The gay cultural front

by Thomas Waugh

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 36-37
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

One of the less publicized dimensions of the post-Anita Bryant, anti-gay backlash is in the cultural sphere. Here are some developments in this arena since Dade County. Many examples reflect my Canadian context but are typical of general trends in the U.S. and Western Europe.


London: Last summer's gay season at the National Film Theatre, organized by Richard Dyer, almost didn't make it. The Festival of Light, the local cultural umbrella bureaucracy, tried to stop the pioneering gay series up to the last minute. Although the festival did eventually go on after many delays, the British Film Institute, the sponsoring body, was persuaded to give the season a low profile in its publicity and provided only a stark list of titles to the public, without displays or stills. The BFI also imposed a ban on "hard-core" pornography from the start.

Paris: A two-week festival of gay films sponsored by the Groupe de Libération Homosexuel in January 1978 ran into even more trouble. The French Minister of Culture banned no less than thirty films from the festival, including Jean Gênet's masterpiece, CHANT D'AMOUR. The festival's lineup of dozens of films, many both underground and erotic and some by Americans Kenneth Anger and John Waters, was thus sabotaged from the start. A half-dozen forums on gay-related issues such as the family and the state were also organized. Death threats against the organizers started arriving well before the festival began, but it was during the event itself that things really got hot.

Five people, including the event's chairperson and one of the participating filmmakers, had to be hospitalized after an attack on the theatre by members of the French neo-fascist group, Jeune Nation. The thugs, wearing motorcycle helmets and armed with iron bars, helped themselves to the day's take of $1000 in addition to smashing things up in general. All of this took place under the benign observation of Paris police officers, who were in the theatre at the time to see if the films were offensive. Later, a demonstration against the ban on the films was forcibly disbanded by police. Gay leaders presenting a petition to the Minister of Culture were carted off for four-hour identity checks. The petition had been signed by Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, and Arrabal. At the last report the GLH candidates in the March elections were keeping their identities secret for fear of further violence.

Montreal: A third series of gay-related films took place last October at Montreal's Conservatoire d'art cinématographique. The pitfalls of this kind of undertaking were vividly demonstrated by the selection and presentation of the films in the series. The general organization was careless and unscholarly, and the final impact was openly defamatory of gay people. For one thing, the 25 films were mostly male-directed, mainstream narrative features, portraying for the most part negative stereotypes of lesbians and gay men. Only six of the films dealt in any way with lesbians, and no lesbian or even straight women directors were represented. The analysis and debate which justifies the exhumation of such tripe as Bergman's THREE STRANGE LOVES was nowhere attempted, unlike at the two aforementioned series. The program notes topped it all off: We are told that THE BOYS IN THE BAND shows "sensitive insight into the frustrated lives of homosexuals," that the cinema-verité drag contest THE QUEEN is "a compelling look at a claustrophobic world of bitchy competition and tacky reward," and that STAIRCASE, where notorious straights Burton and Harrison camp up a nauseating caricature of middle-aged-nelly self-hatred, treats "its delicate theme … seriously." THE SERGEANT, in which Rod Steiger shoots himself because of his crush on a young soldier, is praised for its fidelity, its subtlety, and its soberness.

Gay Documentaries: Arthur Brennan's compilation of footage from U.S. gay demonstrations throughout the seventies, a feature called GAY U.S.A., has run into some of the problems inherent in the distribution of serious gay films in the United States. The filmmaker has met with the usual skittishness of commercial distributors with regard to the great unknowable gay public (i.e., the non-sexploitation gay public). The only place to see the film in New York in June (Gay Pride month), for example, was in a $5 gay male porno house, sharing the bill with Wakefield Poole. The straight media also made things difficult. The Miami papers, for example, rated the film "R" because of its title.

Nesya Shapiro, a Montreal filmmaker, is currently developing a documentary on lesbians for the Challenge for Change studio of the National Film Board of Canada. Shapiro, who does not identify herself as a lesbian, has been working on the idea for some time. Her first major setback came two years ago when the Women's Studio of the Board turned her idea down for "budgetary" reasons. Now the climate seems to be more receptive, at least in this "radical" studio in which she is now working. Gay man are said to be increasingly visible at the Board those days, but according to Shapiro, gay women are still very much anonymous. According to informed sources, lesbians have even been fired for not being docile and invisible enough. This is apparently why the initiative didn't originate with gay women themselves. Rumors are now in the air about a Challenge for Change gay men's film as well, using the Body Politic issue as a departure point.


The Body Politic, the prestigious Toronto based gay-activist paper, has received considerable publicity in the wake of its December 1977 victimization by the Toronto police, the Ontario Ministry of Justice, and the Toronto media (who have been known to refer to the paper's editors as "child-rapers."). Three of the editorial collective are still awaiting trial on what are considered serious charges of distributing obscene material. The paper's files and subscription lists, not to mention the entire collection of the Canadian Gay Archives, are still in the hands of the police. All appeals against the apparently illegal warrant used in the infamous New Year's Eve (1977) raid have been unsuccessful, but the Body Politic collective have their sights on the Canadian Supreme Court.

This is only part of the overall picture. The paper, like most serious, small Canadian periodicals, receives token subsidies from government endowments such as the Ontario Arts Council. This support however is constantly being questioned and jeopardized by rightwing columnists every time the paper takes an unpopular stand. In May the Council rejected the paper's application for a repetition of their last year's grant for a summer student-hiring project because of the charges pending under the criminal code.

The federal cultural endowment, the Canada Council, still refuses to come through with financial support, despite its well-known largesse in the publishing field, on the grounds that the BP's distinguished cultural section, "Our Image," is "information" rather than "creative." Any gay cultural venture depending in any way on state support has a precarious existence indeed.

In a related development which has many parallels across Canada and the U.S., prison officials in Alberta have banned two gay periodicals for prisoners from the Prince Albert Penitentiary. Gay prisoners clearly suffer the worst effects of heterosexist oppression on the cultural front.

One favorite location for state interference with gay cultural expression is Customs. Boston's left-libertarian gay men's journal, Fag Rag, itself continually threatened by New England demagogues (denounced by the Manchester NH Union Leader as "one of the most loathsome publications in the English language") has at the time of writing been refused entry to Toronto by Canadian customs. Other recent victims of over-zealous guardians of public morality at the border were a highly respected gay sex manual, Men Loving Men, and a whole slew of gay skin mags, whose heterosexual equivalents never have any problem at all.

The Gay News story from England demonstrates how any bigot with a lawyer can be just as effective in hampering and even stifling gay cultural expression. Early this year, this gay paper, the largest in the world, lost an appeal against a conviction on charges of blasphemy brought against it by Mary Whitehouse, London's Anita Bryant, for the publication of an erotic poem about Christ. The editor, Denis Lemon, received a nine month suspended sentence and the paper was fined a total of $3,500 under an ancient statute last evoked in 1922. Defense, fine, and appeal costs were expected to mount to $46,000. Compared to this, the Body Politic defense fund target of $30,000 suggests that the Canadians got off comparatively lightly.

In Oakland, California, the Diana Press, a lesbian feminist publishing company, is still recovering from an October 1977 break-in by unknown vandals. The attackers very nearly succeeded in their obvious goal of closing down the place. Damages cost almost $100,000 and three months of production were lost. Coleta Reid, a senior editor, feels that either the extreme right or the FBI were responsible for the vandalism. According to a recent report, another feminist press, Big Mamma Rag, had been vandalized by the FBI in 1975.

Access to the electronic media for gays has grows in recent years but still continues to be vulnerable to the whims of hostile mediacrats. Community access gay broadcasters in Ottawa and Toronto have repeatedly had to fight off the erratic attempts of administrators trying to tamper with or close down their public affairs shows. This is despite the fact that all community groups are guaranteed access to Cable TV by Canadian law. The most recent development in Toronto has been the May cancellation of "Gay News and Views," a public affairs show, by Maclean Hunter TV Ltd. on the grounds that it is "offensive." The objectionable material included "a slide of two men kissing, a poster of Queen Victoria advertising a San Francisco V.D. Clinic with the words 'Even Queens get V.D.,' and a show on Hassle Free Clinic which informed the gay public of where to get anal examinations." The expanding network of gay radio programmers across North America have found that they too have to concentrate much of their energy and resources on mere survival.

Another fundamental cultural right has been denied gay people in Toronto with the May Appeals Court rejection of the appeal of two gay men convicted under the Criminal Code for postering! According to the Body Politic,

"the conviction has opened the way for police to harass posterers with a criminal charge carrying a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment."

Burlesque may seem a marginal art form as far as gay cultural expression goes. But the New York Gay Activists Alliance recently demonstrated against the selective persecution of gay burlesque houses by New York police. Projectionists and dancers from the gay houses had been fined and imprisoned, but similar straight establishments were immune. The GAA are clearly justified in seeing the extension of their struggle even as far as the defense of the gay sexploitation industry. The censorship that is arbitrarily used against the gay burlesque queen is the same censorship that remains everywhere a powerful instrument of oppression against the rights of lesbians and gay men. It is up to the straight left also to recognize and join in this struggle.