In Focus Features' new Harvey Milk biopic film an epic battle to save gay rights is fought between gay activists and church-backed forces – in California. Sound familiar?

“If this thing passes, fight the hell back!,” Harvey Milk, the nation's first openly elected gay man, played by Sean Penn, says in Milk.

Back then, in 1978, it was Proposition 6 – also known as the Briggs Initiative – a ballot measure backed by singer Anita Bryant that sought to expel gay and lesbian teachers from California schools.

But Proposition 6 died at the polls. (Then-Governor Ronald Reagan said he was opposed to taking away rights.)

And Proposition 8 – the California measure that constitutionally bans gay marriage – passed by a slim majority.

Grassroots gay activists and their allies who have been protesting the passage of Proposition 8 since the day after Election Day are certain to find solace in Milk's narrative that so closely mirrors their own modern-day crusade – save for the happy ending.

Expectations over the film's Wednesday start are stratospheric, as the film raises the visibility of the gay rights movement to an unprecedented level. Proposition 8-related vigils have already occurred at prerelease screenings of the film in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“The film is about activism and perseverance,” Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, a group that lead the fight against Proposition 8, told Variety. “Milk lost the first two elections he ran and he sacrificed a lot. The film brilliantly explores the need to expand the base of people who support equality. Harvey Milk knew he was running on a whole bunch of social-justice issues. That's important for moving forward.”

But for some of the people involved in the events of 1978, emotional scars remain.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein found Harvey Milk's body after he and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone had been gunned down by Dan White, who opposed the gay initiatives championed by Milk. Feinstein, who became mayor after the incident, recently told The New York Times that watching the film might be too difficult.

“It's very painful for me,” she said. “It took me seven years before I could sit in George Moscone's chair. It took me a long time to talk about it. I was only recently able to talk about it.”

Feinstein's support for gay marriage in California – she starred in an a pro-gay marriage ad – may now be a possible liability as she looks to a 2010 bid for governor of the state.

“I think people are beginning to look at it differently, I know it's happened for me,” Feinstein said of gay marriage. “I started out not supporting it. The longer I've lived, the more I've seen the happiness of people, the stability that these commitments bring to a life. Many adopted children who would have ended up in foster care now have good solid homes and are brought up learning the difference between right and wrong. It's a very positive thing.”

The whole notion that a movie about gays and lesbians overcoming the odds and a burgeoning gay rights movement finding hope and inspiration in an awkward politician in California being released by a major Hollywood studio just weeks after a major gay rights loss is certain to feel like destiny to many fighting in the trenches for gay rights.

And that might just be inspiration enough.