Gay Liberation, Gay Cinema

Recently I watched four documentaries that are crucial reminders of the historic role of the gay liberation movement that is being celebrated this month both through Gay Pride demonstrations as well as events commemorating the Stonewall rebellion that took place in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969.

Opening on June 21 at the Quad Cinema in New York and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles a week later is “Before Stonewall”, a restored version of Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg’s classic 1984 film produced by John Scagliotti, that I saw when it first came out. It is being distributed by First Run Features that is also making Scagliotti’s prequel 2017 “Before Homosexuals” available as VOD on June 11 (iTunes, Amazon, et al). Since I decided to take in all of the Stonewall documentaries with Scagliotti’s imprint as part of this survey, I also watched his 1999 “After Stonewall” on Amazon (also available on iTunes). As a trilogy, the films are not only key to understanding the movement in its totality but stirring drama with memorable heroes and heroines.

Speaking for myself and probably most leftists, before seeing “Before Stonewall”, I had no knowledge of Frank Kameny, a gay man who can be described as the movement’s Rosa Parks. Kameny is also one of the main subjects of “The Lavender Scare” that opens today at the Cinema Village in New York and at the Laemmle in LA. “The Lavender Scare” tells the story of the thousands of gay people who were fired from government jobs in the 1950s, just as CP members were. Indeed, the film’s title rightfully alludes to the Red Scare of the time that was driven by the same reactionary drive to put all traces of the New Deal into the trash bin of history.

As the film points out, the Roosevelt administration was just as open to gay people as it was to CP’ers. Or perhaps, it was just an example of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”. In any case, the rightwing was too weak at the time to be wreaking the kind of havoc it is wreaking today. Just this week, the mayor of a small town in Alabama called for genocide against LGBT people. Given the mass killings of Black people, Jews, and Muslims since Trump took power, such threats are worth taking seriously.

Drawing from an astonishingly frank selection of homoerotic silent films and photographs, “Before Stonewall” makes it clear that the gay liberation movement was gestating long before the 1960s. Ironically, it was WWII that opened the door for same-sex relationships that were the unintended consequence of young men and women sharing close quarters on military bases. We hear from Nell Phelps, a WAC enlistee who states that she convinced Eisenhower not to discharge lesbians unless he wanted to see 95 percent of his critically needed support staff to disappear, as well as herself.

Despite this, Eisenhower was responsible for signing an order that made homosexuality incompatible with serving in a government job just as Truman did with the Communist Party through the 1947 Loyalty Oath. The McCarthy era was an attempt to put a strait-jacket on American society that had become relatively open between the 1920s through the late 40s.

The first attempt to challenge such sexual repression came from Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society he founded in 1950. Hay was well-equipped to fight for civil rights as a Communist Party veteran. Given the fascist-like crackdown of the period, it was almost inevitable that the Mattachine Society would rely on cautious tactics.

In keeping with the gay movement’s tight integration with the ebbs and flows of American history, it was inevitable that the gay liberation movement would emerge out of the 1960s radicalization that to a large extent was cross-fertilized by the counter-culture. “Before Stonewall” makes clear that the sexual openness of young people 50 years ago naturally led to a willingness to come out of the closet—despite the homophobia of SDS and Black Panther leaders. It was common knowledge among early 60s hipsters like me that Jack Kerouac was bisexual and that Allen Ginsberg was gay. Although homosexuality was a taboo when I was in high school, I was not put off by the homoerotic passages in William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch” or lines like this from “Howl”:

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

“Before Stonewall” has footage of the vice raids that were common in the 1950s, with paddy wagons pulling up in front of gay bars and dragging men off to jail, often resulting in their names being published in a newspaper on the next day.

On June 28, 1969, all that came to an end as gay men and lesbians rioted for several days against a raid on the Stonewall bar on Christopher Street. At that point, young gays were infused with the spirit of defiance that could be seen almost nightly in TV coverage of antiwar protests or Black Panther rallies. America was confronted by a gay liberation movement that continues undaunted to this day. Indeed, you might even consider Chelsea Manning’s courage as a whistle-blower and as a transgender person to be part of the same intertwined challenge to a dying imperialist system.

John Scagliotti was part of the generation that I belonged to. His first political act was joining the antiwar movement as an undergraduate. The next step was a career in radio, TV and film as an advocate of gay liberation. He was the News and Public Affairs Director of WBCN-FM in Boston, a station I used to listen to religiously when I lived there in the 70s. He went on to create “In the Life” for PBS, a show that was devoted to gay and lesbian concerns and a very good one at that. He was also the partner of Andrew Kopkind for 25 years until Kopkind died of cancer in 1994. Like Kopkind and Allen Young, another gay liberation pioneer whose autobiography I reviewed for CounterPunch, Scagliotti’s views were shaped by the 1960s radicalization. Like many of us who never grew accommodated to the brutality and injustice of American society, he continued to speak out.

Such continuing advocacy was expressed in his 1999 “After Stonewall” that covered the ongoing struggles of gay people for acceptance into American society. It is one of the ironies of the gay movement that despite the “outlaw” stance of the 1960s, the right to be married became an important demand. Like the right to serve in the military, this was seen by ultraleftists as selling out. But understood dialectically, this insistence on being accepted into “normal” society is part and parcel of the fight for equal rights just as much as Black soldiers demanding the right to serve in capacities other than servants to the military brass in the .

Scagliotti also covers the AIDS epidemic and government indifference or hostility that triggered the rise of Act Up. Just as the Mattachine Society was a response to McCarthyism, the young activists who raised hell in Catholic churches or in front of the White House were responding to Ronald Reagan who had the same kind of agenda, turning the clock back to Grover Cleveland.

The film puts the assassination of Harvey Milk into this political context. With San Francisco serving as a poster child of all the ultraright hated, Milk’s murder was intended to intimidate gay people running for office. This attempt had little effect on the growing political power of gay people in electoral politics even if the candidacy of Pete Guttigieg is in many ways a retreat from the radicalization that is in its infancy now. Whatever advances his candidacy represents in terms of the social acceptance of gay people, it is offset by far with his Obama-style centrism, especially his finding clemency for Chelsea Manning “troublesome”.

Rounding out the Scagliotti corpus is “Before Homosexuals”, a mind-expanding history of same-sexers that spans continents and millennia to answer why they have been persecuted or accepted historically.

With respect to that part of the world ruled by the Judeo-Christian sky religions, the film argues that despite the ban on same-sexers there is a strong suggestion that the Old Testament’s David and Jonathan were lovers, something that might have inspired Michaelangelo to create his masterpiece sculpture of David, with its unabashed full frontal nudity. After Jonathan dies, David is said to have lamented his passing with “Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women.”

There was little ambiguity in the Christian era with Paul stating in Romans 1: “Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity.”

Prior to the Christian era and particularly in Asia, there were no such taboos. Scagliotti, who serves as narrator and wandering researcher in “Before Homosexuals”, refers us to a steady stream of art showing ancient Greeks, Romans, Indians, Chinese, and Japanese men and women having intimate relations that could have landed you in prison or worse elsewhere.

One of the more well-known victims of Christian and capitalist morality was Oscar Wilde whose victimization is reviewed in some detail in the film. Like Alan Turing, he was one of the men who was served up ritually in the British courts to keep same-sexers in line. Hearing Wilde’s bitterly ironic reactions to his ordeal remind me to find time to read Wilde, who like Chelsea Manning defied political as well as sexual repression. Departing from the stale rhetoric of the left, he begins his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” with this keen observation: “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely any one at all escapes.” Amen.

Turning to “The Lavender Scare”, we meet some of the same figures who are featured in “Before Stonewall”. Among them is Frank Kameny, who, while probably well-known to gay activists, deserves much greater recognition from the left in general. Like Rosa Parks, he was someone who stood up to the ruling prejudices of the age. In 1955, she refused to move to the back of the bus. Just three years later, when his superiors at the United States Army Map Service grilled him on his sexual orientation, he told them it was none of their damned business.

Kameny had earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in astronomy and was well-qualified for the job. In the purge of thousands of employees from the State Department and other elite agencies, the excuse for their firing was to protect American security as if getting caught in bed with someone of the same sex could lead to Soviet kompromat.

After being fired, he fought tooth and nail to get his job back since his main interest at the outset was in protecting his rights, not leading a movement. Over time, he understood that “an injury to one is an injury to all”, as the IWW put it. He began fighting for the right of all gay people to be employed without respect to what they did in their bedrooms. His first step was to join the Mattachine Society, whose timidity was at odds with his increasing militancy. Despite the temperamental and political disconnect, this was the only way for him to work with a broader movement at the time.

Even with his lofty academic credentials, he never held a regular job for the rest of his life and was supported by friends and family. Among his chief accomplishments was pressuring the American Psychiatric Association to discontinue treating homosexuality as a mental illness.

Among the people who Kameny defended from being fired was an NSA employee named Jamie Shoemaker whose linguistic skills were much in demand. As part of the younger generation of gay men, Shoemaker insisted on his right to employment. Once his fight was won, the NSA no longer got involved in witch-hunting gays. (For ultraleftists, it is worth pointing out that allowing such men and women from a victimizing agency to be victimized increases the odds of others to suffer the same fate—speaking dialectically.)

When I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, I soon learned that gays were banned in this revolutionary organization as well. We were told that if they were arrested, there was the possibility that they might be pressured into becoming FBI snitches. We got the same reason for banning drug usage. To some extent, the ban on drugs made sense since in Texas, for example, activists might face years in prison if they got caught with a small amount of marijuana.

After Stonewall, the party began to respond to reality and dropped the ban on homosexuality (but never on drugs). Soon afterward, it carried out an infelicitously named “gay probe” to ascertain whether it should assign forces to work in the gay liberation movement.

It ultimately decided against this since the gay movement did not have the rock-ribbed proletarian composition of the trade union, Black liberation or Woman’s liberation movement as if window dressers or florists demanding the right not to be beaten up or even killed was “petty bourgeois”. It went so far as to take the position that the slogan “Gay is Good” was unscientific since it could not be established.

While the SWP represented an extreme form of “workerism” that made class composition a litmus test, I cannot help but point out that much of the fretting over “identity” issues on the left today strikes me as having the same sectarian dynamic. If there is any movement today that falls into such a category it is the one featured in the documentaries discussed above. Gay people, especially those who are transgender, do not fit neatly into the “point of production”, plant-gate schemas of the Leninist sects of the 1960s and 70s who defined the struggle over job security and safety as one that could unite the entire working class rather than “particularistic” identity issues.

However, if you look at the most “Leninist” book of them all—V.I. Lenin’s “What is to be Done—you will see some penetrating observations on the plant-gate, point of production mentality. He writes:

Social-Democracy represents the working class, not in its relation to a given group of employers alone, but in its relation to all classes of modern society and to the state as an organised political force. Hence, it follows that not only must Social-Democrats not confine themselves exclusively to the economic struggle, but that they must not allow the organisation of economic exposures to become the predominant part of their activities. We must take up actively the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness.

So what kind of political education does this mean in practice? Lenin follows up:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

Intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life. That is exactly what is called for today in a struggle against a government that does not make a distinction between cultural issues and economic justice. In fact, the exploitation of cultural issues is intended to divide the working class and make it weaker. Those who trivialize the right of transgender people as peripheral do not understand this, least of all the sect that I belonged to in a previous lifetime. Referring to bathroom usage, the Militant newspaper sounded as if it was making a Tucker Carlson appearance: “The attempt to force schools to follow these guidelines also ignores the right to privacy, especially of women who wish to change clothes or use bathroom facilities without the presence of males.”

Although “Before Homosexuals” was made years before transgender rights became a burning issue, one hopes that John Scagliotti can make another film that will take such research into consideration. Ancient Rome, for example, had multi-seat bathrooms, where people sat side by side on benches, without partitions, to do their business. Maybe someday society will figure out that segregating bathrooms by sex makes about as much sense as segregating them by race. In an interview with The New Yorker, York University professor Sheila Cavanagh, the author of “Queering Bathrooms: Gender, Sexuality, and the Hygienic Imagination,” concluded with this fascinating point:

I suspect that bathrooms in the West will always be changing and adapting to our ideas about bodies. I don’t think we’ll ever settle on a “perfect” bathroom. Personally, though, I love bathrooms that play gently and creatively with gender in ways that prompt us to think outside narrow and prescriptive gender dichotomies. In Montreal, there’s a place called the Whisky Café which has, in the “women’s room,” a standing female urinal. On the wall beside the urinal there are instructions for use. The invitation to stand can be liberating.


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.