Carrie Prejean, Let's Talk About Milk

06/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Let's all wish Carrie Prejean a Happy Birthday. Miss California USA turns 22 today, and thanks to a garbled pageant answer on national television and the support of the National Organization for Marriage, she's poised to become the new Anita Bryant before she hits 23. God help us all.

Last week I watched the movie Milk for the first time. It was a little overdue, I know, especially because I rooted for Sean Penn throughout the Oscar season never having seen his performance. I just didn't want Mickey Rourke to win for some reason.

I was happy to discover that I definitely rooted for the right guy. Sean Penn is Harvey Milk, in all his honest, unabashed and unapologetic glory. The actor's face has become fused in my mind with the real Harvey Milk's, seared in my memory long ago by the 1980s documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. But what really made me sit up straight watching the film last week was not Sean Penn's performance, but the incredible footage interspersed throughout the film of that hellraiser Anita Bryant.

I wonder if Carrie Prejean has heard of Anita Bryant. Maybe I'm wrong in assuming that the current Miss California USA has not seen the film about the first openly gay elected official in the United States, and that she does not know much about the history of the gay rights struggle in her home state and country over the course of the last century. She may not recognize the similarities between herself and Ms. Bryant, the Evangelical Christian, Oklahoma-born singer and Florida orange juice spokeswoman, who is most famous for her tireless 1977 fight to save children from the threat of being taught by homosexual teachers. Anita became a symbol. Utterly confident in her own moral rectitude and superiority, she circled the country, campaigning on a platform of Christian virtue and warning the masses that because homosexuals could not have children, they would "recruit your own."

Carrie Prejean was born ten years after Anita broke onto the scene, and nine years after the assassination of Harvey Milk. She was raised in an evangelical household in California, and her parents divorced when she was only a year old. During the Miss USA pageant, as everyone knows by now, she answered Perez Hilton's question on gay marriage by saying, "Well I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one way or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. You know what, in my country, in my family, I do believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there. But that's how I was raised and I believe that it should be between a man and a woman." I give her points for two things: first, despite coining the interesting term "opposite marriage," she is far more eloquent than Miss Teen USA South Carolina 2007 of "Such as..." fame. Second, unlike Anita Bryant, she doesn't seem particularly threatened by homosexuals. She just doesn't really think they deserve the same rights her parents took for granted when they got married.

No beauty queen has attracted so much attention since Vanessa Williams posed nude. (Of course it turns out Carrie has also posed nude, but Donald Trump says it's OK.) Perez Hilton called her response "the worst answer in pageant history." The vampiric National Organization for Marriage has jumped on her story, using her as a symbol of the intolerance of the gay marriage movement. Her sparkling smile is plastered across their website, and she appears in an ad only slightly less silly than "The Gathering Storm." NOM President Maggie Gallagher has praised her, saying she is a blameless victim of "character assassination" and holding her aloft as a soldier in the fight against fear and intolerance.

Like Anita Bryant, however, Carrie Prejean is completely intolerant of differing opinions herself. Unlike the tough-skinned Bryant, she seems genuinely hurt and offended by the criticism leveled at her. At a tearful press conference with Mr. Trump yesterday to address her nude photos (picture Anita Bryant infamously being hit with a banana cream pie), Prejean thanked those who had stood by her during her difficult month of infamy and instafame, citing the First Amendment in all sorts of confused contexts. On Monday she played to her base on Christian radio, saying that when Hilton asked the question, "I felt as though Satan was trying to tempt me in asking this question. And then God was in my head and in my heart saying: 'Do not compromise this. You need to stand up for Me and you need to share with all these need to witness to them.'"

It's been an eventful month for the 22-year-old. But as NOM's Gallagher says in her defense, "you don't have to be a perfect person to have the right to stand up for marriage." Amen. But if she decides to remain in the public eye over the coming months (and I think we all know the answer to that) Ms. Prejean would do well to educate herself on the history of her home state. She might even want to take a brief look at Milk and think about how her legacy will hold up over the long haul. It is not the hero of that movie she resembles. No offense intended.