The Lavender Scare


Before the rainbow.

(2017) Documentary (Full Exposure) Frank Kameny Glenn Close (narrator), Zachary Quinto, David Hyde Pierce, T.R. Knight, Cynthia Nixon, David K. Johnson, John D’Emilio, Lillian Federman, John W. Hanes, Carl Rizzi, Peter Szluk, Jen Totka, Vince Ferrence, Rev. Bruce Forbes, Joan Cassidy. Directed by Josh Howard

Most of us are aware of the strides that the LGBTQ community have made in recent years in asserting their rights and gaining mainstream acceptance. To truly appreciate how far they’ve come, however, it is important to note where they came from.

During the so-called “Red Scare” during the late Forties and Fifties, Americans became convinced that every echelon of our society had been infiltrated by communists and that our way of life was under immediate threat. That belief was amplified when the Russians detonated their own atom bomb in 1949, much sooner than most experts thought they should be able to. It was (correctly, as it turned out) assumed that the Russians had gotten help – from spies or traitors smuggling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

This gave rise to one of the most shameful periods in our history, when constitutional rights were routinely violated in the name of national security, when scum like Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn both rose to power. Most remember how the McCarthy hearings went after communists in Hollywood as well as in government service. Few remember what happened to the gay community.

President Eisenhower, in one of his first acts after taking office, signed an executive order banning homosexuals from working for the government. The thinking went that those with socially unacceptable sexual preferences were vulnerable to blackmail (although there is no evidence that this ever occurred in America). This led to investigations of people who would be accused of being gay or lesbian.

During the Thirties and Forties, many gay men and lesbians came to Washington to get government jobs which were plentiful. There was tolerance for their lifestyle and there were plenty of bars that catered to that clientele. They were cautiously uncloseted but this very freedom would be worked savagely against them as regular attendance at a gay bar would be enough to get you fired; most went quietly, not wanting to let their secret get out. Most were aware that they would have a hard time getting employment for the rest of their lives.

People would be brought into a room by a pair of federal ages without any legal representation. Their accusers would never be identified; they would be badgered and humiliated, and left little choice but to resign otherwise their secret would come out. Most went meekly into the night.

Not Dr. Franklin Kameny, though. An astronomer for the Army Map-making Corps, he was unceremoniously fired from the job he loved. Not about to take this lying down, he became an activist fighting for the rights of homosexuals; his chapter of the Mattachine Society (an early gay rights organization) was the most in-your-face chapter of the society, with Kameny organizing picketing, demonstrations and marches. In 1963, he became the first openly gay man to testify before Congress and he brought lawsuit after lawsuit trying to overturn the unjust laws which he was remarkably unsuccessful at, although nobody could doubt his intelligence and bulldog tenacity. However, Eisenhower’s executive orders banning gays from government jobs were  finally overturned by President Clinton in 1995.

Director Josh Howard seems to subscribe to the Ken Burns school of documentary filmmaking, using actors (including Hyde Pierce as a young Frank Kameny) reading letters and journal entries of those affected by the persecution of that era, supplemented by interviews with historians as well as those who still survive from that era. There’s also a lot of archival footage, both of pre-Stonewall gay life and anti-Gay propaganda pieces popularizing the myth that gay men are child molesters. The narration of Glenn Close brings everything together nicely, offering up context.

Some of the interviews are heartbreaking, such as Joan Cassidy who aspired to be the first female admiral in the United States Navy but who didn’t dare look for advancement lest her sexuality be discovered. Some are hilarious such as postal employee Carl Rizzi offering smarmy federal agents a better picture of himself in drag for their files. Some are reprehensible, such as the audio interview with investigator Peter Szluk who takes great delight in his accomplishment of ruining lives.

If there is anything that the film gets wrong is that it tends to be repetitive, making a lot of the same points over and over again despite a fairly short 1 hour and 14 minute length. That’s okay to a degree but repetition gets amplified the shorter a film is.

Kameny, who is interviewed here late in life, didn’t live to see the Defense of Marriage Act overturned in 2013 (he died in 2011) but chances are he would have growled “We still have a long way to go” before tilting at another windmill and he’s absolutely correct on that account. Gay rights remain very tenuous and fragile; already there is legislation that seeks to undo all that is done, particularly in red states. There is still plenty of anti-gay behavior out there and the struggle to end repression for our gay brothers and sisters is ongoing. It behooves us to take heart however, in that the cause has come a long way. The efforts of men like Frank Kameny are important to note, if just to remind us that we need more people like him in our society even now.

REASONS TO SEE: The celebration of a largely forgotten but important figure in early gay activism. Lots of nifty archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Despite the compact length the film is repetitious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as sell as adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was based on and inspired by the book of the same name by historian David K. Johnson
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Stonewall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Oceans 8

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Stonewall (2015)


Just another summer night on Christopher Street.

Just another summer night on Christopher Street.

(2015) True Life Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Ron Perlman, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Caleb Landry Jones, Matt Craven, Joey King, Karl Glusman, David Cubitt, Andrea Frankle, Atticus Dean Mitchell, Richard Jutras, Otoja Abit, Rohan Mead, Ben Sullivan, Johnny Falcone, Vladimir Alexis, Kwasi Songui, Alan C. Peterson, Veronika Vernadskaya. Directed by Roland Emmerich

For the LBGT community, the Stonewall Riots of 1969 that took place following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn (a bar that catered to gay men and lesbians in an era when it was illegal to serve liquor to a homosexual) are a watershed moment, an event around which prompted real organization of gay rights activists.

In the late 1960s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and was treated with electroshock therapy among other barbaric treatments. Gays were forbidden from working for the government, couldn’t get bank loans and were the targets of vicious beatings – often from the police.

Danny (Irvine), a young gay man from Indiana who has been kicked out of the house by his homophobic father (Cubitt) who also happens to be the high school football coach, has gone to New York City where he has a scholarship to Columbia University – if he can get his high school diploma and get his paperwork sent to the University. Dear old dad has no intention of helping his son, but his cowed mother (Frankle) is sympathetic and his little sister Phoebe (King) absolutely adores him and is very angry at her parents for the way they’ve treated their son.

Danny, having little money and nowhere to go, falls in with a group of gay street kids led by Ramon (Beauchamp), a hustler who turns tricks with middle class men who are firmly closeted, have wives and careers and occasionally beat the snot out of him. Ramon takes him in and fellow street kids Silent Paul (Sullivan), a Beatlephile, Orphan Annie (Jones) and Cong (Alexis) who is the most flamboyant of the bunch. He also attracts the eye of Trevor (Meyers), an activist who works for the early gay rights group the Mattachine Society. They believe in peaceful protest and non-violence while most of the street kids know that they will never get the attention of the straight society that way.

Most of them gather at the Stonewall Inn, a bar that is owned by the Mafia and managed by Ed Murphy (Perlman) who disdains the gay clientele but allows them to do pretty much what they want (the Mafia used the bar to blackmail wealthier gay clientele and made more money that way than from liquor but that’s not discussed in the film). Danny is a bit out of his element but soon grows to appreciate the more outgoing of his crew but there is tension between Ramon, who has fallen deeply in love with Danny, and Trevor to whom Danny is more attracted to.

Danny’s heart, however, belongs to Matt (Mitchell), the football player whom Danny was having furtive gay sex with and who threw Danny under the bus when they were discovered, prompting his ejection from school and home. Danny endures beatings from the cops and growing tensions between the now very jealous Ramon and Trevor, who may or may not be using Danny for his own devices, but those tensions are nothing compared to what was going on in the community and they would come to a head on a hot summer night in June 1969 when Detective Seymour Pine (Craven) made an ill-advised raid on the Stonewall.

Few people in the heterosexual community are all that aware of the Riots and their significance and the movie is the perfect opportunity to educate and inform. Unfortunately Emmerich, who is mostly known for his big sci-fi epics like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow decided to make a fictional account, using fictional characters mixed in with a few real ones like Pine and Marsha P. Johnson (Abit). Considering that there are plenty of those who were actual participants and observers who had some compelling stories to tell about the riots, it seems a bit of a waste.

&I had wondered why Emmerich didn’t use actual footage from the riots instead of recreated footage disguised as newsreels until I discovered that no footage exists of the riots and precious few photographs. I guess it’s hard for people of this modern society in which everything is documented to understand that news was covered by newspaper writers and photographers for the most part and to a lesser extent, television cameras and it was editors for newspapers and TV who determined what got covered and back then, a riot of gay people would tend to be given less attention (although it was front page news).

Beauchamp does a great job as Ramon/Ramona who wears his heart on his sleeve. There’s a heartbreaking moment after a client has badly beaten him where he confesses to Danny that this life is all he can hope for and that he expects that there will never be anything better for him. It’s a compelling performance and Beauchamp has a good shot at some better roles.

There is a lot of sexuality in this movie – a LOT – and the sex scenes are handled pretty much the same way you would see heterosexual sex scenes in a mainstream movie; kudos to Emmerich for treating the two equally. Of course, conservative Christians will likely lose their shit over it much as they did for Brokeback Mountain but that’s assuming that the movie makes any sort of cultural headway, which is not necessarily going to happen.

Considering that this is a movie about such a significant event in the gay community, the filmmakers including writer Jon Robin Baitz, a respected playwright, seem to promote gay stereotypes almost to absurd heights. Yes, there were plenty of drag queens back then and there were those who were lisping, mincing fairies who gave birth to the stereotype, but we get little sense of who these people are other than those stereotypes. Also, using the very uptight, whitebread Danny as more or less your audience surrogate is almost insulting and watching him go from zero to radical in the space of about 30 seconds is downright jarring and outright unbelievable. If you’re going to pander to stereotypes, may as well go all the way with it.

I’m really overrating this movie to a large degree because I think that the story is an important one. There is certainly a great movie to be made about the Riots but this isn’t it. It’s a squandered opportunity but I’m still recommending it because at least you get the sense of how oppressed the gay community was back then and how far they have come since. That much is worth the price of admission alone.

REASONS TO GO: A story that needs to be told. Some good performances, particularly from Beauchamp. Sex scenes handled with sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: Going fictional was a tactical error. Plays up gay stereotypes.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sex and sexual content, some drug use, plenty of foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The riots took place on June 28, 1969 and lasted several nights instead of just the one indicated by the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 9% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Selma
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Black Mass

Before You Know It


Ty at the crossroads of his life.

Ty at the crossroads of his life.

(2013) Documentary (Unraveled) Robert “The Mouth,” Ty, Dennis. Directed by PJ Raval

Florida Film Festival 2014

Prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York, there was no Gay Liberation. Gay men were marginalized as freaks and sissies and were subject to harassment, bullying and arrest without cause. The courts treated gay men – and women – with contempt.

Fast-forward forty-plus years. The men of that era are senior citizens now. The world is changing around them, much of it due to the hard work and organizing of their generation. Some of them had a hand in those changes themselves.

Ty, for example, remains an activist with SAGE, a group that creates a space where the elderly gay can gather, socialize and let off steam in a safe environment. He is based in Harlem, which as he notes has no gay bars. New York is on the cusp of legalizing gay marriage and they are heady times in the Empire State. At a local street fair celebrating the African-American experience, SAGE sets up a booth. Ty is a bit worried how the straight black citizens will react but as it turns out they are much more accepting than he expects.

Ty, like his peers, is overjoyed when the state ratifies same sex marriages but that leads to a different sort of situation. His partner, Stanton, is not so sure he wants to get married. Both Ty and Stanton are getting on in age and Stanton thinks that a wedding at their age would be superfluous, a point of view that Ty doesn’t agree with at all. However, Stanton seems to be open to keeping the lines of communication on the subject open.

Dennis splits his time between Niceville, Florida and Portland, Oregon in a retirement home geared towards gay and lesbian residents. His family in Florida isn’t aware of his sexual orientation; he was married for many years to a woman who was aware that Dennis liked (and continues to like) to dress up in women’s clothing. When he’s in full drag he calls himself Dee and reminded me a little too uncomfortably much of my mother-in-law, facially.

It wasn’t until after his wife passed away that Dennis finally felt free to explore his sexuality as a gay man and it seems like he is being pulled slowly out of his shell by the open and accepting population of Rainbow Ridge, the retirement home in Portland. He signs up for a gay cruise and even marches in a gay pride parade in Portland. Feeling neglected and forgotten by his family in Florida, he seems ready to sever ties and take up full-time residence with his new family in Portland.

Robert “the Mouth” has known he was gay from an early age. He is the owner of Robert’s Lafitte bar in Galveston which has become something of a home for the drag queens and gay men of the area. His nephew helps Robert run the bar although Robert still continues to perform occasionally in the drag show that the bar continues to present regularly.

Robert’s health is failing, due in large part to a lawsuit being brought against the bar because a patron of the bar drove home drunk and got into an accident, killing the members of the family bringing the suit against the bar. While there is some evidence that the patron in question may have stopped at another bar to drink further, Robert’s nephew is fully aware that if they lose the suit, the bar will have to close, leaving a lot of locals without a home.

The stories are blended together nicely without giving any one of the three short shrift. All three of the stories are compelling but none more than that of Robert. He is as lively and outrageous a queen as you’re likely to meet but despite the acerbic comments and insults he dishes out with great glee, there’s a big heart there. He has a big personality and a big wit. He’s the kind of guy you want at every party.

Ty is more the grandfatherly sort, a man who wears his wisdom on his sleeve. He’s not really the flamboyant sort but he is passionate about his cause and works very hard to make the world a better place – at least his corner of it – for the gay men and women of his community. I admire him tremendously after seeing his story here.

I was struck by Dennis’ loneliness. He seems to be a man who has been in a cocoon for most of his life and is just beginning to peer out and realize that he’s a butterfly, but there’s a shyness to him that’s endearing and a little sad. There are times he seems to be waiting for something to happen for him; I hope that he gets the self-confidence to make something happen.

I wish that Raval had been a bit more judicious in the editing bay. He spends too long on the three Gay Pride parades that he covers (well, one’s a Mardi Gras parade but still) and he tends to linger on certain scenes a little more than he needs to.

Still, the stories are compelling enough to be worth a look. Each one brought out a different emotion in me; joy in the case of Robert “The Mouth” (a cultural icon waiting to happen if ever I saw one), sympathy in the case of Dennis/Dee and respect and admiration in the case of Ty. These are three men who I wouldn’t mind spending time with, gay or straight. At a certain point, sexual orientation doesn’t matter because in the end that’s just a label – it’s the person behind the label that does.

While the movie is still playing the Festival circuit, for those who are unable to attend a screening it is available on DVD from the film’s website which you can get to by clicking on the picture at the top of the review.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating stories. Robert “The Mouth” bound to become a cultural icon if this gets any sort of distribution.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some nudity and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: And the Band Played On

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Ernest and Celestine