When Sean Penn won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk two weeks ago, he used his acceptance speech to rail against supporters of California’s Proposition 8, which last November repealed a State Supreme Court ruling extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Penn’s confrontational tone was in keeping with his prickly public persona, but it was also in line with his character’s real-life activism. Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States, and the fact that he was openly gay defined his policies and goals.

“Milk,” the movie for which Penn won the Oscar, works better as political history than it does as biography. Harvey Milk’s long-term goal was to help build a society in which homosexuals participated fully without having to hide or deny their sexual preferences. But because he understood that many people abhorred those sexual preferences, he knew such a society could not be built on persuasion. He would have to force the issue through political action, just as the civil-rights movement won equality for blacks.

There was one stark difference, however. Black people couldn’t hide their blackness, while gays could hide their homosexuality. The only way Milk could accomplish his long-term goal was to urge his fellow homosexuals to come out and acknowledge their same-sex preferences to their families, friends and communities. He did this by presenting himself, often humorously, as a militant sodomite (“My fellow degenerates!”); in other words, someone who was going to live his life as he pleased.

The fact that Proposition 8 passed 30 years after Milk’s assassination means that his goal has not been accomplished, but his confrontational methodology has become the standard for gay activism. In the process, gays have become culturally, if not necessarily socially, mainstreamed in the U.S. In movie terms, that development is proved not so much by the Oscars for “Milk,” but rather by the box office success of the crude adolescent comedy “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” in which gay stereotypes and jokes are thrown back at antigay attitudes. “This is America,” says the main character, played by Adam Sandler. “You should have the right to put anything you want up your ass.” It’s something Harvey Milk could have said, and probably did.

It will be interesting to see the reaction to “Milk” when it opens here in April. There have been a few gay office- holders at the local level in Japan, but political action for homosexual interests is virtually nonexistent, mainly because there are no laws that explicitly proscribe homoerotic activity or deny rights to individuals who are openly gay. On the other hand, social pressure against coming out remains strong.

The media reinforces this situation by boosting TV personalities who trade in gay stereotypes without ever actually mentioning gay sexuality. It’s the whole point of the popular Nihon TV variety show “Oneemans,” where homosexuality really is the love that dare not speak its name. Last fall, NHK presented a two-part discussion about LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) on “Heart Talk,” a show that addresses social issues from a perspective of sensitivity. Though the program drew the derision of Shincho magazine, which wondered if LGBT was really a proper topic for a public broadcaster, it received a positive reaction from many viewers, and NHK aired a followup last month. Most of the discussion was about the difficulty of coming out to friends and family, and how important it was for LGBT people to receive support from parents. There was a profile of a Sapporo support group for parents of LGBT, one of whom appeared in the studio with his mother.

The show was basically an appeal for understanding, filled with testimonials from LGBT people about their loneliness and inability to function normally in a society that won’t acknowledge their situation. It was a passive appeal. The LGBT people who spoke out are waiting for society to change. One participant said LGBT should come out only when they were in a positive frame of mind, since doing so out of anger or frustration might create negative feelings. The advice was mostly about being respectful of other people’s — i.e., straight people’s — feelings. Even the example of the lesbian couple who made a point of not hiding their relationship from the neighbors was presented cautiously. The two women would walk through the streets hand-in-hand greeting everyone they met, and after a year or so people accepted them. However, on TV their faces were blurred out, as were many of the other LGBT participants’. They were not scared for themselves; they just didn’t want to take the chance of making friends and family uncomfortable.

The LGBT participants who did not opt for masking had more than a personal stake in the matter: former Osaka prefectural assemblyperson Kanako Otsuji, Setagaya Ward assemblyperson Aya Kamikawa, psychologist Toshiaki Hirata and some LGBT organization representatives. Hirata explained that the government’s new antisuicide measures do not take into consideration LGBT-related suicides, but that was as far as the discussion went into public policy. It was not the purpose of the program.

The purpose was to show how LGBT people feel, and it seemed clear that the main obstacles they need to overcome in order to live their lives freely are society’s fundamental ignorance and their own fears. In that regard, the program’s blurred-out faces and polite deference to straight sensibilities can only be considered counterproductive.

Otsuji touched on this when she said that not just LGBT couples but also LGBT singles should just go ahead and live the way they please. Harvey Milk would agree that that’s the only solution, though he would have put it more colorfully.

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