If you wonder why the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) is important for the country, or if you're frustrated by seeing so much non-gay or British TV (OK some of that can be pretty gay) on its channels, well, you're in for a treat in the coming weeks.
The American Experience presents Stonewall Uprising, premiering on PBS across America on Monday, April 25, 8 p.m. CT. In addition, airing in June on PBS channels is OUT in America, which takes a look at the last few decades of the LGBT movement in the United States.
Both films are kind of a "gay 101" aimed at those less familiar with gay history (that includes non-gays and gays). But even those with a degree in queer studies could probably learn some things from the films, both of which tell their stories through interviews with mostly LGBT people.
Stonewall Uprising, by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, focuses mainly on the events of June 1969 in Greenwich Village, New York City, when LGBTs of all kinds fought back against police when the mob-owned Stonewall Inn gay bar was raided. The film first sets the stage of what it was like for gays in New York before those riots, and then explains what happened during those few days of outrage. We also learn how Stonewall inspired a new generation of activists.
The film, based on David Carter's book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, starts with the statement that "In 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois." But we know all was not well in Illinois, either. There are images of police arrests, headlines about harassment, media coverage of "homosexuals," and more. Very sad are the stories of forced psychiatric treatment, shock therapy, lobotomies, murders and suicides. One psychiatric institution was referred to as "Dachau for queers," in reference to the German concentration camp for Jews in World War II. This institution used a drug that simulated the experience of drowning, which was a pharmacological form of waterboarding.
"But on June 28, 1969, the gay community experienced what one Village Voice reporter who was on the scene called its 'Rosa Parks moment,' when the NYPD raided a Mafia-run gay bar, The Stonewall Inn. For the first time ever, patrons refuse to be led into paddy wagons, setting off a violent three-day uprising that launched the gay-rights movement," the film notes.
The interviews are the most important part of the documentary, as many LGBT activists from 1969 have since passed away, and we continue to lose that generation's voices. We hear from patrons who were arrested, rioters outside, reporters and even the police officer who led the raid that first night. We learn what it was like outside the bar, but also inside as the police were barricaded in for their own safety once the crowd turned against them. Unfortunately, the interview subjects are primarily white, and it's unfortunate that the filmmakers were unable to find more diversity from the riots, which most witnesses said included diverse groups of people.
Why was Stonewall so important as a flashpoint? There had certainly been previous protests in cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Chicago, Philadelphia to D.C. But none equaled the impact of Stonewall, and perhaps that was in part because it happened in 1969, at the end of a decade of protests for so many issues. As one interview subject said: The gay bars were like the churches were to Blacks in the south. Another person called it a war. Gay people stood up and the house of cards crumbled.
Some of the interview subjects make grand statements as if no one was doing any activism before Stonewall, or that no one was openly gay. The filmmakers don't correct these statements and it is an unfortunate straight-washing of decades of truly courageous pre-Stonewall work that made Stonewall itself possible.
Also in the film, former New York Mayor Ed Koch (long rumored to be gay) was a local politician in the early era of gay rights in New York, and he tries to justify the police treatment of gays by saying it was only about public sex. But gays know it was far more than this, and the film shows how cross-dressing laws (including a 1845 law making it a crime to masquerade) were often used to target queers.
The film points out that another gay bar in NYC, the Checkerboard, was raided just a week before the Stonewall. One interview subject said there were also vigilantes doing coordinated harassment of gay mensome were attacked, others thrown in the river, others were fired from their jobs. Another man says it felt as if at times gay men were being hunted. Gay men were so desperate for safe places, hundreds of them would gather at night and have sex in the same trucks used by meatpacking companies during the day.
Seymour Pine, the police officer interviewed from that night, spoke about how he and five other officers raided the bar, and then witnessed the start of the revolution. Once they were outside trying to put the arrestees in the police vehicles, some fought back, crowds gathered, and the police, reporters, and arrested people went back inside and barricaded themselves in. A lesbian was fighting the cops trying to get away. One witness said that the harder she fought, the harder the cops were beating her up, and the madder the crowd got. The crowd was shouting "Pig" and threw copper pennies at the "coppers." One transgender woman tried lifting a parking meter as a battering ram and was soon joined by several helpers.
These stories are very well edited, giving viewers a real sense of how it was that first night. One witness said it was the first time that they saw police could be fearful. As another man said to the filmmakers, a lot of the street kids, "we didn't think much about the past or the future, we were thinking about survival. We would go into action[it was the] hairpin trigger thing that makes the riot happen."
After the first night, activists wanted to continue the pressure: 5,000 fliers pointing out the "intolerable situation" with the police and mafia were distributed. "Leaflets in the '60s were like the Internet today," one man said. The Mafia reopened the Stonewall Inn the next night, and protesters were met with even more brutal force by the police, who now aimed their clubs at people's heads, not their legs and backs. There was tear gas, and people were left bleeding on the sidewalks.
Officer Pine, interviewed some four decades after Stonewall, had this to say: "You felt bad that you were part of this when you knew they broke the law, but what kind of law was that?" He said he felt bad because most were just youth, and he knew he could ruin their lives with just one arrest.
But as one interviewee said, there was no going back now, "we had discovered a power we weren't even aware we had." A pride march was planned and now every year, LGBTs in cities around the world mark gay pride.
Longtime activist Virginia Apuzzo said in the film, it's very American to say "this is not right," the way gays were treated. True "Gay Power" had begun, and this film is a great tribute to the activists who fought back those summer nights in New York City.
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OUT in America is a more far-reaching and ambitious film, with the Stonewall rebellion just a small portion of the one-hour project. I can't imagine the difficulty in trying to represent some six decades of U.S. LGBT rights in such a short time, but director Andrew Goldberg, in partnership with PBS and Oregon Public Broadcasting, has clearly tried to show a diversity of LGBT faces. There is a mixture of lesser-known activists and a few "celebrity" faces, but I have to say if there were going to be even some celebrities, the story of only recently out-of-the-closet country singer Chely Wright could have been omitted here, in favor of someone who came out long ago or at least at the peak of their career. Her story is just not unique enough to be included in such a momentous and rare film airing on PBS.
But that's a minor quibble. The film will still be an important addition to the long line of films that attempt to put a face to our complex LGBT movement.
We have gay horseman Mike Hartman and PJ Serrano, Puerto Rico's first openly gay and HIV-positive political candidate. There's gay Latino rapper Richie "Loco" Ruperto, plus Muslim lesbian Samirah Ruhomutally and her partner, a bisexual white woman, Ashley Neely. There is a West Point graduate who is a lesbian, Becky Cannis. Plus Ebone Bell, a butch Black lesbian, and a white transgender male police officer, Stephan Thorne. Also interviewed are author Armistead Maupin and Bravo TV's Andy Cohen, and Robyn Ochs, editor of Bi Women. Partners Kate Clinton and Urvashi Vaid are also included, with Vaid giving a brief movement history lesson.
Former U.S. Ambassador James Hormel also speaks about his struggle to find the gay community of Chicago while he was in student here, and about the gay movement since that time. And there is also an interview with "The Harolds," a Black/white couple in their 80s, who reminisce about their 45-year partnership. An older white lesbian couple is interviewed, Connie Kurtz and Ruthie Berman. Dr. Dana Beyer talks about her transition from male to female as a Jewish person.
The film is divided into segments including "love," "homosexual," "freedom," "change the world," and "death" where Maupin and others share their painful stories of the AIDS epidemic. In this segment, therapist Dr. Patricia Hawkins of D.C. speaks emotionally about how lesbians stepped up to care for their gay brothers, and how devastating the losses were.
Gay people today have no sense of the "the panicky moments when our friends were becoming ghosts, dying horrible deaths," Maupin said. "We saw the true love and sacrifice of the lesbian community. The community had been separatist before that. Women came forward in scores to care for dying gay men. It made a difference."
Reverend Peter Gomeswho came out on the steps of Memorial Church at Harvard, and who died Feb. 28 of this yearis interviewed in the film. It will serve as one of the last interviews with this important gay movement leader. "I am a functioning Christian and I am a homosexual. I give you the evidence of my own life. That threw a monkey wrench into a lot of things," Gomes said. Once he came out, he said he was relieved, that he didn't have that "bifurcated feeling" anymore. "I feel happy in that I have been able to carve out a ministry which takes sexuality seriously, takes the Bible seriously, and I am allowed to be taken seriously. Fundamentally I am fulfilled."
Chely Wright said, "One of the reasons I came out was so I could have a real life … and I could choose my partner in full light." She added that she is still trying to un-learn old habits, which can take as long as it takes you to develop the skillset to hide.
OUT in America uses some of the same images and video clips as the Stonewall Uprising film, which is likely because so little was covered in the mainstream media about gays prior to 1969. For example, a clip from a Mike Wallace report on "homosexuals" for CBS is in both films.
OUT in America ends on the upbeat notes of progress on military and marriage issues. But as Urvashi Vaid points out, success in these areas will not lift all boats: there are still many struggles across class and race in the LGBT community.
Robyn Ochs said the community has seen "unimaginable progress … . Change is happening very quickly historically … if I pull back my lens a little bit, over a decade, 20 years, we really have a tremendous amount of progress."
Neither of the films have much about Chicago in them, so it's a good thing that the PBS station in Chicago, WTTW, did their own documentary, Out and Proud in Chicago, in 2008. (My book of the same name was a companion to the film.) It also seems like the OUT in America film is going to be a June pledge drive film nationally, similar to what WTTW did in Chicago. It would be nice if PBS, in its rare coverage of LGBT issues, wouldn't seem to see the community as mainly donors to the cause. PBS is worth supporting, regardless of these pledge drive queer films, but it would be better if we were seen and heard from far more frequently. A few of those British TV shows can give way a bit, don't you think?