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