I moved to Amarillo in the spring of 1997, so I think my first Pride Festival was that summer, maybe the year after, and that my first Pride Film Festival was around 2000 or so. (Bear with me. That was many vodka sodas ago.)
To say that these films were eye-opening would be like saying 2020 is merely a dumpster fire, not a full-blown raging inferno of flaming shit.
By this point, I’d read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City several times and, I think, found a few other gay tomes at the library or Hastings. I had watched several feature films, including some of the big ones from the New Queer Cinema movement, but I don’t remember seeing many documentaries before — certainly none like these two.
Now, they’re not innovative or experimental or revolutionary in any way. They just happened to be the first films that I remember that explored gay history as a serious topic worthy of studying. They featured true icons, folks whose names I already knew even at that point, and just regular folks who, in the first film, talked about how they navigated life in pre-liberation days and, in the second, rejoiced in the everything-is-possible era of the 1970s and fought back against the twin specters of AIDS and the religious right in the 1980s. And I wasn’t just watching them — I was watching them surrounded by my fellow queers and some allies.
And, folks, I bawled. I can remember sitting next to my friend Shanna, both of us fairly newly out and eager to learn, wiping away copious tears and glowing with inspiration.
The first film is a treasure trove of early stories of being “in the life,” to use an old phrase that I think should make a comeback. Or, in the words of Radical Faeries founder Harry Hay, “the world of the demimonde, the world of twilight,” the landscape of “ladies of doubtful virtue, gentlemen of doubtful virtue, all those unsavory characters.” Oooh, delicious.
These folks lived in a time I can barely imagine, but which wasn’t long before I was born. I mean, I came along four years after the Stonewall riots. The interview subjects were in my parents’ or grandparents’ generations, trying to live their lives without fear while being surrounded on all sides by people who hated — I mean, just hated — them just because who they loved.
After Stonewall did more to fill in the blanks of news stories that I absorbed as a kid. I vaguely remember hearing of the Twinkie defense, but After Stonewall was the first place I learned who Harvey Milk was and how monumental he was in American queer history. It expanded greatly on my knowledge of the AIDS epidemic, though I’m sure there weren’t many boys in my small hometown who checked out Ryan White‘s autobiography from our little library.
Watching them again, I’m impressed with the balance of white and black interview subjects. So often, “gay culture” means “cis white gay culture,” but the filmmakers had a nice range of black subjects. I wouldn’t have minded some more Latinx representation, and Asian subjects are almost invisible — though not, sadly, as invisible as trans brothers and sisters. But I don’t doubt that their heart was in the right place.
I love this film for its judgment-free, even sympathetic look back at the bathhouse culture of the ’70s and how it jumps from that to the women’s music festival circuit — showing how both gays and lesbians found ways to celebrate their lives, their loves and, yes, their carnality together with their burgeoning communities.
And, just like the first film, I was bawling, but this time with the hope that, even despite the twin betrayals of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act, we were really advancing. I couldn’t have predicted that gay marriage would be declared a constitutional right — nor that we stand in the middle of another major backlash.
But I take heart in the lessons of these films — that we truly are progressing, despite those momentary setbacks. That I and my chosen family of queers and the millions of us around the world are standing on the shoulders of the brave pioneers featured in these documentaries.
Up next: The Celluloid Closet and Vito