You Can't Get Married When You're Dead

Critics are heralding Milk as an exceptional film. Still, there’s one way in which the film is not exceptional but rather utterly conventional: The gay guy ends up dead.

BY Advocate.com Editors

February 14 2009 1:00 AM ET

Critics are
heralding Milk as an exceptional film. Sean
Penn was nominated for a Golden Globe and the film is up for
eight Oscars including best actor, best director, and best
film. Penn stars as the charismatic Harvey Milk, an
Obama-like civil rights figure who builds unlikely
coalitions and mobilizes the emerging gay rights
movement. The film is timely as it depicts Milk’s
leadership in defeating a state proposition to bar
gays from teaching, a ballot
initiative eerily reminiscent of the recently passed
Proposition 8 excluding same-sex couples from civil
marriage in California. However, there’s one
way in which the film is not exceptional but rather utterly
conventional: The gay guy ends up dead.

Dead gay men,
lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people abound in film,
and they fall into two categories: ill (Tom Hanks in
Philadelphia, Al Pacino in Angels in America,
and Cherry Jones in What Makes a Family) or killed
(Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Matthew
Broderick in Torch Song Trilogy, and William Hurt in
Kiss of the Spider Woman). LGBT characters who
don’t end up dead occupy limited and stereotypical
roles: murderous (Charlize Theron in Monster
and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley),
criminal (Will Smith in Six Degrees of
Separation
and Johnny Depp in Before Night
Falls
), frivolous (Martin Short in Father of
the Bride
and Rupert Everett in My Best
Friend’s Wedding
), or unfulfilled
(Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Dennis Quaid in
Far From Heaven). Judging by such films,
Hollywood seems to believe the only stories about LGBT
people worth telling are tragic ones.

If you think we
are being selective, name three major Hollywood films
without negative images of LGBT people.

These archetypes
are not the product of a monolithic, homophobic
Hollywood. In fact, it is often gay people and their allies
who direct, produce, and act in these movies. However,
when LGBT characters seen in film are
disproportionately dead, dangerous, or disturbed, is it any
wonder that they are considered less deserving of basic
rights? These representations certainly evoke sympathy
(or just pity), but perpetual victimhood can be both
disenfranchising and self-fulfilling. Feeling sorry
for someone doesn’t make you want to treat them
equally.

Tags: film

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