Documentary Review by Elizabeth Ponds, Campus Pride 2017 Summer Fellow
In 2017 Americans likely take same-sex marriage and all the current legislation protecting LGBT people for granted. We feel like it happened overnight, not considering the people who fought through decades of failure to achieve it.
Political Animals (2016), a documentary by Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Wares, focuses on four lesbian women who became the first openly gay California state legislators as well as trailblazers for LGBT civil rights in America. It reveals the empathy and tenacity of these women in the face of verbal attacks in court, failed bill proposals, and ignorant minds that seemed hardened to humanitarian progress. Giving credit to these overlooked leaders, this film inspires activists to be true “political animals” who fight until the battle for all human rights is won.
This documentary begins and ends with the day that same-sex marriage was federally legalized on June 26, 2015. Its main focus, however, is on the women who began the process and saw it through. Through interviews with and court footage of these women, we see their personalities, their inexhaustible strength and wisdom in the face of adversity. We get to know this minority group as human beings — a vital part of any social justice movement.
Sheila Kuehl, becoming the very first openly gay California legislator in 1994, is serious and passionate. Carole Migden, the second in 1996, has a tough persona in court and a mischievous one outside of it. Christine Kehoe and Jackie Goldberg, being the final two, came in together in 2000. Kehoe is quiet and constant while Goldberg is animated and bold. For each woman trying to pass bills to prevent discrimination of LGBT kids or ensure equal rights for LGBT people, it was all the more difficult because the personal was political to them.
Citing the gay agenda, fellow legislators accused these women of encouraging pedophilia or bestiality when they tried to pass any bill in support of gay or lesbian people. One man didn’t want to pass the student non-discrimination bill because it would stop gay conversion therapy in schools. These women certainly had an agenda – to prevent other gay people from going through the hardships that they had to. The film shows them plotting together to figure out which woman would talk to which person, how to word bills so they would pass, or what goal to reach for first. They would ask for a little bit then a little bit more and then more, because change comes incrementally in the legislative system.
While educational and inspiring, this documentary is focused primarily on gay and lesbian rights rather than bisexual or transgender rights, but this shows us how gay and lesbian rights are really just the first step in the LGBTQ rights movement. Also, these four women are all white with a degree of class privilege that allowed them to get where they were in politics.
“It wasn’t like we were the pioneers of the movement or the leaders of the movement,” Kuehl says. “We were more like willing tools.”
They used their privileges as much as possible to clear the way for LGBTQ people of color, transgender people, bisexual people, and others who face a longer road to full equality.
“I have made a footprint…on the earth to help generations to come,” Migden says.
Political Animals makes it clear that the road to full LGBTQ equality under the law will not be ending any time soon. It celebrates the multitude of legislative victories the LGBT community has won in the past 25 years while also emphasizing that they only occurred because of “political animals.” Every movement needs passion, hope, and hard work to accomplish its goals. Political animals like these four women have had to rise up to take action in the civil rights battles of our day.
For LGBTQ activists, this film is a must-see as it gives an idea of how arduous the struggle for LGBT rights was and continues to be in the United States. When groups who are less discriminated against think the battle is over, this film shows them it is not. There are many states where it is still legal to fire someone for being LGBT, to deny housing to an LGBT person, or to deny protections for LGBT students. This does not mean we should give up hope, however, despite our dark political climate.
As Goldberg says, “It’s never hopeless as long as you resist.”
MORE INFORMATION ON BOOKING THIS DOCUMENTARY FILM SHOWING: Book a Political Animals screening and activate your campus. You can use the film to raise funds, organize your community, and to celebrate LGBTQ History Month in October. Carole Migden, former California State Senator featured in the film and powerhouse leader in the movement to secure fundamental LGBTQ rights, is also available to speak at screenings. Get a 15% discount on the film with promo code PRIDE15. For more information and to order the film click Video Project. The film will also be showcased at Camp Pride for LGBTQ youth this July.