'Gay USA' - Arthur Bressan, Jr.'s films of 1970s Pride parades

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Monday June 24, 2024
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a shot from 'Gay USA'
a shot from 'Gay USA'

In the year following 1969's Stonewall Riot, organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and the Radicalesbians sprung up. They wanted to recall the courageous actions of those bar participants, who stood up against injustice and police harassment, which resulted in a mass political movement. This activism demanded not just societal acceptance and equality, but liberation. with a willingness to tackle oppressive institutions.

To celebrate, encourage, and reinforce this new revolutionary ethos, they commemorated the first anniversary of Stonewall with parades, which celebrated who they were unashamedly, but also to initiate a new kind of social protest that had both cultural and political advocacy implications.

The landmark documentary "Gay USA" by the gay director Arthur Bressan, Jr. ("Buddies"), captures the 1977 Gay Freedom Day march in San Francisco, but also parades in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, and Philadelphia. Bressan dedicated his film to "Robert Hillsborough, stabbed to death June 22, 1977, on the streets of San Francisco for being gay."

That parade sought to fight the conservative backlash occurring after singer Anita Bryant's successful 1977 crusade to rescind Miami's gay rights law in Dade County, Florida through her "Save Our Children" campaign. Many furious marchers believed Bryant's hate-filled rally was responsible for Hillsborough's death, since one of his attackers supposedly shouted, "This one's for Anita." The film has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Altered Innocence.

A scene from 'Gay USA'  

Cinematic treasures
However, the real treasure is the inclusion, as bonus features, of the following historic documentary short films: Lilli Vincenz's 1970 "Gay and Proud," which documented the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade held in New York City on June 28, 1970; "Gay Power," (1971) a lesbian-centric silent film from legendary artists/activists Sharon Hayes and Kate Millet, produced by the Women's Liberation Cinema, on that first parade.

"Parade," (1972) from artistic all-rounder Ronald Chase, gives us insight into San Francisco's first official gay pride parade; and "Freedom Day Parade" (1974), by iconic filmmaker and choreographer Wakefield Poole, was shot at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day. These films are considered so momentous they've been restored by the Library of Congress.

While the early parades had a strong political element, such as advocating for laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (and one spectator was upset that New York City's Mayor John Lindsey wasn't there), there was also a push for cultural/societal reform by changing social institutions that made life difficult for LGBTQ folk.

A scene from 'Gay USA'  

Thus, there was a joyous, unashamed public declaration of gay and lesbian identity, to promote visibility and validate the existence of queer folk. A popular slogan was, "2,4,6,8! Gay is just as good as straight!"

There was a public refusal to buy into the idea that LGBTQ people were inferior, mentally ill, sinners, that in fact aside from society's condemnation, they were relatively happy with themselves and their lives. Marchers were intent on challenging preconceived and mostly wrong ideas about being gay, such as every guy is effeminate or wears drag.

A spirit of joy and fun pervades these first parades with lots of festive features such as colorful pennants (no gay or rainbow flags yet), Gay Pride signs, flamboyant costumes, still embedded in the hippie/flower power era. There was a kind of naivete and innocence, a youthful idealism that attitudes would change.

Marchers wanted a world in which they could live openly gay/lesbian lives, so there were public displays of affection, where liberated sexuality (pleasure in all its diversity) and gender nonconformity is celebrated, not disparaged. As Sharon Hayes in "Gay Power," confessed, "The expression of queer and trans sexuality was a tool of resistance. Fucking was not ancillary to politics, not a libidinal excess to the liberation work, it was integral to it."

There were signs encouraging people to come out to their families and work colleagues, despite the heavy risks at that time, with chants of "Out of the closet, into the street." Still, as one marcher noted, "Having to lie, I feel, is the saddest and ugliest part of being homosexual."

As one commentator noted, it was still illegal to be openly gay, risking arrest and imprisonment. So as another pundit on "Gay Power," remarked, "It took courage to march, as we had no idea what they might do to us. Your parents might spot you on the news and all hell could break loose. We look very brave, but maybe we aren't."

The fear of being attacked was real and if so, one didn't know if the police would or could protect marchers from violence. A flyer cautioned marchers, "Do not wear anything which can be misread as a weapon... Dress as simple as possible, without encumbrances... This is a day when the police department will be very vigilant, perhaps even hostile and trigger-happy, so take care of yourself by being meticulously cooperative, even docile at a pinch."

But as it became clear that the march was peaceful and the police helpful, onlookers from the street joined the parade, so by the time it ended at Sheep's Meadow in Central Park, the size of the parade had doubled.

At these early parades there were no corporate sponsors, no commercialism, little music outside of chanting slogans. Yet what becomes evident watching them, was there's still a defiant visibility that says queer people refuse to be silent, to hide their sexuality, or to change to accommodate a culture still uncomfortable with queerness.

At a time of backlash and a huge increase in anti-queer/trans bills in numerous states, parades, as they did in 1970, are still needed to send out positive messages about people and to promote communal bonding. Together LGBTQ folk can figure out creative ways to combat hetero-normative bigotry, to keep a sense of purpose amidst the fun and revelry, and celebrate with pride who they are, that they're very content being queer and it's the culture that needs to change.


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