Sunday, March 9, 2014

Talking Back to the Screen: A Brief History of LGBTQ Activism and the Movies

William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) has garnered a notorious reputation, largely because of the national protests by LGBTQ activists that it inspired during its production and release. However, while the protests that surrounded Cruising were the first to get widespread attention from mainstream (or, in other words, non-LGBTQ) people, they were only the most highly publicized examples of LGBTQ activist engagement with mainstream Hollywood films, which began at least a decade earlier.

Beginning in the early 1970s, movies and other media became part of LGBTQ activism in three ways: 1) Activist organizations used community film screenings to gain numbers, and help lesbian and gay people develop a more subversive understanding of mainstream media. 2)  The writing of lesbian and gay film history was part of ongoing efforts, on the part of activist-academics, to establish lesbian and gay histories and, at the same time, help lesbian and gay people better understand their institutional oppression. 3) Large lesbian and gay protests of films that “negatively represented” the community were major, highly publicized venues of LGBTQ activism in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Movies and popular culture became important parts of queer activism shortly after such activism became widespread after Stonewall. Stonewall was a major political uproar that took place outside of a gay bar (The Stonewall Inn) in 1969.  After police raided the bar and began arresting its patrons (a regular occurrence at the time), they were surprised when the patrons fought back and protested.  The Stonewall riots, which lasted for several nights and received a great deal of media attention, are thought of as a watershed moment for LGBTQ political activism.

Vito Russo, a gay New Yorker who was intensely devoted to gay activism and to movies, was largely responsible for bringing the two together in the early 1970s.  

Russo was a member of The Gay Activists Alliance, one of the major activist groups of the 1970s.  GAA believed that, in order to create strength in numbers, they needed to make their organization a social group in addition to a political group. In their central headquarters, a firehouse in New York, they held very popular dances and performances by LGBTQ artists. 

Russo added public screenings of Hollywood movies to the calendar of social events. He argued that, in order to politicize as many lesbian and gay people as possible, the GAA needed to create a safe environment for them where they could meet people and have fun. In doing this, he hoped to attract the “timid” and “non-political”.

Russo would show early movies that represented lesbian and gay people, like The Children’s Hour (1962), starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as schoolteachers accused of lesbianism.

He also showed more independent, politically oriented gay films like Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), a documentary about a black, gay hustler:

And Rosa Von Prauheim’s controversial It Is Not the Homosexual That Is Perverse But the Society in Which He Lives (1971).  He could not leave out programming that didn't overtly represent queerness, but that had a large queer following, like Barbra Streisand’s 1960s television specials, Calamity Jane (1953), and Judy Garland movies. 

After the program, Russo would lead discussions about the programs and what they meant to the LGBTQ audiences in attendance. Watching and discussing films became another form of consciousness raising. Russo believed that films could allow people to process their oppression and experiences, and experience the ecstasy of liberation, in a more direct way. 

Just as importantly, these screenings empowered people by allowing them to experience movie-going as their straight counterparts had for many years.  Suddenly, a woman could go to a movie and hold hands with her girlfriend. A couple of guys could make out in the back row.  In the great book Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, Michael Schiavi beautifully illustrates what these screenings were like.

“The Flicks were designed for people like Fred Goldhaber, a closeted twenty-four year old teacher who attended Vito’s Halloween 1971 double feature, Village of the Damned (1960) and Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Fred was dragged to the Firehouse by GAA member Steve Ashkinazy, who wanted to give his friend a sink-or-swim introduction to gay culture.  As Village began, the audience responded with happy fright: they would, Fred recalled, ‘shriek and turn to the person on the left or the right and they would hug and hide their eyes in the other person’s armpits, and it was simply wonderful. It was so much fun, and I found myself doing it, too. I lost all my inhibitions. It was hypnotic, intoxicating, just glorious. I had never in my life experienced such freedom.' Fred laughed along with everyone else when a lesbian yelled at Night’s flesh-eating zombies, 'Save me a breast!'…[He said] 'At that moment I became a soldier in the army of the gay rights movement.'” (100)

"Save me a breast!"

Although many people found these screenings deeply satisfying and politically stimulating, they were not wholly edenic and without division. Lesbians, for example, sometimes complained that they were underrepresented in the films Russo chose, and the audiences that attended them. Russo did, however, make an effort to diversify his programming: a good example of how subgroups within the community could come together to create positive change when they communicated. Similarly, certain gay men complained that Russo’s promotion of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and campy movies went against the ideals of promoting gay male masculinity.  

In the late 1970s, Russo began conducting more formal research in an effort to write the first major history of gay men and lesbians in mostly Hollywood films. The resulting book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (first published in 1984), became a contribution to the body of academic writing on LGBTQ film that was just beginning to spring up at that time. However, I’d like to emphasize that Russo's researching, writing, and publishing of the book constituted a large part of his activism.  

It’s important to note that a written history of lesbian and gay American film was completely non-existent when the book was published. Russo spent hundreds of hours watching films and poring through archives looking for hints of queerness in movies from the silent era to the 1960s, many of which had been all but lost. His insistence upon a queer film history remains politically important. In many American film history survey classes, and survey books on the subject, there is a tendency—intentional or unintentional—to overlook LGBTQ film history, even now.

Furthermore, I consider The Celluloid Closet to be activism because it’s written like a manifesto.  Even though Russo loved movies, its tone is angry. Russo hoped to make his readers aware that mainstream film was another institution, like the government, the nuclear family, and the mental health industry, that contributed to the oppression of LGBTQ people by representing them in offensive or indirect ways, or by not representing them at all. The Celluloid Closet is, in a sense, a call to action. His call to action worked.

I think that when a lot of people hear “activism” they think of “protests.” The gay liberation movement, largely because of Russo’s efforts through public screenings and his book, made LGBT people aware of Hollywood’s ability to oppress them with its films. As a result, they took to the streets.

In 1970, the film The Boys in the Band (based on the hit play by Mart Crowley and directed by William Friedkin, who would later direct Cruising) was released. The film, about a bunch of gay men gathering for a friend’s birthday party, was the first mainstream movie featuring an all gay male cast of characters. Many activists found the film’s characters to be self-hating stereotypes, so they picketed outside theaters showing the film, and distributed gay liberation pamphlets.

However, LGBTQ protests against films received the most controversy and attention, and a watershed moment, in 1980 with United Artists’ release of Friedkin’s Cruising.  

Cruising was a major Hollywood film, starring Al Pacino, about a cop who goes undercover in New York’s leather community to find a serial killer of gay men.  In the end, the killer is revealed to be a self-hating gay man himself.  Furthermore, the movie ambiguously suggests that Pacino’s character becomes a gay killer after spending time in the leather community. Gay activists were not happy. 

Arthur Bell, a popular Village Voice columnist, found out about the film before it went into production on location in New York City.  He urged activists to do everything they could to interfere with the film’s production and give its makers “a terrible time.”  Activists complied.  

Hundreds of protesters made so much noise during filming that the film’s entire soundtrack had to be re-recorded in post-production. People would go up on rooftops with big mirrors reflecting the sun to screw up the film’s lighting.  At one point, there were so many activists crowding the locations that Al Pacino had to be escorted to his car through two human walls of police officers.  Later, when the film was released, activists protested outside theaters where it was being shown.

Again, the activism against Cruising raised some divisiveness in the community. Activists protesting Cruising were pre-dominantly upset about two things: 1) That it made connections between gay men, pathology, and murder—a common Hollywood trope; 2) It suggested to audiences that gay S and M leather sex was “the gay community.” Leather men played themselves in the film, and participated in some extreme forms of gay sex. They felt that, through their protests, assimilationist gay activists were denouncing them. Other members of the LGBTQ community felt that, by trying to shut down the film's production, activists were participating in censorship.

On a more positive note, the protests of Cruising were tremendously influential and, in many ways, effective. In the 1980s and 1990s, gay activists continued launching major protests against films like Basic Instinct (1992), about a decadent bisexual killer, and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which features a grotesque killer who activists argued was characterized as transgender.  

Basic Instinct (1992)
Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The documentary Blonde Poison: The Making of 'Basic Instinct' (2001, Jeffrey Schwartz) contains great footage and discussion of the protests that surrounded the film, and really brings this activism to life. This footage begins at the 5:00 mark in the first YouTube video below, and continues into the second:

These protests brought the issue of LGBTQ media representation (and misrepresentation) considerable mainstream attention, and I do think that they contributed to the wider variety of mainstream representations of LGBTQ people that we see today.  Some would probably argue that it would be nice if we didn't see gay killers as a recurring trope in films anymore, but if you saw Skyfall, the 2012 James Bond movie, you know that that’s not the case.  

However, it's important to note that Javier Bardem’s villainous character wasn’t presented as a killer because he was gay, and that’s progress.