Queer Heroes On Screen In “Political Animals” And “The Freedom To Marry”

Two documentaries follow these crusaders in their gripping, but ultimately successful legislative and legal—and hearts and minds—battles for LGBT equality.

In this month of Pride it feels as though we need the guidance and inspiration of our community leaders more than ever. Freshly available this week on VOD platforms across North America, two timely documentaries—The Freedom to Marry and Political Animals—shine the spotlight on several of our history-making LGBT trailblazers.

Full disclosure: As a producer on The Freedom to Marry I can’t offer an unbiased opinion. What I can say, with bias, is that it offers an intimate account of the marriage equality movement through the eyes of those who led the fight—including Evan Wolfson, Mary Bonauto, and others. Please seek out the film and savor an inspiring tale of how dedicated visionaries and engaged citizens can spearhead the change we need to see in this world.

Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic
Given the enormous progress we’ve just made on marriage equality, it seems all the more shocking to be reminded that just twenty years ago the legislature of the State of California struggled to arrive at consensus on protecting LGBT youth in California schools from discrimination. Like a gripping legal thriller, Political Animals unspools this arduous multi-year battle and portrays the nail-biting saga thru four legislative sessions before the bill finally passed into law in 1999. That bill’s author, Sheila Kuehl, is one of four amazing lesbian elected officials profiled in Political Animals.

Best known as one of the stars of the 1950s hit TV show, The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis, Kuehl is also (unlike so many celebrity elected officials) a qualified legislator. A graduate of Harvard Law School and founder of the California Women’s Law Caucus Kuehl had the chops to author legislation and ably serve the people of her state in both the California Assembly and in the State Senate.

This portrait of passionate intensity also offers a deep dive into the life and work of three other California lesbian legislators, all also elected in the 1990s: Christine Kehoe (San Diego), Jackie Goldberg (Los Angeles) and Carole Migden (San Francisco). (In photo at top. from left: director Jonah Markowitz, co-director Tracy Wares, Migden, Kehoe, Kuehl, Goldberg, and producer Anne Clements.)

The film deftly portrays highlights of various California LGBT legal battles (including Midgen’s groundbreaking Domestic Partnership legislation which paved the way for marriage equality) as we also observe the crazy, homophobic rhetoric of the era, with one rural/farmer legislator rambling at length about his experience of “unnatural” heifers mounting other heifers and another proclaiming that lesbianism is: “Worse than smoking or driving without seatbelts.”

These four dedicated lesbian elected officials authored many of the laws that changed the course of LGBT history. Now more than ever these women have lessons to teach each and every one of us. As Jackie Goldberg proclaims in the film: “If you want to live a life that has meaning you have to be in the struggles. And if you’re not in those struggles then you have to ask yourself—well, what exactly does your life mean?”

Here’s to the struggles. Happy Pride month to all!

Jenni Olson is a is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF