Tuesday, January 27, 2009

White As Milk

NOTE: Spoilers ahead for the movie Milk

This is a guest post by Rudy Ramirez, who is a director, actor, and performance artist living and working in Austin, Texas. He performs monthly with The Dick Monologues, is the stage director of The 999 Eyes Freak Show, a member of Carousel Cabaret Burlesque, and the co-writer (with Laura Freeman) of the musical Luna Tart Died. He is currently working on his first full-length one man show, Promised Land, which talks about the trip, the party, and the hot sex that lead up to sending out the  email below. Coming soon to . . . somewhere near . . . something.

I just got back from watching the movie Milk with my good buddy, Jaycee.

At the beginning of this movie, black and white footage is shown of gay men being arrested and harassed by the police. At no point is any queer person of color shown, nor, for that matter, any queer women.

Throughout the film, the shots of the Castro are of almost exclusively gay white men. There is one African-American who delivers a line in the movie,  as he is walking past Harvey Milk's storefront. There is also an African-American drag performer.

Latinos, are represented by Jack, Harvey Milk's second lover in the film. His first lover Scott, is white. Jack is portrayed by Diego Luna, a Mexican actor, although Jack's national background is never given. Throughout the film, he is portrayed as needy, unstable, and unintelligent. Harvey's fellow political activists--all of whom are white except for one Asian--express their exasperation with "The First Lady," referring to Jack.

Jack talks to Harvey about watching Days of Our Lives and his fascination with the characters before seducing him when Harvey has an important meeting. When Scott confronts Harvey about Jack, whom he derisively calls, "Cesar Chavez" with the words, "You could do so much better," Harvey responds, "I don't have to come home and talk intelligently to him." When Scott and Harvey are talking with each other later, and Harvey says, "I miss you" Jack comes in between them in the shot of the film and says, in a whiny voice, "Harvey, ya!" Ya, of course, being Spanish for "enough," a reminder that this isn't just another man, this is another man who isn't white.

I was exasperated by this point and my frustration only increased when Jack killed himself.  Harvey's  activist associates  consoled him with, "There's nothing you could do. You did all you could." After a tearful "I could have come home at 6 instead of 6:15" the next line is a voice over from Harvey: "There was no time to mourn." At the end of the film, Harvey has one last conversation with Scott before he is assassinated. The tone hints that these lovers would have gotten together again, had it not been for a bullet. There is little to no validity given to Harvey and Jack's relationship; whereas Scott's relationship with Harvey is offered as  true love.

I'm writing  this to ask everyone who has seen this move to tell their friends about Sylvia Rivera. Many of you reading this already know about her, and therefore please feel free to correct any of this information. She was one of the many trans people of colour activists, who led the revolt against the New York City police during the Stonewall riots in 1969, years before Harvey Milk began his political career. She then founded a homeless shelter for trans and queer youth living on the streets of New York. Due to her focus on the lives and livelihoods of street youth, sex workers, and transgender queers, she was frequently shunned by the mainstream gay rights movement; that wanted to present the face of gay liberation as assimilationist, gender normative, and white. Her alienation from the movement was followed by years of drug use and homelessness, until she came back and founded another shelter for transpeople. She died in 2002 at the age of 50.

Sylvia Rivera is one of the many Latino faces of queer liberation, one whose sacrifices and bravery made men like Harvey Milk possible. Queer Latinos have been part of queer liberation since day one. Since the day I came out, and even before, I have seen gay film after gay film--Lie Down with Dogs, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, Love! Valour! Compassion!--in which the Latino is the plot twist, the slut who comes in between two white lovers who are meant to be together. It pained me to see the images in those films, and in a movie about  queer history; one that never once mentioned Stonewall and presented gay liberation as almost exclusively white.

After the movie was over, I stood up in the theatre and told the audience about Stonewall, and that it was Latina and African-American drag queens who began the modern queer liberation movement long before Harvey Milk. I asked them to remember that queer Latinos have always been there, and that we are more than someone that you don't have to talk intelligently to. I did this because I feel better about being gay than I have in years and I need to start paying that forward. I'm asking all of you to help me. If you hear people talk about Milk, mention Sylvia Rivera, not to diminish what Harvey did but to make sure that everyone knows that queers of color put on their heels and took to the streets, too, and did so when it wasn't fashionable.

Thank You, and Much Love,

Rudy Ramirez

PS--At the end of the film, updates are given about each and every one of Harvey Milk's fellow activists . . . except for the one Asian activist in Harvey's office, who apparently didn't merit an update.

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