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'Milk' star Sean Penn: Pal of anti-gay dictators?

PennI'm not surprised to discover that Sean Penn is under attack again for his outspoken admiration of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Raul Castro. The real shocker is who's doing the attacking: The Advocate, America's leading gay publication. James Kirchick, an assistant editor at the New Republic, pretty much eviscerates Penn, who just wrote a cover story in the Nation singing the praises of both Latin American dictators. Up until now, in the wake of his bravura performance as gay activist Harvey Milk in "Milk," the mainstream entertainment press hasn't bothered to ask Penn any tough questions about his political views.

But the Advocate doesn't pull any punches. Saying Penn is likely to win all sorts of prizes from prominent gay organizations for his role, Kirchick writes that "Penn's political activism, irrespective of his views on gay rights, negates the values for which a movement based upon individual freedom must stand." Kirchick calls Penn's Nation story a "love letter" to the dictators, comparing it to the notorious dispatches starry-eyed liberals sent back home during the early years of the Soviet Union, describing it as a worker's paradise, "neglecting to mention anything about the gulag, the 'disappearance' of political dissidents or any other such inconvenient truths about Communism."

Penn, who received a Golden Globe nomination today for his performance in "Milk," seems to have forgotten that not long after Fidel Castro took power, the Cuban government ordered the internment of gay people in prison labor camps where, as Kirchick puts it, "they were murdered or worked to death for their 'counterrevolutionary tendencies.' " He adds that Penn's pal, Raul Castro, was notorious for executing political opponents, whose only crime was often their homosexuality. Though Cuba has since decriminalized homosexuality, the government still bans all gay organizations or any other group critical of the regime.

Thor Halvorssen, president of the respected Human Rights Foundation, also takes aim at the actor in the piece, calling the Castro brothers "thugs and murderers," saying "that Sean Penn would be honored by anyone, let alone the gay community, for having stood by a dictator that put gays into concentration camps is mind-boggling." I'm an old leftie myself. But having grown up in Miami, where I saw up close and personal the flood of people--straight and gay--fleeing persecution in Cuba, I no longer share Penn's naive admiration for totalitarian despots who pass themselves off as populist heroes.

In an era of softball showbiz journalism where newspapers and magazines--including my own paper--rarely ask actors or filmmakers any inconvenient questions about their political beliefs, I'm not holding my breath that anyone will be holding Penn's feet to the fire. Kudos to the Advocate for reminding us that it was Harvey Milk who said that gay rights are human rights and it is Penn "who discredits both when he rushes to the defense of thugs who posture as victims of the West."

It raises a fair question that I'd like to hear your opinions on: Should we only concern ourselves with Penn's wondrous work as an actor in "Milk," which coming in the wake of the controversy over Proposition 8 will surely remind people that the struggle for gay rights in America is far from over? Or does his offscreen embrace of gay-bashing dictators matter just as much as his onscreen artistry, especially when the views of his political heroes so completely conflict with the free-speech message of the man he celebrates in "Milk"?

Photo of Sean Penn in "Milk" by Phil Bray / Focus Features

Comments () | Archives (55)

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Great post ... and even more fascinating a topic in light of Jerry Lewis' honorary Oscar - and the protests starting to build over it (according to Nikki Finke).

Softball journalism has its place with some celebrities, but when actors start digging deep into politics it's only fair that they get tougher, more thoughtful questions. Yet they rarely do. We'll see if anyone over the next three months poses these kinds of questions to Penn ... and what his reaction will be.

Ultimately, Penn is a great actor ... and he proves it anew in "Milk." He should win the nomination for that reason, and that reason alone.

I spent 20 years working in staff positions at the University of California and it never ceased to amaze me how knee-jerk liberals would lavish praise on dictators like Castro and Chavez, insisting that there has never been a human rights violation in Cuba or that the KGB ever murdered anyone. Where is the critical thinking that they were supposedly nurturing while earning their advanced degrees? Extremist ideology on the left can be just as vile and destructive towards humanity as its book-end on the right.

I don't think Chavez is anti-gay, and I don't think I would consider Chavez a dictator. He's more of a buffoon with lots of anti-American rhetoric.

His personal political activities and his professional acting abilities are two separate issues. I may think it's unfortunate that he chooses to glorify apparently cruel tyrants, but this is America, and he has the right to his opinions. Those opinions should not distract from his work as an actor. The Advocate and other gay rights organizations have the same right to speak their opinions as Penn has to speak his. Again, it's America, folks, and one of the cornerstones of American liberty is the right to speak your mind and to disagree with others who do likewise. Neither is right or wrong. Each is entitled to their opinion. Time to grow up and return to civil discourse and disagreements about vital topics like this. Enough with the judgements.


I always thought the LA Times was a serious newspaper employing educated and serious writers. My mistake. Hugo Chavez has more democratic legitimacy than any US politician having been elected many times, survived a recall, and then accepted the results when is constitutional reforms were defeated in a referendum.

The US constitution has taken a beating over the past eight years and not once has a change been put before the US people.

You can be certain that if the Venezuelan courts or people demanded same-sex marriage rights for Venezuelans, Chavez would honor them even if he disagreed. How is same-sex marriage working out in California?

Didn't Obama campaign against same-sex marriage? Do you feel the same about him as you do Chavez and Obama? Or is that different?

I lived in San Francisco during Milk's run, and assassination. Even met him once or twice. He was a very unimpressive human being, and no hero. Harvey Milk was a third rate politician who squandered his election as city Supervisor. He had a marvelous opportunity to be a spokesperson for civil rights. He did not use it. His unfortunate killing was because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His was a collateral killing after the target of Dan White's rage, Mayor George Moscone. Milk was not killed because he was gay, or White was homophobic. He just happened to be in the way.

The truth of the above statement will bring howls of hate. Milk was turned into a martyr by his constituency for a cause greater than was the man. So the Advocate and Milk's constituency have ignored reality and history as it was with heroic distortions. They can attack Sean Penn all they want for his views, but theirs are on shaky ground, And one more point: Milk showed no particular courage in running as an openly gay candidate in San Francisco from the Castro District in that ear. It was a non-issue, particularly in the open-minded era of the seventies. Now had he run openly in, let's say Oklahoma City, then that would have been heroic.

Respect Sean Penn for the performance he gave. Respect him for speaking out in favor of people our government would have us hate. And please, respect the history as lived, not the myth as made.

- Arye Michael Bender -

Sean Penn should do his gay history homework before making friends with dictators. It is so mind-boggling of him to be praising Castro and Chavez, calling them victims of the West when they victimize their own gay communities. I saw MILK two weeks ago and I thought it was so heart-touching that I cried. His performance as Harvey "Gay Martin Luther King Jr." Milk was fantastic. As a film lover and amateur filmmaker, I can only say that I admire him as an actor. Yet, as a liberal-minded American citizen, I don't agree with his tastes in political heroes.

Penn's performance as Harvey Milk was outstanding. Acting is his profession, and he does it well. It seems fairly obvious that he supports gay rights, so I suspect his admiration for Chavez and Castro is exactly what Thor Halvorssen suggested it might be: naivete. Perhaps the Advocate article will prompt him to reexamine his ideas about these dictators. Let's hope so.

I agree that calling attention to the Cuban government's internment policy is an important matter that demands some resolution on the part of Sean Penn to square with his role in 'Milk'. But to refer to Hugo Chavez as a 'totalitarian' is completely wrong and needlessly demonizes a democratic person, who has repeatedly submitted to elections and who is the executive of a country where more than half the population resides in localities governed by the opposition parties to his mainline socialist party. Please get this information correct in the future as to save yourself the embarrassment of being wrong and misleading people as a result of it - we need accurate information to approach reality, not unsubstantiated invective against a strong leader who happens to disagree with your own personal ideology.

Of course, 'Americanism', which has nothing to do with authentic American patriotism, has long since naturalized and sublimated its appearance, so nakedly ideological claims like 'Chavez is a totalitarian' get made without the seeming need to at least back up the argument. Indeed, the author fails to provide any reasoning why Chavez-admiration in any way conflicts with being against the discrimination of gay persons. Lumping Chavez and Raul Castro together in this way is crude racism, like equating Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and is the stuff that racial generalization, profiling, categorization without escape and the like are based upon. They are indeed the most virulent threats to individuality, both on the part of groups stereotyped as such, and on the part of the stereotyping person, as such an attitude towards the other precludes authentic communication between persons - the only way to enrich individuality.

That anyone would think Sean Penn in the first place has a word of wisdom on any topic absolutely astounds me. To enjoy his acting talents (hey, he's a great actor) I have always had to remind myself to try not to hate him for his obtuse, abstruse ignorance of what the United States represents to oppressed people who thirst for freedom. On that account, my dog has more smarts than Sean Penn. Whatever faults this country may have, we don't execute gays or impound them in gulags.

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