Film highlights LA's overlooked LGBT history
by Matthew S. Bajko
Each year LGBT people the world over celebrate the anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City. The June 28, 1969 spontaneous protest against police harassment of LGBT bar patrons is roundly credited with sparking the modern gay rights movement.
The Greenwich Village protests did give birth to San Francisco's annual Pride Parade 40 years ago. They also gave rise to Los Angeles' four-decade-old Pride festival, whose nonprofit parent is named Christopher Street West Association Inc. after the Manhattan street the Stonewall bar calls home.
Yet, like their counterparts in the city by the bay, whose LGBT citizens had begun protesting police harassment and taking on political campaigns early in the 1960s, gay Los Angelenos had also begun standing up for their rights at the start of the turbulent Sixties decade.
Only now, though, is that history reaching a larger audience outside the Los Angeles area. Following on the success of Lillian Faderman's and Stuart Timmons's 2006 nonfiction book Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians comes a new documentary by California oral historian Glenne McElhinney that is bringing this largely overlooked chapter in the gay rights movement to the big screen.
Called On These Shoulders We Stand, McElhinney's 75-minute movie showcases the lives of 11 LGBT LA elders who had a hand in shaping the fate of the local LGBT movement.
"I was always a little bit insulted we were overlooked when we were busy long before Stonewall," said Donald "Don" Norman, one of the people profiled in the film. "Finally, people are acknowledging that here on the Pacific Coast we were helping out this whole movement. We weren't waiting on our hands waiting for someone to tell us it was okay to be gay. We were busy being gay."
Norman, 74, who is gay and African American, grew up in a segregated Los Angeles. As a young man he began to explore the city's underground gay life. Unlike during the 1950s in San Francisco, where gay bars clustered in North Beach were relatively safe and attracted straight tourists, Norman said Los Angeles gay bars were routinely raided by the police.
"Whereas San Francisco was kind of known as a place you could go to Finnochio's and other places ... there was nothing like that here," said Norman. "We were determined to be gay, I know that."
The other interviewees include Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas; the Reverend Troy Perry, who founded the gay Metropolitan Community Church; and Ivy Bottini, who helped found the first chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1966.
The film project grew out of McElhinney's gay oral history project called Impact Stories. Since 2007 McElhinney, who splits her time between the Bay Area and Los Angeles and Palm Springs, has traveled to senior centers and nursing homes throughout California to record the personal recollections of the Golden State's LGBT seniors.
Having helped start San Francisco's Pride Parade back in the 1970s, McElhinney said she was especially struck by the stories she heard from residents of Triangle Square, an LGBT senior housing complex in Los Angeles, who recounted how difficult it was to be gay in LA back in their youth.
"These Hollywood seniors had these incredible stories," said McElhinney. "It was a real eye opener. I had no idea how difficult it was back then in Los Angeles versus San Francisco."
Initially, McElhinney planned to post vignettes from her interview subjects on YouTube to help educate younger generations of LGBT people what their forebears went through in Los Angeles fighting against a hostile police department, anti-gay city leaders, and homophobic coverage in the L.A. Times. But after showing the material to other historians, she was encouraged to turn the footage into a documentary.
"I emptied my savings account. I emptied my bank account," said McElhinney, who worked with a cinematographer she met on the 2008 AIDS LifeCycle ride. "We put it together in five months."
Clips from the interviews are interspersed between archival news footage and old photographs. It cost more than $300,000 to produce.
"We made it on purpose to connect with audiences to bring forth the importance of LA gay history to the national movement. We also made it to show the importance of our LGBT seniors and their contribution to our social rights movement," said McElhinney. "The film shows that individuals can stand up. You don't have to be a 'gay leader.'"
The film has been traveling the LGBT film festival circuit, premiering at last year's Outfest where it won the LA-based LGBT film festival's Freedom Award. It also won plaudits from the audience at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.
Norman said he is grateful that audiences have embraced the film and hopes LGBT people from outside southern California will watch it and learn about another piece to the LGBT community's collective history.
"Because it pertains to everybody who is gay and lesbian. It pertains to the whole country and how we all had to live through this time when it was so unpleasant to be gay," said Norman. "I think it is important for people to know we were here in LA working just as hard as they were. Everybody put an effort forward; our effort should be acknowledged."
The documentary will screen during this year's Frameline LGBT film festival in San Francisco at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, June 19 at the Roxie Theater on 16th Street.