a gay old time

Take a glimpse into our queer past, with footage from Pride parades nearly 50 years ago

Image Credit: ‘Gay USA,’ Altered Innocence

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” 

Happy end of Pride! As we close out our “mini-series” highlighting a different letter of the LGBTQ+ acronym each week of June, we end on the all-encompassing “Q+” with a documentary that speaks on how far we’ve come as a community, and yet how far we still have to go.

It’s often that not until you look back at something (a major event in your life, a shift in career trajectory, a relationship), that you’re able to really see the full view of the path you’ve traveled. Time offers perspective.

And while it’s easier to discuss on a personal level, this also applies to our ever-changing culture throughout history. As people and communities around the world fight for their rights and freedom (fights that can often feel endless and with little gains), it’s helpful to look back to really take hold of what’s been accomplished.

The gay rights movement in the United States took full force in the late ’60s, although we made ourselves seen and present since way before then. In recent years, entertainment has made a relatively successful (though by no means fully comprehensive) effort to tell stories about that tumultuous time. However, there’s not a lot of readily available media (and even more so, widely known) that was made at the height of the gay rights movement that depicts what it felt like to be a part of it in the present tense.

The Set-Up

This week, we revisit the 1978 documentary Gay USA, a simple yet immensely powerful collection of interviews and footage from various pride parades across the country on the same day. Seeing these people live through what is now our history provides a necessary retrospective on how much we’ve changed. But at its heart, it’s about how similar things still are, for better and for worse.

Gay USA, directed by Arthur J. Bressan, Jr., doesn’t follow a straightforward narrative, nor does it have any one subject at its center. It captures the crowds at various Pride parades in 1977 (including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Dade County, Florida), and through a very simple yet candid man-on-the-street style interviews, it’s able to provide a comprehensive idea of what the social and political climate was at the time.

We’re able to witness an eclectic collection of communities gathered to celebrate each other through this time capsule: From butch lesbians to effeminate drag queens, from children that had never seen gay people before to elders that fought in World War II.

There are also radical progressives trying to get their voices heard, and hateful conservatives spewing rhetoric that feels oddly familiar these days. The film was shot in the wake of Anita Bryant’s spiteful hate campaign and her efforts to repeal anti-discriminatory policies in Florida, so the mood among the crowd is raw and sensitive.

The Spirit Of The ’70s

Image Credit: ‘Gay USA,’ Altered Innocence

The film has a naturalistic style, without any narrator or character that connects the images or creates a story. It simply sews footage together (often connecting them via song) of a community gathering to assert their right to simply exist.

Although images of large crowds marching together through the streets, waving Pride flags in eclectic outfits (or sometimes no outfits at all) may feel like a relatively common occurrence nowadays, Gay USA captures the feeling of novelty and radicalism from fifty years ago; the sense that there was a guttural need to be vocal and open and out in the streets together, or otherwise we would be shoved back in the closet without a second thought. There’s a sense of urgency in the documentary that was vital to the movement.

It also feels uncomfortably familiar at certain points, as it makes you realize that the talking points of the conservative ultra-right have always been the same. The fear-mongering and inability to accept us (let alone engage in conversation) has long been a pillar for them. Seeing so many people openly share their bigoted views with the documentary crew—saying things that are found so easily these days behind keyboards—gives the eerie sense that the hate never went away. It just went into hiding.

Pride Then. Pride Now. Pride Forever.

Image Credit: ‘Gay USA,’ Altered Innocence

But the most striking thing about the movie is not how resonant the segments that showcase the hatred still are (they may be hard to shake after viewing). It’s the sense of communion one feels with people five decades in the past.

It’s seeing a lesbian couple be able to be open for the first time in their lives after having to move states. It’s seeing an older man crying on the street because he never thought he would ever live to see a day where he could be himself in public. It’s shirtless men in speedos throwing Froot Loops at the crowd. It’s young twinks making out in front of religious protesters, and butch women riding motorbikes through packed avenues. It’s seeing thousands and thousands of queer people marching together in solidarity, and seeing that the thing that brought them together back then is still bringing us together now.

It’s realizing that your group of friends and lovers looks and feels exactly the same as theirs, and feeling an unshakeable bond with the past.

We have made a lot of progress since 1978 in terms of representation, political rights, visibility and inclusion. Much of that has also been reversed, and we cannot let down the fight.

Over the last month, this column aimed to shed light into the various ways we have been represented in fictional media through the last decades. But sometimes, all you need to do to feel empowered and to keep going is not to look at fiction, but at reality. To keep building on it. To never forget it. Happy Pride.

Gay USA is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video, Plex, & Watch TCM.

Image Credit: ‘Gay USA,’ Altered Innocence

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  • inbama

    Innocent days.
    L B G finally allowed in the NYPD and marching in uniform to applause.
    Today, they’re not allowed.

  • Kangol2

    Happy L.. G.. B.. T.. Q..
    P.r.1.d.e Day!

Comments are closed.