It may appear to many Americans that same-sex marriage and other gay rights issues “suddenly” became a matter of ubiquitous public debate and legal reality. But the groundwork for such progress (or the decline of Western civization, depending on one’s view) was laid by years, even decades of grunt work by on-the-ground activists and legislators gradually chipping away at resistance — until the resistors started becoming the minority, however vehement they remain.
An election year when such issues, not to mention the prominence of women in politics, are more visible than ever makes it the perfect moment for “Political Animals.” Jonah Markowitz and Tracy Ware’s engrossing documentary charts the long hard climb by California’s first four “out” state politicians, all lesbians, to pass a series of bills gradually raising LGBT rights to the levels of non-gay average citizens. Those advances had a national ripple effect culminating in the film’s bookending sequence of President Obama celebrating the Supreme Court’s pro-marriage equality decision last year. While initially this winner of both Los Angeles Film Festival’s jury and audience awards in its category seems a fairly standard TV-style mix of talking heads and archival footage, the intensely personal, often inflammatory nature of rhetoric in videotaped state assembly sessions here takes “Animals” beyond standard inspirational-uplift into the realm of white-hot political theater — the sort of theater we’re getting plenty of this election cycle: the variably self-righteous, folksy, ignorant and/or plain dishonest grandstanding that can make your jaw drop.
All four subjects were of the generation radicalized in the 1960s, and the filmmakers break up the otherwise straightforward chronological progress by telling their separate pre-public-office stories via individual segments. Exemplifying those who developed a lasting, “enormous sense of wanting to fix injustice,” rather than responding to that era’s more hedonistic currents, they moved from activism in the civil rights and women’s movements to Gay Lib, from lesbian separatism in the 1970s to the more inclusive community organizing of the AIDS era.
The first to reach the California Assembly was civil rights attorney and law professor Sheila Kuehl, though the qualification that probably got her in the door in 1994 was her long-distant role as tomboy teen Zelda Gilroy on classic sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” (She says her acting career was torpedoed soon thereafter by “lesbian rumors.”) Two years later, she was joined by San Francisco’s Carole Migden, whose “femme” appearance complete with tailored pink suits no doubt flummoxed those male colleagues who thought Kuehl’s “butch” look represented Everylesbian. In 2000, their ranks became a quartet with the arrivals of Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe.
“Political Animals” devotes most of its first 35 minutes to the initial duo’s fight for an anti-discrimination bill protecting students from bullying or other ill treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, actual or simply perceived. It took four assembly votes over several years’ course before passing, during which time Migden and Kuehl got to hear colleagues (who assured them it “wasn’t personal”) compare homosexuals to pedophiles, necrophiliacs, even “hormonally imbalanced heifers.” Indeed, much of what makes the doc entertaining is the subjects’ continuing disbelief that fellow lawmakers with whom they had friendly professional relationships would nonetheless say the most insulting, ill-informed generalities about gay people with bland confidence at the podium.
Once this initial success was finally scored in 1999, others followed with escalating rapidity. As both supporters and detractors duly perceived, laws gradually introducing and expanding the equal rights of same-sex domestic partners and their families (on such issues as spousal medical decisions) did indeed lay groundwork for the dread specter of “gay marriage.” The rest is history — though a history far from over, particularly in the realm of angry, largely religiously-targeted opposition.
All four subjects are appealingly articulate without hyperbole, seeing themselves less as leaders than “willing tools of the movement,” with ’60s idealism intact. Their narrating input is shot in conventional TV-studio-type interview sequences, but “Political Animals” is otherwise so briskly paced (kudos to editor Michael Hofacre) and packed with hot-button moments of Assembly debate (notably as one legislator after another piously disregards any “separation of church and state” awareness) that overall it avoids feeling like a PBS-ready clock-punch in stylistic terms. Nonetheless, broadcast is doubtless where it will primarily be heading after an extensive gay-fest tour.