Sometime around the third weekend in June there will be celebrations and parades in most major cities across North America. Gay Pride Day has become something of an accepted holiday in most cosmopolitan centres and some of the parades associated with it have become something of a tourist attraction. Flamboyant and sometime outrageous, while primarily a celebration, they are also a defiant reminder to the rest of the world that the people of that community are alive and well, and here to stay.
Seeing these parades, and the recent spate of "queer" television shows, it's probably difficult to imagine that only forty years ago homosexuality was illegal in most places and that statutes like New York State's forbidding the serving of liquor to homosexuals existed. But it wasn't until 1968 that then federal Minister of Justice for Canada, Pierre Trudeau, introduced legislation legalizing homosexuality in Canada. His words, "the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation," began the long, slow process of opening the door to equality for gay, lesbian, and transgendered people.
One doesn't need to look any further than the various ballot propositions aimed at stripping away many of those hard earned rights being put forward in the next American election to release how tenuous are any gains gays and lesbians have made. Even in Canada where the courts have recognized same sex marriages as a right, the current government would, if it could, turn back the clock to the days when society and laws forced people to live secret lives and feel shame and guilt because of who they were.
All the more reason than for people who care to take time to remember the bad old days, and those who were the first to stand up and fight for their rights. A great way to do that would be to get your hands on the recently released DVD version of Stonewall from BBC America. Based on the memoirs of gay rights activist Martin Duberman, the movie recreates what it was like to be gay in America in 1969, and the incident that sparked the celebrated Stonewall Riots.
On June 27, 1969 gays in New York City rioted in protest over the police arresting the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar. For the next three nights there were riots as the gay population of the city finally said enough to harassment. The following year between 5,000 and 10,000 people turned up at the Stonewall site to demonstrate for gay rights. While probably few make the connection any more, gay pride parades are held each year to honour those men and women who were brave enough to fight back that summer's night.
Stonewall the movie is less about the actual riot and more about the reality of being gay in 1969. Young Matty arrives in New York City from some small town in middle America hoping that life will be different in the big city. Unfortunately he finds out things are just as bad here as anywhere else. He ends up being thrown in jail on his first night in town when he comes to the defence of a drag queen, La Miranda, when the police begin to harass her. They eventually become lovers, but not all is smooth sailing. Matty becomes involved with an early gay rights group who are very conservative, and in spite of himself he ends up becoming embarrassed by his association with a drag queen.
At the same time he finds the compromises made by the "straight" gays he meets through the civil rights group to be hypocritical and demeaning. Their willingness to publicly call homosexuality an illness in order to soften people's opinions, and the measures they take to protect themselves from prosecution – no facing each other when dancing in public, or covering your swim suit with a towel when sitting on a beach – don't sit well with him. He wants to be open about his homosexuality and force people to accept him for what he is.
What I found especially admirable about Stonewall is that while we are meant to be sympathetic to Matty's opinion and toward the drag queens, it doesn't denigrate the early gay rights activists, either. While the idea of imposing a dress code for a demonstration might seem ridiculous to us, and to Matty, one needs to consider the times and the circumstances before judging these people. At one point Matty takes a couple of them to the Stonewall tavern, and one of the drag queens invites the leader of the group to dance. While dancing he says rather sadly that it is the first time that he has ever danced with a man – he's been so busy fighting for the right to dance that he's never had the opportunity to do so himself.
Interspersed throughout the movie are drag queen routines performed by La Miranda and a couple of her friends. They lip sync to music from the time that accentuates the story line just like the musical numbers in any movie musical. While normally I find that sort of thing boring and intrusive – the cast all of a sudden bursting into song and dancing up a storm – the fact that they have deliberately made the musical numbers separate from the main story makes them much more effective. They act more like the chorus in classical Greek theatre commenting on the events depicted, instead of trying to get the audience to accept them as an integrated part of the story line.
While the acting in Stonewall is universally solid, special mention has to go to Guillermo Diaz for his performance as La Miranda. He manages to capture the fragility that lies behind the tough as nails exterior without being sentimental. Even more important is the fact that he makes her a complete person, not just some novelty item for us to laugh at. There is a bravery about her that makes her admirable, and a vulnerability that makes her sympathetic. The scene when she goes to her draft board after receiving her induction notice is probably worth the purchase price of the DVD alone.
Stonewall is a wonderful movie about a group of people struggling with the fact that the majority of society finds them reprehensible and abhorrent. The filmmakers, including director Nigel Finch, have done a wonderful job in recreating a time and a place with sensitivity and intelligence. This a timely reminder on the price that people paid for the rights that many are enjoying today; rights that should not be taken for granted by anyone.
You can purchase a copy of Stonewall directly from the BBC America Shop website, or any other online retailer.