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Dan White's Motive More About Betrayal Than Homophobia 

Wednesday, Jan 30 2008
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Political consultant Ray Sloan took a deep drink of white wine, returned his glass to the bar, and began to reminisce about the political campaign 30 years ago in which he engineered Dan White's election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

"There's nothing like winning an election when you're an underdog," Sloan says as excitedly as if the votes had just been counted. "It was a great victory, Dan was full of promise, and I had a big future here in town."

Sloan doubles his chin to look down into the wineglass. His voice tapers off.

"But things didn't work out that way."

White, a former cop and firefighter, shook San Francisco to its core on November 27, 1978, when he climbed through a basement window at City Hall and made his way to the second floor. Once there, he shot dead the city's mayor, George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the country's first openly gay elected official and most important figure in the national gay movement.

In May 1979, a jury found White guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to a seven-year prison term. The punishment so poorly matched the brutal killings that most San Franciscans believed White got away with murder. Public outrage over the verdicts ignited the violent "White Night Riots," which caused millions of dollars in damage to city property.

Some see the assassinations as the most significant events in San Francisco's history after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Others believe the killings, particularly Milk's, galvanized the burgeoning gay movement, which ultimately caused a greater seismic shift in the country's deeply ingrained intolerance toward gays and lesbians.

Sloan, who was White's chief political adviser, lead aide, and business partner, probably knew him better than anyone save his immediate family during the two years leading up to the murders. Sloan is now worried about how a new movie about Harvey Milk's life, which has just begun production in San Francisco, will depict his former boss.

Nearly 30 years after the murders, Sloan still works for White, performing the quixotic task of spin control for perhaps the most hated man in San Francisco's history. "I've always felt a responsibility to talk about the guy I knew," he says. "I agreed to manage his campaign because I realized he wasn't just another hot-air politician. He was a real guy, a guy who really cared about people. His impact on me during that campaign in 1977 was a positive one."

Sloan, who is gay, says no aspect of White's crimes can be put in a positive light. But he believes White has frequently been falsely portrayed.

In the book Gayslayer! by Warren Hinckle; the play Execution of Justice, by Emily Mann, which was made into a 1999 television movie; and in countless newspaper and magazine stories, White has been characterized as a religious zealot, a homophobe, and a hired assassin for the San Francisco Police Department, the Catholic Church, or both. These characterizations are ridiculous, Sloan says, but the one he believes is most unfair is that Dan White killed Harvey Milk because of his homosexuality.

Last week, filming began on Milk at various locations in the Castro and the Outer Mission. The movie stars Sean Penn as Milk and Josh Brolin as White, with a supporting cast that includes Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and James Franco. Acclaimed filmmaker Gus Van Sant is directing the project, and Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen are producing.

"There has been talk for the last 10 to 12 years about making a movie about Harvey, but it would always fall apart," says Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a Milk supporter and former schoolteacher who plays himself in the film. "But we always kept our fingers crossed, and now it's really going to happen and I'm really delighted."

The film's production company has kept Big Love writer Dustin Lance Black's script under tight wraps, but SF Weekly was able to obtain a recent draft. The story focuses primarily on Milk's life before his election and does an impressive job of capturing his compassion, charm, strength, and prodigious ability to inspire.

For the most part, the script is loyal to actual events, but there are a number of factual inaccuracies in the treatment of the story's villain. In one scene, Milk is challenged by one of his aides, who asks, "What does Dan White do for you? Really? Politically?"

Milk replies that he suspects White is "one of us" (meaning gay), and that he sympathizes with White for living "the daily lie." While it's possible that White was confused about his sexuality or was secretly homosexual — though there is no evidence of either — Milk's scripted response does not answer the aide's question of what White did for Milk.

The real answer is surprising. According to voting records, newspaper stories, and anecdotal information, White supported Milk's agenda with his influence, vote, and pocketbook. More than that, Sloan says, White respected Milk and actively sought his friendship.

That is, until the two had a bitter falling-out over a land-use issue in White's district.

But instead of giving a historical nod to White's political support of Milk, the film's script advances the idea that White was struggling with his sexual identity. In fact, the scripted character of White bears some similarities to the confused and murderous Colonel Frank Fitts in the 1999 movie American Beauty, for which its producers, Jinks and Cohen, shared an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Black, Jinks, and Cohen insist any similarities between the fictional Fitts and the White character in Milk are purely coincidental. They say that making a biographical film is an interpretive art form. Historical facts are necessarily altered, condensed, or massaged to meet the demands of the medium's time constraints. In biographical films, historical shorthand is often used in an attempt to achieve a "greater truth" that eclipses mere facts.

But some fictionalized elements in the Milk script, such as a proposed police desegregation ordinance White refuses to vote for, seem designed less for cinematic expediency and more to paint White as something he wasn't. White's character in Milk seems to be a metaphor for a larger cultural and institutional bias against homosexuality that was prevalent in the 1970s.

About The Author

John Geluardi

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