Gay film work:
affecting but too evasive

by Ray Olson

from Jump Cut, no. 20, May 1979, pp. 9-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

During the 1978 conference of the American Library Association in Chicago, the organization's Task Force on Gay Liberation presented five programs of seventeen films on gays and their experience. All were post-Stonewall products of the seventies, from LAVENDER (1972), an early sympathetic view of a lesbian relationship, to WORD IS OUT (1977), the interview-compilation film Thomas Waugh discussed under its working title WHO ARE WE? in Jump Cut 16. [1] The single showing/back-to-back screenings obviated detailed analysis of any one film, but the number of films afforded opportunity for general observations about gay film work.

Here I arrange the films, with one exception, into three stylistic groups or genres and briefly describe and assess each. I then consider the psychology of the films in general, criticizing their tactic for combating homophobia in the viewer and arguing for direct presentation of homosexuality as everyday personal behavior. Finally I offer suggestions for future gay film work. My dominant concern throughout is with the instrumentality of film for gay liberation, which is a movement of sexual and political revolution. As a sexually revolutionary force, gay liberation has as ultimate goal the release of sexuality from repression and its affirmative, open integration into everyday life, with the special consequence of ending the power of homophobia. As a politically revolutionary force, gay liberation seeks the resolution of class conflict through the elimination of the hierarchical economic and political institutions through which gays and other natural minorities are manipulated for the ends of ruling class hegemony. [2] Gay film work should be sexually candid and realistic and politically critical/ analytic of the forms of gay oppression. If a film is neither, its usefulness to gay liberation can be only accidental.

In fact there are very seldom clear-cut cases of uselessness or accidental pertinence. As a critic I find pointing out only what is useless an unrewarding task, especially when the subject is gay film. I am gay and I am invariably moved, excited, and amused by the experiences of my brothers and sisters. Parts of nearly all these films affect me deeply, although in my comments I am hard on them — too hard, many will think, for straight readers. Yet I do not believe I expose gays as gays to straight obloquy. I take to task the shortcomings of these films as instruments of gay liberation. Gays as well as straights suffer under the inhibiting oppression of internalized homophobia. [3] Gays as well as straights are prone to political accommodation even when they are self-defined radicals or revolutionaries.[4] These facts inform my criticisms.


Three kinds or genres of film were shown by the Task Force: confessional films, documentaries of gay events or circumstances, and short parodies or satires of straight prejudice and gay stereotypes. [5] One film falls outside all three genres. WHAT ABOUT McBRIDE (1974) is a fourteen-minute icebreaker for high school classroom discussion of homosexuality and anti-gay attitudes. In it two white middle-class youths argue about an absent friend one thinks is queer and the other thinks is a regular guy. Afterwards, conflict unresolved, actor Beau Bridges appears talking about homosexuality and stereotypes of homosexual behavior. The proper context in which to consider the film is that of other "educational" films on controversial topics. It is not gay film work. It does not offer a gay viewpoint on its content. "Instead," promotional material for it maintains, "its open-ended format provides an atmosphere in which viewers' preconceived notions can be aired and examined logically." Well, perhaps, although how examination that is fair as well as "logical" on a topic as problematic for our society as homosexuality may proceed without explicit gay input is not addressed. McGraw-Hill Films is confident that "[t]he result" (presumably of the consequent logical examination) "is a better understanding by all of the many sides to this pressing social and personal issue" (emphasis added). As one whose side wasn't represented — as a homosexual man — I am more skeptical of the outcomes of this film's use.

The six films I call "confessional" are alike in content and often style. They are autobiographical of their subjects and two — Jan Oxenberg's HOME MOVIE (1973) and Tom Joslin's BLACKSTAR: AUTO-BIOGRAPHY OF A CLOSE FRIEND (1977) — are their makers' autobiographies. In them women and men talk about their lives and ideas about life or, in Joslin's film, have family and lover talk about the subject. Formally, four are very similar: WORD IS OUT, LAVENDER, A WOMAN'S PLACE IS IN THE HOUSE: A PORTRAIT OF ELAINE NOBLE (1975), and in part BLACKSTAR all depend heavily on interviews to limn their subjects. In all but BLACKSTAR the interviewer is almost always out of frame. We see lots of people sitting down talking, sometimes in couples, more often alone. As they speak, full-face shots of them talking are interrupted by still photographs of them when they were younger and/or by old home movies as well as contemporary footage apparently shot by the specific film's maker(s) or other experienced filmmakers. The revelations made constitute confession because society disapproves of these persons' sexuality.

As the title implies HOME MOVIE differs from the four interview films by relying primarily on old home movies. These are intercut with contemporary scenes of lesbians together, most memorably playing a laughing, leaping, sensuously hog-piling game of touch football. The soundtrack is Oxenberg's voice-over commentary on the home movies and some undistinguished original lesbian songs in a slick folk style during the new footage. [6] Oxenberg delivers her comments very off-the-cuff, conversationally, as if she knew we were going to agree with her. This is disarming and effective of real camaraderie, certainly among the mostly gay audience I saw it with and probably at least among most women, too. A home movie of her as a bewilderedly accommodating little girl imitating with a dolly her mother's actions with a baby is counterpointed by her report that she never felt comfortable doing this sort of thing, so really this is an extraordinary film. A later sharp and funny comment about her high school days complements a film of her as a cheerleader: "What would it look like walking down Main Street with my Elmwood High School cheerleader's uniform on, kissing another woman? We weren't even allowed to chew gum!" Both comments typify the twelve-minute film's thrust, a wry push up-against-the-wall of the American female programming that lesbians more than most women see constricting and distorting honest, natural development.

HOME MOVIE is a lesbian feminist film in which the two terms are inextricable. It is a feminist film in its critique of female sex-role training but informed by the personality of a self-affirming lesbian. While highly relevant, it is tangential to the primary purposes of gay liberation. It neither directly discusses lesbian sexuality in Oxenberg's development nor relates sex-role training to the exploitative design of hierarchical society.

The other confessional film that departs from interview technique is the very pretty and professional Canadian feature AUGUST AND JULY (1973). Formally, it is a series of episodes of conversation and occasional lovemaking between two very attractive, hip-looking young women, Sharon and Alexa. The episodes are spaced by scenes of the women walking through countryside, picking fruit, horseback riding, playing naked in the rain, swimming in a river. Most of the conversations take place inside the country cottage the two women shared during the filming. Promotional material for the film aptly describes the setting as "idyllic."

Indeed the whole film is idyllic, which my dictionary defines as "charmingly simple or picturesque." The simplicity is enforced by the country-cabin isolation from whatever the women normally do, which is never discussed. Nearly everything they do together in the film — all that "liberated" romping — and their physical beauty contribute any picturesqueness the setting fails to provide. While it is engrossing to watch and hear them as they thrash about both physically and verbally, it is finally sexually and politically reactionary. I was reminded of a Clairol commercial as they cavorted in lovely soft focus and pastoral pastel. This is drugstore romanticism, impertinent to gay concerns, none of which — especially gay sexuality — is ever breached. Not that there are not some revealing and horrifying things said about sexuality: Sharon reveals a lasciviously expressed — rolling eyes, lolling tongue — fascination with rape and seduction, even speculating that she values her relationship with Alexa most because it frequently resembles rape and/or seduction! This is the stuff, it seems to me, of straight male soft porn, so it's no surprise that the film is the product of a male filmmaker, Murray Markowitz, who neither in the film nor in any promotional material I have seen gives any indication that he is not perfectly straight. Although the film is confessional in that the women disclose their thoughts and feelings, the primary revelation is of male manipulation of female beauty and sexuality. Who needs more of that?

Of the three pure interview films, LAVENDER and A WOMAN'S PLACE IS IN THE HOUSE are most effective because they present engaging subjects reasonably fully. The two women in LAVENDER are seen at work, church, and school (a seminary in which one of them was studying for the ministry) as well as playing and living together. They talk about their straitened existence on the job and with their religion as well as about their relationship. They discuss the reasons for consenting to be the subject of a film and their hopes for the film. Although LAVENDER is not a gay liberation film, it is exemplary for such films through its honesty about what it is doing and its attempt to render at least two gay persons' lives fairly fully. It is forthrightly designed to show that lesbians are neither fearsome nor outre. As far as these two are concerned, it succeeds. By now, of course, it is old hat, beside the point, as I shall explain later.

A WOMAN'S PLACE is an equally absorbing pitch for another lesbian, Elaine Noble, the Massachusetts state legislator. The aim is to show her competence as a public representative, and so there is much consultation with community residents, with state government and city officials on the phone, etc. There is interview time with Noble and her lover, the novelist Rita Mae Browne, but it is light and perfunctory in the manner of asking the straight male candidate how he happened to meet the missus and vice versa. It's nice and Noble certainly seems more palatable than most politicians, but confession herein has become promotion, which is not offensive but merely impertinent to gay liberation other than in showing young or closeted lesbians a useful and energetic role model — no mean feat. There is no clear representation of Noble's position as a lesbian, nor is it intended there should be. The point is that she is an effective representative who just happens to be a lesbian.

Both these short films are far more personable and coherent than the gargantuan WORD IS OUT. Two hours and five minutes long in the version I saw, the film is a collage of interviews with twenty-six women and men of various ages, races, manners, and physical attributes. The material is divided, seemingly as an afterthought since individual bits could easily be shifted from one place to another, into three parts respectively titled "The Early Years," "Growing Up,' and "Where We Are Going." The talk is about private lives — therapies undertaken voluntarily or by force, early erotic feelings, sex role playing for the straight world, how one lives the way she/he lives, family relationships, and even (very sparingly) sexuality. There is either very little or no talk about work, politics, systematic oppression, legal persecution, street violence against gays, the lack of gay access to public media, the benighted attitudes of church and psychiatric establishments toward gays — let alone mention of the gay liberation movement. There are filler shots of gay pride marches and of mediocre gay musicians performing that may, I suppose, be meant to represent the movement. But they represent it only in terms that are easily trivialized, patronized, and dismissed by straights — "Oh, look at those colorful, frivolous gays — they're so chic, even if they are queer!"

The analysis necessary to communicate the position of gays in U.S. society has not been done by the film's makers, the Mariposa Group. Rather they have contented themselves with showing that certain gays have individually suffered for being gay and that gays, too, are in the market for love. The former has never before been stated so forcefully and is not to be sniffed at if it serves to activate anyone against oppression of gays. If the gangly, skinny middle-aged man's open-eyed, composed relation of his forced electroshock therapy can stir more opposition to the inquisitorial use of psychiatric technology, it greatly justifies the film.

But this and other films' concentration on the individual's search for happiness with Ms. or Mr. Right is irrelevant and jejune when divorced from any account of the oppressive context of gay matchmaking — the bars, baths, beaches, parks, and most of all, the always censorious and often physically dangerous, everyday straight world. Because of the film's diffusion as it bounds from person to person, and because it shows only tractable, discountable, "positive" views of general gay life (the parades and musicians), the evocation of milieu that would make gays' love-search more than a sentimental ploy is missing. As it is, the talk about love is a cheap way of gaining probably superficial and transitory sympathy from viewers. That such sympathy will be passing, as one's feeling for the two women in LAVENDER may not, follows from the profusion of subjects in WORD IS OUT and the shallowness with which their lives are plumbed. When we don't know what a person does in the world and whether she/he considers it worthwhile and why, we're meeting much less than the full person and we can scarcely relate to him/her. As WORD IS OUT unreels, the faces are not even identified by name when they appear but rather all in a still line-up at the start of each section. When they flash in and out of the flow, our most difficult task is trying to remember to which story each corresponds. Less noticeably but more devastatingly hampering the film's intelligibility is its lack of societal vision and interpretation. The many faces and the many stories are not organized into a structure that amounts to anything. Like pieces in a misassembled picture puzzle, they go together to form another problem, mystification instead of communication.

Tom Joslin's BLACKSTAR may also perplex many with its self-indulgences, in at least the first section. There Joslin inserts bits from the movies he's been making since his fourteenth year, many of them showing his play with the medium. They sometimes resemble the surrealist and Dada experiments of the twenties and put off many in the audience with whom I saw the film. I found the boyish stuff amusing and germane. That Joslin will not cut any of it is good news, although it was not reported happily to me. BLACKSTAR is the one of all seventeen films that is worth repeated viewing as an experience and a use of film. It is artful; perhaps it is art. More to the present interest, it is a coherent statement about one gay man's life that is wittily, sharply analytic of the context of that life. Not the whole context, perhaps, but the most immediate, viz., family and lover.

Joslin interviews his two brothers, mother, father, and lover incisively and puts them even more on edge — especially his parents — through his editing. For example, the juxtaposition of his mother's talk with that of his lover criticizing her erodes our confidence in both of them: she seems not so much as at first the warm, accepting mother; he is caught out in loverly insecurity. The discomfort of all with Tom's sexuality is a critically informative tension throughout the film. No one is ever explicit about sex, and Tom's attempt to get some lovemaking into the film is frustrated by his lover's cold feet over the idea. But these evasions and omissions only emphasize the importance of bringing Tom's sexuality squarely out in the open. That's the only way to relieve his family's and lover's discomforts. That we see this without ourselves being made uncomfortable is Joslin's great achievement. While it is not itself therapeutic, except in a mocking sequence in which Joslin polls his family about how he came to be homosexual, through debunking the psychiatric ploy of causality, BLACKSTAR indicates the need for therapy against homophobia that, I will later maintain, is the first order of business for future gay film work.

The six films documenting gay predicaments and events — SOME OF YOUR BEST FRIENDS (1972), A POSITION OF FAITH (1973), WE'RE NOT AFRAID ANYMORE (1974), SANDY AND MADELEINE'S FAMILY (1974), IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILDREN (1977), and GAY USA (1977) — are a less considerable lot than the confessional films. They are relatively slighter — only GAY USA at seventy-three minutes approaches feature length. More important, they are overly concerned with representing gays as "normal" and concomitantly downplay the forceful presentation of personality that — at least in BLACKSTAR — confronts the viewer with a homosexual person as an untractable, no longer evadable fact. The documentaries are narrowly practical and often accommodationist, as the title SOME OF YOUR BEST FRIENDS betrays. The phrase connotes mere tolerance of whatever minority group to which friends of some white, heterosexual, middle-class — i.e., "normal — person belong. It implicitly pleads for tolerance, a quality of social/political relations that is just not enough for oppressed minorities. For pure tolerance may well countenance a minority's legal, social, and political exploitation along with its existence and peculiar behavior. Only an intolerance for the practices of oppression is truly liberatory for oppressed minorities, as the ongoing social and political struggles of blacks and women, especially in employment, should by now have made obvious. [7]

That kind of intolerance is lacking in these films, as is the critical attitude that useful, i.e., analytical, intolerance must employ for maximum effect. Yet there are passages and strategies in some of them that are instructive for future practice. For example, one of the greatest strengths of IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILDREN, which like SANDY AND MADELEINE'S FAMILY examines lesbians' custody of their children, is its interviews with the children of lesbian mothers. From youngest to oldest, these children show virtually no conflict over their mothers' sexuality. Poor though they are, they are articulate, direct, and disingenuous in their responses. They show little of that neurotic hesitancy and smartiness that makes the children of more repressed families so frequently repulsive. These refreshing and engaging children are evidence (not proof) that a less sexually squeamish family atmosphere produces healthier, more attractive children. SANDY AND MADELEINE'S FAMILY, while it profits from concentration on one family, is not as strong as BEST INTERESTS because of the greater repression, confessed and apparent in the two women's household and relationship.

Neither film, unfortunately, attempts to show the societal spread of discrimination against lesbian mothers or examines the homophobic roots of such discrimination. Without realizing the issue of lesbian custody in these broader dimensions, one is quite free to feel pity and concern for these particular nice women and still support the heterosexist legal norms instrumental to their problems. To do so is flagrant doublethink but that is exactly what a plea for mere sympathy, mere tolerance, invites. These would be stronger films if they forthrightly called for the abolition of present custody proceedings, if they practiced instructive intolerance rather than special pleading for individual victims of systematized oppression.

The same criticisms apply with greater force to A POSITION OF FAITH, in which a young Congregationalist is shown in an ultimately successful attempt to be ordained to the ministry. His campaign and the film are based completely on his nice-guy-ism. That the strategy succeeded is certainly attributable to his congregation's personal familiarity with him more than to any innate persuasive value of his approach. His success fairly obviously from the film's evidence has nothing to do with Christian values or tenets, which historically are murderously antigay. The film never acknowledges these facts although it can't hide them from a perceptive intelligence. That the majority of a Christian congregation is prepared to lay aside classical Christian homophobia in order to accept a man it basically respects and trusts is a lovely thing. Good for them all! Not to recognize that Christianity is being stood upon its head in the process, however, is dishonest.

A less disingenuous confrontation is far too briefly treated in SOME OF YOUR BEST FRIENDS. This shows the turmoil that erupted at a psychiatrists' symposium on electroshock therapy when Los Angeles gay activists appeared — as they had asked and been accepted to do — to voice the gay perspective on shock treatment for homosexuality. Indignant doctors catcall, boo, curse, and shake their fists at the gay speakers. That the electroshock advocate to whom the gays most directly respond seems not at all upset with his adversaries doesn't register on the angry auditors. One would like to know a great deal more about this confrontation, the preparation and aftermath of it. The film, however, hurries on to scenes of early gay pride marches, demonstrations of solidarity in city parks, some personal interviews, and gay activist attorney John Platania's account of his entrapment by a vice squad cop in Griffith Park.

Similar to SOME OF YOUR BEST FRIENDS are both WE'RE NOT AFRAID ANYMORE and GAY USA. The former is much the weaker, fatally marred by its aping of TV news shows complete with an avuncular/doctorly Cronkite-like interpreter seated with hands folded at a cluttered desk. As with the nightly news, style destroys content. GAY USA is a response to the first anti-gay political campaign's success in Dade County, Florida. It is an intercutting of the 1977 gay pride marches in several different cities that includes brief interviews with bystanders and participants. It has been widely hailed in the gay press as an instrument of solidarity for gay audiences regardless of its effect upon straight viewers. [8] Curiously enough, it never touches on the Florida campaign, neatly skirting analysis of gay oppression in any way, shape, or form. It concentrates instead upon the color and infectious good spirits of the marches. I and most of the audience I saw it with fidgeted a lot while it unreeled. Some left, I got up and walked around, others chatted during the many dull spots. It may be past the time when the majority of gays need their sense of solidarity strengthened in this amorphous manner. Gay pride at last may be giving way to gay power as a rallying cry for solidarity based on analysis and action. GAY USA strikes me as an epilog to one phase of gay liberation.

Four short films try through irony, exaggeration, or whimsy to score straight prejudice and gay stereotypes. The seven-minute DICHOTOMY is inept and amateurish, more unnerving than satirically disturbing. It provides a sequence of images of two young men studying, playing, and showing affection together while the soundtrack assaults us with virulent anti-gay diatribes. The innocent and ineffectual-looking couple seems entirely incapable of withstanding such vehement hatred. While satiric insight may have been intended, gay paranoia is the immediate effect.

The five-minute ROLLIN' WITH LOVE finds tennis balls sexually differentiated by color in several stock, straight, social situations — school playground, office party, family gathering, etc. The usual ending for these situations is same-sex pairing for two oddballs. The fact that human same-sex coupling rarely occurs in such circumstances, especially not as evidently as they do for these gay tennis balls, makes the film a whimsical wish-fulfillment fantasy. Underlying its amusement value for gays is resentment. Resentment over having to play straight at the party while wondering whether that attractive stranger will reciprocate one's interest. Resentment at having to be "discreet" when and if you find out she/he will. Without the gay perspective, the film must seem inconsequential indeed.

Jan Oxenberg's two punchy satiric films, I'M NOT ONE OF 'EM (1976) and A COMEDY IN SIX UNNATURAL ACTS (1975), are not at all inept, not at all inconsequential. They share the visual roughness of HOME MOVIE — probably a function of short funding as much as of an unlaundered, anti-slick-professional esthetic. But where the wit there was wry, it's head-on and pointblank here. I'M NOT ONE OF 'EM OFFERS three minutes of female roller derby action while a hefty-sounding woman's voice monologizes a stream of homophobic vitriol often ludicrously funny. The counterpointing of verbal and physical violence  — both done for titillation's sake, one feels — is a brilliant stroke. Oxenberg cuts to the neurotic core of both brutal sports and homophobia, allowing us to see both as sadomasochistic deviations. She does not didacticize her insights but puts them forward with the confidence of her craft and art.

COMEDY is not quite as devastating. In separate sketches it lampoons stereotypes about lesbian behavior in six predicaments: as a wallflower at a teenagers' dance party, while sex role playing, while attempting seduction, while trying to be hip non-monogamous, as a child molester, and as a stompin' dyke. Suprise ending is crucial to all the sketches, as is careful exaggeration of the expected. Oxenberg has a little trouble with the ending of the seduction sketch, which bewilderingly turns into a Fellini-esque fantasy that is sufficiently close to the Italians usual fare to have emetic rather than esthetic effect. The others are uniformly well developed, the stompin' dyke sketch perhaps a little too predictably. Gay viewers eat them up. Like I'M NOT ONE OF 'EM and ROLLIN WITH LOVE, COMEDY is aimed primarily at gay and sympathetic straight audiences. All three bolster gay fellow-feeling, but only I'M NOT ONE OF 'EM gives insight as well as amusement.


Considered together, there is remarkably little political polemic in the films and never any analysis of gays' place in advanced industrial class society. There is not even any sustained attempt to delineate the gay perspective on straight society and culture. Instead of trying to comprehend and communicate the position of gays within American society (all the films are either Canadian or U.S.), nearly all represent gays as loyal underdogs in it. Gays are presented primarily as victims of ignorant prejudice and fear rather than as objects of any systematized oppression. That there are, in fact, systems of law and social convention circumscribing gays' participation in society is self-evident, particularly in the films about lesbian mothers' custody battles and in statements in WORD IS OUT about forced psychiatric commitment and treatment. But the scope and rationale of such systems of oppression are not mentioned, much less articulated. It is possible to view all these films without forming a perception of gays as an oppressed group regardless of whether individual gays run afoul of the law.

The characteristic psychological/political stance of these films is, then, liberal accomodationist. Their collective motto might be, "We are normal and we want our piece of the action." This is disingenuous. Gays are not "normal." They are homosexual, something these films are very chary of acknowledging, betraying deep-rooted insecurity vis-à-vis the straight norms. The only lovemaking in any of them occurs in AUGUST AND JULY, and Sharon and Alexa are both self-identified bisexuals who speak at length about their sexual experiences with and attraction to men. In fact, they speak more about their heterosexuality, using it as a standard, than about their visible homosexuality! Now it may be as well — but I don't think so! — to limit explicit, visible homosexual behavior in films aimed at general audiences. To avoid even frank discussion, let alone full and factual information, on homosexuality as much as these films do, however, is to risk being crucially beside the point.

The root of oppression of gays is the fear of homosexuality. It is not fear of any supposed weird, eccentric personal behavior — as these films' parade of mostly normal looking and acting folks implies. Take away their sexuality and gays appear to be inexplicably put upon and ostracized. This seems to be precisely the salient point for gay liberals. They coyly seek civil rights protection for those of different "sexual preference." Secretively lobbying councilors and legislators, they often succeed. Afterwards, if the electorate is aroused, they explain that, heterosexuality also being a sexual preference, such protection extends to all. This apology doesn't wash with the voters, who know a dodge when they see one, who know that it is the freedom of non-stigmatized homosexual behavior that is ultimately protected by sexual preference wording. When the circumvented voters get a chance to reverse the gay liberals' closet diplomacy, as they have in Dade County, St. Paul, Wichita, and Eugene, they overwhelmingly do!

These films, inasmuch as they partake of the same kind of liberal evasion, risk eliciting similar reactions from most viewers. There may be fairly positive responses to all the nice people they show without any reduction of the contempt for and fear of homosexuality. Homophobes characteristically overlook personal goodness, condemning the "sickness" or "sin" of homosexuality itself. Anita Bryant and her followers profess love" for homosexual persons while acting to the material and physical detriment of the same "loved ones." I believe this kind of reaction is neurotic, an attempt to deny the extent and pervasiveness of homosexuality in our society, eyen after it has been publicized in hundreds of studies and reports since Kinsey's pioneering work on male sexual behavior in 1948.

Neurosis is treated by continuing to disclose the reality that the neurotic attempts to repress. The only way to address the homophobe and the homophobic society in a liberatory gay film is to unflinchingly present the reality and pervasive presence of homosexuality in our society. There must be frank and totally unapologetic discussion and illustration of how homosexual persons make love and how they respond sexually to their environments. And this explicitly homosexual content must be personally presented — in their emphasis on personality the confessional films make good psychological sense through furnishing figures to identify with, "role models," if you will — and integrated with individual gays' ways of being in the world. Through such presentation the fact that there are persons who live good and healthy lives, partly because they are homosexual may sink in to the viewer, may begin to spread through society. The effect of such films should be not to induce tolerance, which is a grudging and tentative attitude at best, but to compel acceptance.

In terms of gay liberation, homosexuality has to "come out" fully in gay films, just as more gays have to come out in their everyday lives, if the social neurosis of homophobia is to be cured.


I've been dropping heuristics for a genuinely gay liberationist cinema throughout my comments. Generally I've voiced them in negative reaction to the omissions or inadequacies of the seventeen films I've discussed. Near the beginning, however, I set down what I believe are minimal guidelines for gay liberationist film work. I wrote that gay film should be (1) sexually candid and realistic and (2) politically critical/analytic of the forms of gay oppression. It should be clear from my criticisms that I believe these guidelines call for films to combat homophobia and to expose the systematic exploitation of gays.

It remains for me to indicate some subjects and techniques for prospective films that will serve gay liberation. Not too elaborately, though, because I'm a critic, not a filmmaker, an analytic rather than a creative worker. My suggestions are just that — suggestive, not directive. I offer them to filmmakers modestly and in the firm belief that there will be no revolution without gay liberation.

We need films about coming out. There's a famous gay cartoon of two chickens warily eying a hatching egg. "Oh no!" moans one, "Another coming out story!" The humor for me arises from incongruity. Virtually every coming out story reveals the manipulation of an individual by many social institutions — nuclear family, school, church, the media, etc. — and the recognition and repudiation, albeit often partial, of that manipulation. I'd love to see a dramatic film, a gay Bidungsroman, about coming out and I suggest Jan Troell's HERE'S YOUR LIFE (1967) as a stylistic model. Troell's work is unparalleled, I think, for its visual communication of the psychological processes of a young worker coming to adult radical awareness. We need a similarly visually sensitive and acute treatment of a young gay realizing her/his sexuality. There is an incredibly rich visual component in everyday sexuality.

We need films about gay ghetto institutions. For example, gay bars: We need to see how they contain gay society for easier management by the police, for easier random harassment by vicious homophobes, for what is finally lawful exploitation on the basis of sexuality. Such a film could assume the form of investigative reporting of the 60 Minutes variety provided it did not sensationalize. Gay bars serve the same convivial needs that other bars do, they are less likely to host fights and other drunken boorishness than are straight bars, and they are important places of truth-telling where the street-cautious can be themselves with their own. The potential for muckraking is tantalizing, but there must be honesty about the good uses of gay bars, uses that eventuated one New York night in the Stonewall rebellion. Only a gay cinema that is too simplistic, that fears coinplexity, will produce totally negative views of the gay bars — or gay baths, gay cruising in parks, or tearooms, for that matter.

We need films — using either original footage or dramatic reconstruction — about gay political campaigns. A film reconstructing the Dade County or St. Paul civil rights campaign would be an invaluable vehicle for self-criticism, for studying the ways we destroy as well as facilitate solidarity and humane interaction among gays and with straight society. My suspicion is that such films would make sharp criticism of the waste of individual talent and initiative through hierarchical management by political pros and their cronies. Such films might indeed conclude that such kinds of gay political campaigns are more harmful than helpful to gay liberation.

We need films about invidious straight patronization of gays. A lot of such work might analyze the media. An "educational" short like WHAT ABOUT McBRIDE?, with its flagrant elision of any gay contribution and its subsequent outrageous pretence of objectivity, is the seed of such a film. So are any movies, TV programs, news reports, commentaries, ads, etc., that present gays and gay experience without gay participation. The analytic method of I. F. stone's Weekly which uses a simple device like repetition — I'm thinking of a thrice-repeated bit of McNamara's Gulf of Tonkin press conference — offers precedents for practice. To amend an injunction from Godard's British Sounds (1970), "The heterosexist has created a world in his image. Gay comrades, let us destroy that image." [9]

We need a powerful film about police entrapment of gays. John Platania's recollections of his entrapment on its very site is an affecting sequence in SOME OF YOUR BEST FRIENDS. It might make an equally interesting single film when dramatically reconstructed. Or Daniel Curzon's protest novel Something You Do in the Dark (1971) might be the basis of an appropriate film since the mainspring of its action is its protagonists's entrapment in a tearoom. Or a massive documentation of entrapment and its personal and political consequences might be undertaken. The attitude of John Rechy in The Sexual Outlaw (1977) seems to me indispensable for this project. Unlike the vast majority of (bourgeois, liberal) gay activists, Rechy sees the relatively indiscriminate and very casual sex gay men seek in public places quite positively, not to say heroically (Rechy's gay Byronism must be avoided). This viewpoint and the warm regard for boy-lovers evidenced in many recent articles in the radical gay press deeply challenge bourgeois sexual ethics. [10] They should be essential to liberatory work about entrapment.

We need ordinary movies — mysteries, comedies, westerns, realist dramas — that integrate homosexual behavior into their development. Of course, we need the integration of heterosexual behavior into common films, too. We have to see, as Paul Goodman once put it, "the hero beginning to have an erection when he sees the heroine across the street [and] the drama of the sexual act itself."[11] But these events, as Goodman hoped, should be treated "as the common part of life which they are." The plot goes on around them, just as everyone's other activities really do go on around their sexual activities. Ideally the fantastic ad-photo patina of gay movies like A VERY NATURAL THING will be firmly rejected and a more class-conscious treatment will be essayed.

Others, filmmakers and critics, may come up with more and better suggestions than mine. Insightful and talented creators like Jan Oxenberg and Tom Joslin will continue to make useful work unless they have a change of heart, which seems from their present achievements highly unlikely. Gay film work should rise to the challenge of and contribute vitally to gay liberation.


1. Thomas Waugh, "Films by Gays for Gays," Jump Cut, No. 16 (November 1977), pp. 14-18.

2. Gay liberation seeks the resolution of class conflict however "class" is interpreted, i.e., both economically as a function of the division of labor and psychologically as a function of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

3. The best examination of gay self-oppression I know is Andrew Hodges and David Hutter, With Downcast Gays: Aspects of Homosexual Self-oppression (London, 1974; Toronto, 1977), available from Pink Triangle Press, Box 639, Station A, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5W lG2.

4. Charley Shiveley, "Don't Mourn, Don't Pout, Rim and Organize," Fag Rag, No. 21/22 (February-March 1978), pp. 2-4, is a superb analysis of how accommodation has served ruling class ends.

5. I use the term "genre" loosely and conveniently so that the reader can more easily comprehend and I can more easily discuss the films.

6. Here, as in all the films that use it, such music and louder but equally tiresome soft-rock gay songs plague more than aid the film. The potentially powerful final image of SANDY AND MADELEINE'S FAMILY, for instance, is weakened greatly by the sentimental slime oozing out of the loudspeakers. As a longtime student and reviewer of popular music, my perspective is no doubt skewed, but gay life so far lacks an original singing voice that is neither cloyingly sentimental nor sloganeering. We need a gay Randy Newman and a firs-trate lyrical gay songwriter.

7. A classic analysis of the functions of tolerance in advanced industrial capitalist society is Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance," in A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boton, 1965, 1969), pp. 81-123.

8. See Randy Alfred, "Becoming a People," San Francisco Sentinel (September 8, 1977); John Schauer, "Putting Gay Anger in Focus," The Advocate (September 7, 1977); Michael McGarry, "Gay USA," The Body Politic, No. 39 (December 1977-January 1978), p. 22; etc.

9. Quoted in James Roy MacBean, Film and Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975), p. 99.

10. See, e.g., Gerald Hannon, "Men loving boys loving men," The Body Politic, No. 39 (December 1977-January 1978), pp. 29-33; and Tom Reeves, "Of Boys and Baltimore," Fag Rag, No. 21/22 (February-March 1978), Emergency Supplement, pp. 3-7 with discussion pp. 8-11.

11. Paul Goodman, "Pornography and the Sexual Revolution," Drawing the Line: Political Essays, ed. Taylor Stoehr (New York, 1977), p. 96.


  • AUGUST AND JULY (90 mm.) New Cinema Enterprises, 35 Britain St., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 1R7.
  • BLACKSTAR: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CLOSE FRIEND (94 mm.) Alchemedia, 193 Nonotuck St., Florence, MA 01060.
  • A COMEDY IN SIX UNNATURAL ACTS (25 mm.) Iris Films, Box 5353, Berkeley, CA 94705
  • DICHOTOMY (7 mm.) Multi Media Resource Center, 1525 Franklin, San Francisco, CA 94109.
  • GAY USA (73 mm) Artists United, Box 1526, 625 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94109.
  • HOME MOVIE (12 mm.) Iris Films, as above.
  • I'M NOT ONE OF 'EM (3 mm.) Iris Films, as above.
  • IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILDREN (53 mm.) Iris Films, as above.
  • LAVENDER (13 mm.) Perennial Education, Box 855, Highland Park, IL 60035.
  • A POSITION OF FAITH (18 mm.) United Church of Christ Audio-Visuals, 1505 Race St., Philadelphia, PA 19102.
  • ROLLIN' WITH LOVE (5 mm.) Focus International, 1 E. 53rd., New York, NY 10022.
  • SANDY AND MADELEINE'S FAMILY (30 mm.) Multi Media Resource Center, as above.
  • SOME OF YOUR BEST FRIENDS (40 mm.) Film Distribution Center, USC, University Park, Los Angeles, CA 90007.
  • WE'RE NOT AFRAID ANYMORE (27 mm.) Parnassus Productions, 6311 Yucca St., Hollywood, CA 90028.
  • WHAT ABOUT McBRIDE? (14 mm.) CRN/McGraw-Hill films, 110 15th St., Del Mar, CA 92014.
  • A WOMAN'S PLACE IS IN THE HOUSE: A PORTRAIT OF ELAINE NOBLE (29 mm.) Texture Films, 1600 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
  • WORD IS OUT (125 mm.) New Yorker Films, 43 W. 61st, New York, NY 10023.