress here was also too late for men who commit suicide in Donegal or Dublin or Cork or Wexford whose coffins were lowered into the ground to whispers or thoughts of "I think. . . he was gay". All of these things are connected. But it is never too late for the next battle, or the next, or the one after that.

The passing of Proposition 8 is galvanising a young generation of gay civil rights groups in America, roused from a complacent slumber. In recent years they have been growing here too, like meadows of beautiful, hardy flowers resistant to the hungriest greenfly or loudest locusts. MarriagEquality. LGBT Noise. BelongTo. They keep on blooming.

I watched Milk last Saturday afternoon with friends in New York, men who were raised in Albany, Maryland, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Boston, Utah, but who were all drawn to a new life in that glittering metropolis. Afterwards, we talked in awe of "our history". Yes, "we" could lay claim to that. It was an awesome feeling of kinship, solidarity and strength.

On Tuesday evening, I went to "Breath of Heaven: Christmas Concerts" by Glória, the gay men and lesbian choir, in St Ann's Church on Dawson Street in aid of MarriagEquality and the Gay Switchboard. Check out their future events on Gló Hear their voices. As the congregation chimed in during White Christmas, it revealed much about the human spirit.

Glória reminds me of what it means to be gay in Ireland in 2008. Despite the public climate of fear-mongering, hate crimes and intolerance, I would never, ever want to be heterosexual. (Sorry, ladies!) Other people may wish to make it a hard life. But it isn't. It is a wonderful life. It is so rich in love and laughter, so alive with camaraderie, so full of joy.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times