Alongside the ‘great men’ theory of history, we also have a tendency to think in ‘great events’, and that the things that have changed society fell out of the sky fully formed. That’s certainly been true of gay rights, where you could be forgiven for thinking no one had considered there should be more equality until Stonewall in 1969, or that the whirlwind of gay marriage in the US was a couple of overtures (the legalisation in Massachusetts in 2004, and Prop. 8 in California) before the Supreme Court decision in 2015. However, there was a lot more to it than that, laying the political groundwork for what was to come.
Political Animals is a look at the first four openly gay people to be elected to the California state legislature, all of them women (although there were previous gay elected officials in California – not least Harvey Milk – they’d operated on a more local level, rather than state-wide). However, as well as looking at the women themselves, the film is keen to show the work they did promoting gay rights in California, particularly in terms of legislation that helped pave the way for gay marriage.
Sheila Keuhl was the first to be elected in 1994. As she says in the film, while many were wary of electing a lesbian (or even allowing one to run for office on a Democrat ticket), the fact people knew her from her former life as an actress – best known for playing Zelda Gilroy in the early 1960s TV series, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis – helped show her as a person they already had a relationship and not just a ‘gay’.
She soon started trying to enact legislation designed to protect LGBT students from harassment in school, but was met with opposition from some virulently homophobic, Bible-thumping Republicans, as well as a few Democrats fearful of being seen as too supportive of gay causes.
Keuhl was joined in the following years by Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg, and Christine Kehoe, who together strategized ways not just to get the student harassment bill through, but also how to enact various other protections in California. That included spearheading things such as legally recognised domestic partnerships and then a law legalising same sex civil marriage (it was that law, which then led to Prop. 8 and eventually to the Supreme Court).
As their opponents in the chamber spew hatred and ignorance (all in the name of God, of course), the women react with remarkable dignity, reinforcing that when these men demonise LGBT people, they are demonising real people (and their families), not just some abstract ‘they’.
One thing that helps the documentary add a bit of drama and tension, is the way the votes are tallied to see if something has passed in the California State Assembly. A camera sweeps up and down a board with the names of the legislators as they vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. The numbers then creep up to see whether it will get the necessary 41 ‘Yes’ votes to pass. It’s almost like a gameshow, but also interesting to see how sometimes there’s a delay in someone voting, almost as if there are people hoping not to have to put their vote next to the law but knowing there may also be a political price if the legislation fails because of their inaction (the voting stops the moment it gets to 41, allowing some people to abstain by procrastination).
Political Animals is a fascinating insight into these women, showing their passion and dedication. It makes sure that it shows that they didn’t just go in to politics to sort out gay stuff and screw everything else, as they were heavily involved in all sorts of measures. However, it does focus of the LGBT work they did, discussing how they would get together for meals to talk about the best way forward. The documentary offers some interesting political insight into how a bit of sideways thinking can get legislation passed that has the effect you want, by slightly shifting the focus to make it easier for legislators nervous about their electorate to vote for.
Featuring interviews with all four of the women, as well as various other people involved, it’s a wonderful testament to their work. They also come across as a great team – people who are not to be messed with, but who are extremely smart, dedicated and who know how to work together to get things done. As mentioned above, what it is also keen to show is that history is not just about ‘great events’, it’s about lots of smaller events that build up and allow what may seem like the defining moment to happen. And what Political Animals also shows, is that it’s not just ‘great men’ that make these things happen.
Overall Verdict: An interesting look into the lives of the first four gay California state legislators, as well as the work they did on the march from few protections for gay people in the law, to enacting same sex civil marriage.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac