Much of the coverage of the letter Prison Break star Wentworth Miller sent to the St. Petersburg International Film Festival yesterday has focused on four words he wrote in it: “as a gay man.” His sexuality has long been the subject of speculation, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the news cycle would treat the public letter as a coming out. But Miller’s note matters much more for the reasons he wrote it in the first place, than because of his participation in a coming out ritual.
The subject of the letter was Miller’s decision to decline an invitation from Maria Averbakh, the film festival’s director, to appear there as a guest of honor. “As someone who has enjoyed visiting Russia in the past and can also claim a degree of Russian ancestry, it would make me happy to say yes,” Miller wrote. “However, as a gay man, I must decline. I am deeply troubled by the current attitude toward and treatment of gay men and women by the Russian government. The situation is in no way acceptable, and I cannot in good conscience participate in a celebratory occasion hosted by a country where people like myself are being systematically denied their basic right to live and love openly. Perhaps, when and if circumstances improve, I’ll be free to make a different choice”
Travis Waldron has written extensively about the ways in which Russia’s passage of a law that theoretically outlaws gay “propaganda,” but that is meant to criminalize all gay rights activity and to restrict the behavior of gay couple sin public, is affecting the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, and the ways in which the International Olympic Committee has knuckled under to the Russian government. But the Sochi Games are an important way to highlight the ways in which sports’ international bodies don’t live up to their stated ideals–Russia’s law will be there after the Olympics have departed and the sports news has turned its collective attention elsewhere.
So it’s heartening to see protests against the law move to other forums and forms of media. And it’s particularly powerful to see this movement happen in film, given the enormous influence international moviegoers–and world governments–have on Hollywood’s finances. Russia’s movie box office revenues hit $1.3 billion in 2012, up 15 percent from 2011, and that growth happened even as the revenues for Russian-produced movies declined. That’s a fraction of the $10.8 billion American moviegoers spent at theaters, but it’s not an insubstantial amount either. Increasingly, it’s going to take brave filmmakers, and brave studio executives to pursue projects that have values that don’t line up neatly and blandly with the unsettled international consensus on issues like gay rights. Miller’s willingness to put his politics and personal values ahead of his potential economic interests is an important and admirable example for Hollywood as a whole.
And in saving his coming out for a moment like this, Miller provided a valuable reminder to both the Russian arts community, and to homophobes and people who enforce homophobic laws everywhere, that they can never be sure who’s gay, or who values the cause of gay rights, and who doesn’t. Responsibility for serving that notice shouldn’t lie solely with gay artists and gay athletes, or be served solely through comings-out, which can really only be deployed once. Instead, other artists of all sexual orientations should make clear that gay rights are their concerns for any number of reasons, whether it’s family or friendly affection, a demand for a professional working environment, or a requirement of artistic freedom. This was a point the Russian government helped make earlier today, when Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak argued that the law “cannot be regarded as discrimination based on sexual orientation” because it penalizes anyone, of any sexual orientation, who shows any degree of support for gay relationships or gay rights.
It would be nice to see other moviemakers follow in Miller’s footsteps and decline to shoot in Russia, to promote movies there, or to appear in any other professional capacity until their safety, and the safety of their colleagues, friends, and families are guaranteed not simply by an international spotlight that scatters homophobia into dark corners for the moment, but by law.