Sunday, June 28, 2015

Film review: "Stonewall Uprising"

Friday's Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges ruling state marriage laws cannot discriminate against same-sex couples added a special poignancy to today's screening of "Stonewall Uprising" in the Whipple Auditorium of the Cedar Rapids Public Library. The film, first aired as part of the PBS series American Experience in 2011, portrays the pivotal events at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that began 46 years ago today.

The filmmakers do their best with a paucity of archival material. Stonewall was by all accounts unplanned, and its significance appeared only in retrospect. (In 2015 The events were downplayed in New York City media at the time, and hardly reached news elsewhere. I was a young news junkie in 1969, but never heard of Stonewall until years later. I also didn't know that I was, according to the film, living in the only state in the Union (Illinois) that did not criminalize gay sex.) It is now clear that the road to Obergefell, not to mention ending the exclusion of gays from military service, began at a dive in New York's Greenwich Village.

The first two-thirds of the 82-minute documentary is spent establishing the context. It is important to remember, in these heady days for gay rights, that not too long ago the environment was very, very different. A variety of first-person recollections, mostly from gays and lesbians but including one government official (Ed Koch) and one police officer, vividly paint this picture. Homosexuality was considered an acquired preference, a mental illness and a menace to society; the choices for gays were limited to learning to act "normal," being tortured by medical "remedies," or meeting furtively in dangerous places. Exclusion from society is not only psychically damaging, it can be physically dangerous.

The last half hour discusses the events themselves, and their aftermath. Police had stepped up raids and other enforcement mechanisms, because--well, because there was a mayoral election campaign, and the incumbent administration was looking to score political points. (The film does not neglect the awful and terrifying position in which the police found themselves, and really, I think someone could do a documentary on how police officers get stuck being the enforcers of bad public policy.) The main theme, though, is that after years of being pushed around and chased and beaten up, something snapped among the gays in the bar and eventually in the surrounding neighborhood, leading to several days of clashes and vandalism.

Finally, the film makes the case for the pivotal importance of Stonewall. Between the protests, and the city's first gay pride parade exactly one year later, there was a flurry of organization that built upon the shared outrage they had discovered in June 1969. They leave off at the parade in 1970, but the arc that led to wholesale change in American public opinion and law is clearly implied. Divisiveness can stoke political passions, and may continue to do so for a long time (see Hudak, cited below); this tide that turned in 1969 appears unlikely to recede.

By 2015 it seems obvious, or should, that wherever possible inclusion is better than exclusion: it makes communities stronger, it allows us to put our energies into building things other than walls, it is consistent with the American constitutional value of individual rights--and for what it's worth, the Christian gospel as well--and it allows gays and lesbians (or whoever we're talking about) to live within the constructs of society. We progress toward this goal, but sometimes we get sanguine and then we forget. Films like "Stonewall Uprising" help us remember where we've been, where we're going, and why we're going there.


Robert Barnes, "Supreme Court Rules Gay Couples Nationwide Have a Right to Marry," Washington Post, 26 June 2015

Harry Enten, "The GOP May Regret Its Lasting Battle Against Gay Marriage," FiveThirtyEight, 30 June 2015

John Hudak, "On Obamacare & Same Sex Marriage, the GOP Wins Big," FixGov, Brookings Institution, 26 June 2015

David Ignatius, "Resisting the Gay Marriage Ruling Would Be a Losing Battle for the GOP," Washington Post, 1 July 2015

Jacob Lupfer, "Tears of Joy, Tears of Sorrow, and Little Empathetic Listening," Century Blog, 30 June 2015

"Stonewall Uprising," American Experience, Public Broadcasting System (2011)

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