For the city’s gay powerati, election night dealt a crushing blow. The Daily Beast’s Kevin Sessums talks to David Geffen, Darren Star, and others fuming about Prop 8.
A week after the election, I asked some of my friends in Hollywood—gay men who wield power of one degree or another—how it felt out in California now that they’ve had a few days to assess the passage of Proposition 8. The proposition stripped gays and lesbians in the state of their constitutional right to same-sex marriage, and passed the same night my friends were all celebrating the election of Barack Obama as our next president.
So how is Hollywood’s gay community reacting to the Prop’s passage? Are they feeling a kind of collective powerlessness? Were they emotionally whipsawed by the election results?
“There is no question in my mind that gay marriage is an inevitability,” says Darren Star, the creative force behind the television series Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, and Sex and the City, among many others. “Californians like to think of themselves as socially progressive and were surprised and angry to wake up to find bigotry introduced into their constitution. Exit polls show gay marriage has overwhelming support among younger voters—so obviously this is just a matter of time. I’ll just stay out of Arkansas for now,” he says, offering a sardonic joke as he points out that two other states—Florida and Arizona—also outlawed same-sex marriage last Tuesday. Arkansas even went so far as to ban adoption by gays and lesbians (or any other unmarried person).
Race has always—up until this point—trumped sexual orientation as a socially accepted civil rights issue.
“Obviously, like many other gay individuals, the election was bittersweet for me,” agrees Greg Berlanti, the executive producer of Brothers & Sisters on ABC as well as the creator of the network’s Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone (he is also the writer/director of Warner Brothers’ upcoming movie based on the DC comic book series Green Lantern). “I was listening to all of these people on television say how they can finally tell their children that they can grow up and be anything,” says Berlanti. ”And I kept thinking—no you can’t. Not if they’re gay. If they’re gay or lesbian—forget about becoming president—they still can’t even become a husband or a wife. But the days since have been invigorating...watching gay men and women and our straight friends come to life around this issue. Realizing that equality and change isn’t something that happens passively like a movie you go see—it’s a movie we’re all making together,” he says, using the one metaphor that his fellow Californians of all sexual persuasions can understand.
“The civil rights struggle took a giant step forward and a big step backwards,” says Dan Jinks, the Academy Award-winning producer of American Beauty. “I know it was a close vote,” he says of Prop 8. “But it is still upsetting. One of the things that Prop 8 proved is that gays and lesbians did not have the political infrastructure to utilize against the infrastructure of organized religion, which really fought against us—especially the Mormon church. The churches and their allies were able to make this a national issue. It seems that only by losing this vote has it finally become a national issue for the gay and lesbian community.”
Jinks’ latest movie, Milk, based on the life of the assassinated gay San Francisco political leader Harvey Milk, will be released by Focus Films on December 5. The film, directed by Gus Van Sant, is being touted as a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar come February.
Yet, if the film does win, it may be considered a consolation prize after the gay community suffered such a stinging defeat at the hands of California voters. So many of us remember how Brokeback Mountain seemed a lock for Best Picture but was beaten by Crash, a movie that not only depicted the dangerous shoals of California race relations, but also, by winning the Oscar, foretold the outcome of Prop 8. Race has always—up until this point—trumped sexual orientation as a socially accepted civil rights issue.
”That was our mistake,” says super-macher David Geffen, considered the town’s most powerful person who just happens to be gay. “So many African Americans don’t look at gay marriage as a civil rights issue,” he says of the community that voted 70 percent against same-sex marriage. “They look on it as a religious one. And we, for whatever reason…fear? Arrogance? Complacency? We did not do enough outreach to them. We need to begin a dialogue with them, because we should be putting this back on the ballot every election every year until we win.”
Max Mutchnick, one of the creators of Will & Grace—the seminal sitcom in which gay men were finally welcomed into America’s pop-cultural living rooms—had an especially disheartened reaction to the election results. He and his husband, Erik Hyman, had been the featured marriage in the Vows column in the marriage pages of The New York Times the Sunday before last Tuesday’s election and had even posed with their new twin baby daughters, Evan and Rose.
“I went to bed last Tuesday night with a deep sense of pride in my country,” he tells The Daily Beast. “But when I woke up and heard that Prop 8 had passed all of that pride melted into heartbreaking sadness. And like a typical American, I blamed our next president, Obama.” His words echo many of those in the GLBT community who have complained that Obama did not do enough to help defeat the measure. “Nothing changes for gay men,” sighs the writer, his voice now tinged with more despondence than any sort of wit. “It’s all about Dickens, isn’t it…’It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”
Jinks says one way to solve such a Dickensian dilemma is to find a real leader, something the gay and lesbian community hasn’t had enough of since Milk’s assassination 30 years ago. “We need a charismatic leader who can help us lead the charge on these issues. I’m moved that all these young people are taking to the streets right now. I wish they were holding marches in front of the Mormon church three weeks ago.”
Jinks’ screenwriter on Milk, Dustin Lance Black, was raised a Mormon in Texas. A young gay man, he was doubly troubled by the results of Prop 8. “I know if the president of the church asked its members to donate to the YES on 8 campaign that it is a good chance—though church members have free will—that my father probably donated as best he could to it,” says Black. “Though I have not been excommunicated from the church—not yet, though maybe when this story comes out I will be—I don’t consider myself a Mormon anymore. But I think it’s important not to focus our anger too much on the Mormon church or the other minority communities who voted against us, or our own organizations who ran pretty bad campaigns against Prop 8 that never wanted to mention the word ‘gay’ in our ads. Our commercials, for God’s sakes, were mostly in the closet. That’s one of the lessons of our film. We never win when we accept the strictures of the closet. Did we learn nothing from Harvey Milk? We must come out! It is the closet that defeats us.”
I decided to ask Simon Halls for words of advice about how to proceed. Halls is a gay father of three children and the CEO of PMKHBH, a top public relations office in Hollywood. He is also the personal publicist to some of the town’s biggest stars, including Annette Bening, Jude Law, and Helen Mirren, so I assumed he could offer a bit of strategic advice for the next time a same-sex marriage proposition comes up for a vote. How must such a leaderless community get ready for the next political battle? Many gays and lesbians are, in fact, angry at their political organizations, especially the Human Rights Campaign, which they say used Prop 8 as a mere means to enhance its donor rolls and e-mail lists.
“The day after we lost in the battle to defeat Prop 8, my initial reaction was overwhelmingly emotional,” says Halls. “I felt like we had all been kicked in the collective gut. As a father, the notion of my kids thinking that our family’s rights are any less important than those of any other tax-paying family in the state made me sad and angry. And to see pictures of the YES on 8 organizers jumping up and down in celebration in all of the papers had me at a huge loss. Jumping up and down because they made an entire community feel terrible? Really? Aren’t we all supposed to have been created equal?
“On the practical side, though,” he continues, “I do see this as a fascinating and strategic challenge. Pure and simple, they beat us at the marketing game. If we learned anything from President-elect Obama’s brilliant and victorious campaign, it’s all about your efforts on the ground. The new president and his team organized at the grassroots level. They honed a clear and focused message and they were incredibly disciplined.”
He wraps up his plan: “So after a few more days where we rightfully protest and tell the country that we won’t stand for this, we need to pull up our bootstraps, get back on the horse, start devising an aggressive new strategy and realize that no civil rights movement achieved success without setbacks. It may take a few more election cycles. And our feelings may get hurt again, but eventually, we are going to prevail. Women did. African Americans have and we will, too. We have to. We owe it to our kids, to our partners, and we owe it to ourselves.”
Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times best seller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and has been a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. His work has also appeared in Playboy, Travel+Leisure, and Elle. He is currently a contributing editor of Parade.