By Stephen Holden
The New York Times
“The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He is not interested in, nor capable of, a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage.”
So declared Mike Wallace in authoritative voice-of-God tones in “The Homosexuals,” a tawdry, sensationalist 1966 “CBS Reports,” excerpted in Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s valuable film, “Stonewall Uprising.” Funny how yesterday’s conventional wisdom can become today’s embarrassment.
The most thorough documentary exploration of the three days of unrest beginning June 28, 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a seedy Mafia-operated gay bar in Greenwich Village, turned on the police after a routine raid, “Stonewall Uprising” methodically ticks off the forms of oppression visited on gays and lesbians in the days before the gay rights movement.
“Before Stonewall there was no such thing as coming out or being out,” says Eric Marcus, the author of “Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian & Gay Equal Rights.” “People talk about being in and out now; there was no out, there was just in.”
At the time of the riots, homosexuality was illegal in every state except Illinois. Before the laws were changed, one commentator observes, gay bars offered the same kind of social haven for an oppressed minority as black churches in the South before the civil rights movement.
The cultural demonizing of gay men in public service films depicted them as at best, psychologically damaged and at worst, ruthless sexual predators. Lesbians were nearly invisible.
The same “CBS Reports” peddled the medical opinion, since discredited, that homosexuality was determined in the first three years of life. The movie has ominous vintage footage of electroshock aversion therapy being administered, accompanied by the suggestion that it might be a promising cure for what was widely regarded as a mental illness. The most unsettling historical tidbit concerns the treatment of homosexual patients at a mental hospital in Atascadero, Calif., where some were injected with a drug that simulated drowning, a process that one commentator describes as “chemical waterboarding.”
It is a sad indication of the marginalization of homosexuality in the late 1960s that media coverage of the Stonewall riots was mostly after the fact. And even then it was cursory and often condescending. Because so little photographic documentation exists of the unrest, the film relies mostly on eyewitnesses, including Seymour Pine, the now-retired police officer who led the initial raid of six officers and who describes it as “a real war.”
The details of the raid are reconstructed by several who were present, including Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott IV, journalists for The Village Voice whose offices were nearby. The film focuses on the first night of the unrest.
As one rioter remembers: “All of a sudden the police faced something they had never seen before. Gay people were never supposed to be threats to police officers. They were supposed to be weak men, limp-wristed, not able to do anything. And here they were lifting things up and fighting them and attacking them and beating them.” It was the first stirring of what came to be known as gay pride.
“This was the Rosa Parks moment, the time that gay people stood up and said no,” Mr. Truscott recalls. “And once that happened, the whole house of cards that was the system of oppression of gay people started to crumble.”
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SENTINEL FOUNDER PAT MURPHY