Documentary captures a time when being gay was illegal
By Jay Stone
August 27, 2010
STONEWALL UPRISING ***
Directed by: Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
Rating: adult themes
Playing at: Mayfair Theatre, Aug. 27, 28, 30
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On June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided a gay bar in
Greenwich Village called The Stonewall Inn. It was the kind of place
where you wouldn't want to drink the beer, but it was the only bar in
town that allowed men to dance together.
Police raids were common in those days: homosexuality was illegal in
every state but Illinois, and it was widely considered to be a
"mental defect" that could be cured by electroshock therapy,
sterilization, castration, or lobotomy. At Atascadero State Hospital
in California -- "the Dachau for queers," they called it --
homosexuals could be treated with a drug that made them feel like
they were drowning. It was chemical waterboarding.
No one seemed to care much about these things. In the documentary
Stonewall Uprising, a record of the riots that followed the 1969 raid
(and based on the book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay
Revolution, by David Carter), there are excerpts from TV shows of the
day, such as a CBS Reports investigation called The Homosexuals, in
which Mike Wallace says, "The average homosexual, if there be such,
is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting
relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage."
A 1951 public service announcement called Boys Beware dramatizes the
seduction of innocent young Johnny by an older man who shows him
pornographic pictures to convert him to the cause.
But on that day in 1969, something strange happened. Instead of going
along with the raid, the gay men at the Stonewall fought back,
eventually forcing the police to barricade themselves in the bar.
Several days of rioting and arrests followed, and the result -- in
the words of a Village Voice journalist named Lucian Truscott IV --
was "the Rosa Parks moment" in the fight for gay rights, an act of
resistance as important as the day when a black woman refused to give
up her seat on an Alabama bus.
"That night, the police ran from us," Truscott says. "And it was fantastic."
Stonewall Uprising is something of a scattershot document, mostly
because there is little public record of what happened that night: it
wasn't deemed newsworthy enough to film, and newspaper reports were
sketchy and buried on inside pages. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David
Heilbroner interview dozens of witnesses and participants to flesh
out what happened, and while the talking heads paint a vivid picture
of chaos in the Village, we never get to know the people well enough
to form a connection. The empathy is mostly with the cause itself.
Still, that makes for interesting viewing, and while Stonewall has
been examined in previous documentaries (Before Stonewall in 1984;
After Stonewall in 1999), Stonewall Uprising fills in the middle
nicely. Most engaging is its examination of life of the 1950s and
1960s, when young men and women came to New York to meet other gay
people and to actually have sex with some of them. They had no access
to hotels, however, so this often took place in public washrooms or
parked meat trucks, another popular spot for police raids. "There was
no such thing as 'being out,' " says author Eric Marcus. "There was
no 'out.' There was just 'in.' "
And while there is frightening testimony about how gays were hunted
down to be beaten up, or worse, the scariest moment takes place in a
1967 TV interview with a gay activist. He says only radical gays want
such extreme rights as adoption and marriage, adding that, while he
had homosexual experiences when he was younger, he doesn't do that
any more because it's not his "cup of tea." It plays like a sad
combination of fear and denial, just like a lot of it was for gay
people before Stonewall.