Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Stonewall Uprising: Kate Davis and David Heilbroner

Written by Marni Grossman
           
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There's only one known photograph from the first night of the Stonewall riots. In his Village Voice article writer Lucian Truscott IV described those pictured as limp-wristed queens; the "forces of faggotry." But when you look closely, you see that they were just boys. Helplessly, hopelessly young. Boys you might sit next to in trigonometry. Boys you might fall in love with.

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There's only one known photograph from the first night of the Stonewall riots. In his Village Voice article writer Lucian Truscott IV described those pictured as limp-wristed queens; the "forces of faggotry." But when you look closely, you see that they were just boys. Helplessly, hopelessly young. Boys you might sit next to in trigonometry. Boys you might fall in love with.

"America thought we were these homosexual monsters," one interviewee explains, "but we were so innocent and, oddly enough, so American." It's the latter point that's driven home in Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner's documentary. With the film, the directors position Stonewall squarely in the American Civil Rights tradition. Like the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique or the Woolworth's sit-ins in Greensboro, Stonewall was a watershed moment. The birth of a movement.

But then, you already knew that.

And therein lies the problem with Stonewall Uprising. While compelling, the film doesn't provide much information that couldn't be found on Wikipedia. Moreover, there's a stunning lack of diversity. Most of the interview subjects are white (and male). There's no discussion of the differing experiences of lesbians or of gay men of color. And given that the Stonewall Inn catered to a varied crowd of drag queens and street kids and hustlers, the homogeneity of the voices assembled seems a glaring oversight.

Stonewall Uprising is slick and accomplished, but it feels less like a feature than something you might see on the History Channel. As I watched the film, I found myself scribbling, "Heartbreaking, but not groundbreaking," in my notepad.
 
The actual account of the riots is short; at most, half of the film. Surprisingly enough, it's the least interesting part of the documentary. Where Stonewall Uprising succeeds is in evoking the choking hostility of the pre-Stonewall world and painting a picture of how far we've really come. "People talk about being in and out now," author Eric Marcus remarks in the film, "but [before Stonewall] there was no out, just in."

And no wonder. As the film demonstrates, being openly gay in the '50s and '60s was dangerous. Not merely psychically, but also—at times—physically. Gay men and lesbians were considered sick, deviant, and immoral. Being gay could land you in a mental hospital where you might be subjected to shock treatments or even a lobotomy. Homosexuality was illegal in every state but one. As one man notes, "We could easily be hunted. It was a game."

Davis and Heilbroner include some fantastic archival footage, including an anti-gay PSA in which a deep voice intones, "Do you want your son enticed into the world of homosexuals? Do you want your daughter lured into lesbianism?" This sort of thing strikes a modern audience as irrepressibly campy. Ridiculous. But in mid-twentieth century America, it was just par for the course. That the treatment of homosexuality depicted in the film is shocking to us is a nice reminder of how much the world has changed in the past forty years.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2003, the US Supreme Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional.

In many ways, justice often seems a long time in coming. But with gay pride parades in most major cities, queer theory on college syllabi, and Ellen DeGeneres on American Idol, it's clear that the proverbial closet door's been flung wide open. The boys at Stonewall are now men deep into middle age. The Stonewall Inn is now a National Historic Landmark. Years go by and the earth tilts on its axis. We're not free yet, but we're getting there.

Note: Kate Davis is also the director of Southern Comfort, a look at the lives of several Southern trans men and women. Transgender rights are, I think, the next front in the battle for social justice. Southern Comfort is a terrific documentary, well worth a look.

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