Two films at the Frameline 37 film festival, which ends on June 30, take up the history of LGBT rights in San Francisco: “The Campaign” by Christie Herring and “Lewd and Lascivious” by Jailen Rix. The films enrich the meaning of what is meant by Pride Weekend with the San Francisco Dyke March on June 29 and San Francisco Pride on June 30.
Locally based filmmaker Christie Herring’s documentary on marriage equality is prophetic in one sense for it foretells this week’s historic repeal of California’s Proposition 8 on June 26. It is a film in the making, so there will an exciting addition forthcoming.
Interviews with campaign workers for “No on Proposition 8” in 2008 chronicle the struggles to defeat this discriminatory proposal brought forth and financed by conservative factions. Mayor Gavin Newsom was behind hundreds of weddings in City Hall until Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said stop because of the new legislation. Daughters of Bilitis founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first national organization for lesbians, were one of the couples married at City Hall in 2008.
The film shows that these worker’s efforts were not in vain. The Supreme Court ruling on June 26 defied the legal ability of private individuals to thwart the 2008 court ruling against gay marriage. It must be said, however, that the repeal of section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is not a federal law legalizing marriage, it only gives the states the right to determine this right by public vote. That does not prevent the same states with a history of voter discrimination, which the Supreme Court decided on June 26 not to regulate anymore, to continue targeting the LGBT community. California senator Diane Feinstein introduced the “Respect for Marriage Act” the same day, a bill to repeal the entirety of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
“The Campaign” briefly surveys the history of gay rights with footage of one of the earliest organizations for civil rights for gays, the Mattachine Society. They argued that what adults do privately is their own affair. There were several regional branches in the USA and one was formed in San Francisco. It lent its support to the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis formed in 1956 and its magazine, The Ladder, though this is not taken up in this documentary.
In the late 1970’s, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was elected and became a spokesman for gay rights. One of his tasks, shown in the film, was to take on the bigoted ex beauty queen Anita Bryant who successfully campaigned for legislation against gays in Florida. Milk brought up evidence from psychiatrists that confirmed they did not know why someone became gay and wondered how Bryant could claim that gay people recruited new members. She countered by answering that she didn’t think that people were behind this but God.
Lewd and Lascivious by filmmaker Jallen Rix, Associate Professor at the “Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality” in San Francisco, shows the early history of the oppression of homosexuals in San Francisco with archival footage from the 1950’s and 1960’s. The history of abuse by the police is clear. The film shows that the gay civil rights actually movement began with heterosexual ministers who went to Polk Street to meet gay men, and also reached out to the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.
The Mattachine Society initially was organized in secret cells as the Communist party had done in order to protect themselves, but later dispensed with this structure as it became a growing civil rights movement. This is where the myth that “homosexuals are communists” was derived. The FBI had extensive files on the organization and referred to its members as “sexual deviates”.
Rix shows how gay men were mistreated by the police and targeted for street abuse, and how the churches created a safe haven for gay men and lesbians. Interviews with these ministers today confirm how instrumental they were in uniting gay men and lesbians and that their churches still have open doors to the LGBT community today.
It has often been claimed that San Francisco became a mecca for gay people in the 1970’s but gay history actually goes back to the Gold Rush period of the late 18th century when the city was populated primarily by men from all over the United States, and all over the world. The city was 90% men and who turned to each other for comfort. This history has left its mark on the city as the most free-spirited haven in the United Staes.
The negative, fictitious and biased representation of gays in the media has historically contributed to pervasive ignorance about LGBT individuals. It can be noted that whereas two out three people were strongly against homosexuals in the 1950’s this has radically changed. Today 41 to 50% of the USA support gay marriage, and acceptance of the LGBT community is high, especially in the 20-35 years age bracket.