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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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I agree with James Kirchick of the Advocate. Sean Penn cannot be seen as a role model for gays and simultaneously defend Raul Castro, Fidel's younger, also, homophobic brother. Cuba was and continues to be a homophobic country. Although the UMAP concentration camps for gays are a thing of the pass, gays in Cuba are still not allowed to have any of the institutions that they have in the free world. There is no Cuban counterpart to the American Gay National Task Force to ensure that Cuban gays are not victimized, what's more, there are no gay establishments in Cuba, no bars, clubs, etc.. These are simply not permitted. And where is the national apology by the Cuban regime for its past injustices against gays? If the USA can apologize to blacks for slavery and Spain to Jews for the Expulsion, then why can't the Cuban regime apologize to gays for the UMAP?

Also, please be aware that while the Cuban regime may now establish certain laws that seem pro-gay, one thing are the laws established by the regime and another is reality. Cuba is also a signator of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Cuba is also a supporter of various international human rights treaties, but it respects no human rights whatsoever.

A better role model for gays would have been Javier Bardem who played Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel's "Before Night Falls."

Hugo Chavez a dictator? Actually, he's been elected president of Venezuela not once but twice. He even accepted defeat more or less gracefully a year ago when he lost an election. Chavez anti-gay? Goldstein gives no evidence. Yes, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, some Cuban gays were put in camps. That was wrong and stupid, but that policy lasted about three years and was dropped in the 1970s. At that very same time, homosexuality was illegal in the United States, and was defined as an illness by the psychiatric establishment. Police brutality against gays in the United States was made famous at the Stonewall bar in New York City in where gays rioted to protest a police attack on a gay bar.

Furthermore, When AIDS was first discovered, HIV-positive individuals were quarantined. Today Cuba has the lowest HIV-AIDS rate on the planet. Cuba's no paradise for LGBT people (Where is there a gay paradise on this earth??), but there are no Cuban Matthew Sheppards. Cuba may not be a paradise for gays, but it celebrated the UN's World Day Against Homophobia this year for the second year in a row as a national holiday. Fidel Castro's niece, who is also Raul Castro's daughter, presided over the event. National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon was a speaker at this government-sponsored event. Oh, and under U.S. law, people from the United States are forbidden to go to Cuba for a visit without receiving a permission slip from the federal government. Cuba is the only country on earth where Washington requires this. We are all free to travel to gay-friendly places like Saudi Arabia and Iran without asking permission.

Hundreds of articles on LGBT life in Cuba today can be found at the web page I've created for that purpose. Some positive, some highly critical, but surely an indication of progress for the LGBT population of Cuba.

Finally, if Cuba is the gulag for LGBT people which Goldstein claims, it would be a surprise to the scores of prominent and gay Cuban LGBTs who sat for portraits which were publicly exhibited and published in a book "Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories" by Iranian-Canadian photographer Babak Salari.

Walter Lippman wants to know of gay paradises? The scandanvian countries, the Netherlands, Spain, Canada. By his own words he approves of the quarantine of people with the HIV virus, which I think is heartless. Is he really pretending that in Cuba gays can establish independent organizations to define and demand their rights?
Let's make something very clear, the Cuban government does not have the right to decide what Cuban gays want, only Cuban gays should do that by way of independent organazations. Who is anyone in the Cuban government to decide that sex-change operations are a more essential gay right than marriage? Gay rights are a question of gays as individuals and as a collective deciding what they want.

Since this is America, he has the right to be as much of an ignorant moron as it is possible to be and still receive the kudos for a great role.

It would be nice if more of the media would confront him on it as the Advocate has done though.

Thank you Patrick Goldstein and the Advocate for finally taking this jerk to task...and you lefties who post ridiculous comments saying Chavez is not a dictator - try reading something other than the entertainment section once in awhile.

To Patrick Goldstein, a man who I almost never agree with, well done.

To James Kirchick, for your original article published in the Advocate, thank you.

To Sean Penn, there is no question you are one of the greats when it comes to your acting skills. However, when it comes to your politics, in particular your continued worshipping at the alter of Chavez and Castro, I'm embarrassed for you.

I don't know much about gay life in Cuba, but as a gay Venezuelan I can tell you that Hugo Chavez is not anti-gay, and it's crazy inaccurate to paint my country that way. Venezuela has had a history of homophobia and macho-ism, but it's only been in recent years, under Chavez, that the country has taken real strides to improving things. It sort of scares me that the LA Times could print something like this w/out looking into the facts first.

Um...has anyone besides me actually read the Nation article? While it certainly has a tone of personal admiration for Chavez and the Castros, it also says:

"...I didn't want to leave without asking (Raul) Castro about allegations of human rights violations and alleged narco-trafficking facilitated by the Cuban government. A 2007 report by Human Rights Watch states that Cuba 'remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly all forms of political dissent.' Furthermore, there are about 200 political prisoners in Cuba today, approximately 4 percent of whom are convicted of crimes of nonviolent dissent....I'm a proud American citizen and infinitely aware that if I were a Cuban citizen and were to write an article such as this about the Cuban leadership, I could be jailed."

Cuba certainly has a mixed record concerning LGBT rights. While homosexual sex has been legal in Cuba for nearly 30 years (compared to 5 in the entirety of the U.S.A.), Raul Castro's daughter is a noted campaigner for gay rights, and the government pays for sex reassignment surgery, in other respects Cuba remains a lot like the pre-Stonewall United States, with police raids of bars and such. A human rights paradise? No. But let's face it, over the past decade, the most notorious cases of imprisonment and torture occurring on Cuban soil have been at Guantanamo.

And aside from banning a Cyndi Lauper concert, can any of the fulminators here cite evidence of Chavez's alleged homophobia? As far as I know, he's stated regret for gay-rights being dropped from the new constitution he backed, an exclusion due to strong opposition from the Catholic Church.

Sorry for the second post, but subsequent to my first one, I did a little research and came up with this statement from a report by Carlos Sanchez, who visited Cuba four years ago under the auspices of the international gay rights organization ILGA:

"Talking with the lesbian and gays there, we were able to see:
a) Neither institutional nor penal repression exists against lesbians and homosexuals.
b) There are no legal sanctions against lgbt people.
c) People are afraid of meeting and organizing themselves. It is mainly based on their experience in previous years, but one can assume that this feeling will disappear in the future if lesbians and gays start to work and keep working and eventually get support from the government. (The National Center for Sexual Education is offering this support)....

Sexual minorities seem to be living better times now in Cuba. In the medium term, even better than the rest of Latin America."

As far as I know, Chavez never banned any Cindy Lauper concert in Venezuela. The concert took place, and the supposed "banishment" only happened in the feverish mind of know-nothing gossipmonger Perez Hilton. Makes one sincerely wonder at the extent of propaganda that U.S. citizens are fed by their media.

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