Milk Skimmed: Dr. Tomás Almaguer Speaks About The Roles Of Men Of Color In The Biopic Milk

Watching the movie Milk it is important to recognize that though this is presented as history it is actually an attempt to normalize white gay male sexuality.  Since much of how we understand power is based on our ability to oppress others, it becomes necessary to have a binary opposite that can be presented as somehow weak.  In this case, men of color fulfill the role of the eternal “other” thereby, normalizing the experiences of the white gay male.  When the rallying cry of just like you is shouted, it is therefore easier to associate a gay identity as necessarily white.  The white face of GLBT community can then claim that discrimination is intolerable because they are being treated like lesser beings – people of color.

Transcript is below the fold.

Now when friends confronted Harvey about his questionable choice of lovers, Harvey would sketchily outline Liras troubled past.  The youngest child of a poor Mexican American family, Jack had little education and no useful skills.  The way Harvey told it, Jack’s dad had declared that he no longer had a son when he learned of Jack’s homosexuality, so like many others Jack tracked from Fresno to the gay Mecca like many others.  Harvey insisted that he was “just trying to help a troubled kid”, besides he add with a wink “Jack was dynamite sex”.  Harvey’s friends took to calling Jack the mistake or derisively as the first lady.  Harvey himself according to Shultz, quickly began to referring to Lira as Taco Bell .  Now this might have been a reference to Jack as little more than the spicy Mexican food that Harvey routinely devoured or perhaps, it was a campy reference to Jacks effeminate manner, his being a Mexican tinker bell if you will.

But Jack was not the only man of color that was troubling swept with a brush of effeminacy in the movie Milk.  It seems to me, if I can be quite honest with you, that all of the men of color captured on the film were represented as completely emasculated men.  Sylvester the fierce black dancer and diva is a rather clear example of this representation. He only performs for the enjoyment of white gay men and is not given a speaking role in the film.  The other black gay man is given one speaking line as he coquettishly sashays past Milks Castro street camera store front. 

Also the only Asian character in the film Michael Wong, one of Harvey’s key political associates is also swept by this emasculating movie.  According to Shultz, Wong was also referred to by Milk as my little yellow lotus blossom, my fortune cookie, or simply our house boy.  In the film at one point, Wong is cattishly dished when he is told, shouldn’t you be working in a laundry? A rather unambiguous reference to his being painted in a classic Chinese stereotype   of a laundry worker performing women’s work.

Now this emasculation and disparagement of men of color is only countered once in the film; in one of the more disturbing moments, Jack is cattily referred to by Milks former partner Scott Smith as Cesar Chavez with the added comment you can do better than that.  Now I would have thought that Scott would have dished Jack by referring to him as Delores ___ But that golden moment eluded him and I suspect it is because he had no idea who she was, apparently when one thought of anything Latino at the time it was Cesar Chavez and Taco Bell. 

From all accounts it would seem that Jack was not well suited to play the role of first lady in Harvey’s life, according to Shultz he was ill prepared for the social and political skills such a role demanded.  Harvey offered to send Jack back to school but Jack didn’t want to go back to school.  Harvey found there were many jobs doing everything from Mexican restaurant work to bottling  ___ nitrate in the downtown popper factory.  Jacks jobs usually ended with his being fired for unauthorized absences.  According to Shultz, every personal and political friend that Harvey had now prodded him to drop Jack.  “But I’m out to help people like Jack, Harvey explained to his political associates, I’ve got to help him”.  But to his closer friend Tom Randal Harvey, he gave a more candid explanation, “Jack is truly good sex he said.  When I come home to him I don’t have to talk politics.  I don’t have to talk intelligently. I don’t have to think. I can relax, besides he added pragmatically where is a 48 year old man like me gonna get such a hot young guy?”

Now, Jack did appear to be a very simple, uncomplicated but also tragic figure.  There was clearly no haven or safe space in the Castro for someone like Jack.  He was not well educated.  He was not middle class He was not a professional gay man like Harvey and consequently was not empowered with his racial and class prerogatives.  Jacks apparently effeminate demeanour undoubtedly compromised any quest for respectability.

According to Gus Van Sant in the Los Angeles Times, (quoting here) “The apolitical highly strung Lira and Milk became a odd couple.  Milk didn’t necessarily choose boyfriends because they could help him write speeches.  I think that Lira was just not into politics, not into Harvey running, not into him being in city hall.  He wanted to go on a game show with Harvey because Harvey could answer all of the questions on Jeopardy.” 

While this may be true, it does seem to me that the representation of Latinos in film could be a little more complex than how it is represented.  Not all Latino men stumble into the Castro wearing fake bell bottoms looking for white sugar daddies. Where undoubtedly there were also a few more macho Latino gay men who were also invested in colonial desire to turn the tables and make a sport of having white men service them.  This is clearly another story and one story line  that didn’t make it into the film Milk.  

Instead like the film Brokeback Mountain, Van Sant’s film Milk renders Latino men as little more than vulnerable, exploitable sexual objects who yearn for the kindness of strangers and gay white men.  There is one scene in Brokeback Mountain  for example were the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal enters into a seedy Mexican border town and enters into an ally looking for sex with a young Mexican trick.  Now whether he paid for that sex is left unclear.  I guess my point is that the typecasting of Latino men as little more than objects of colonial desire is troublingly repeated in Milk,  the most recent attempt by Hollywood to humanize and normalize white gay man.  That normalization I want to suggest doesn’t necessarily have to be undertaken at the expense of marginalizing and pathologizing other gay men.  My point is that there is much more to what one critic refers to as the dark side of same sex coupling than what was captured in Van Sant powerful film. 

What was left out of the film however, was not lost on everyone involved in that production.  The gay Mexican actor Diego Luna, who played Jack Lira in Milk offered one of the most sensitive assessments of the character that he portrayed. According to  Luna, “Jack was a guy that had a big struggle in life.  He had a lot of loneliness and the fact of not being accepted in your family must be enough to get you lost. Running away from your family must have been the worst thing and then not just being gay but Mexican in this country, Jack had a great struggle that a young Mexican gay man would not have today”, said Luna.  “Imagine being gay and telling your father when you are 17 or something like that, saying I like men and then your father hates you and you get out of your house and you happen to go to a place and people happen to ask you where you are from and you say I am from Mexico, and they treat you exactly the same way.   So you are out there wondering around and obviously Lira found in alcohol the great way to get to who he was.  What was boring to the world of movements and politics.  He would like Harvey to just be a guy who cares about eating sharing stupid things, talking about soap operas.  Jack wanted Harvey to just be there to see him dancing, to cook for him, to observe the simple things.  All the other stuff Luna said simply got in the way.”  Thank you very much.

Editors Note:  Though Dr. Almaguer referred to Diego Luna as the “Mexican gay actor”, he is indeed a heterosexual man.

H/T The Jaded Hippy ( you can find part I of the documentary there as well)

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