A pair of new documentaries -- one about New York City in the 1960s and one about California in 2008 -- illustrate that while gay men and women have come a long way over the past half-century, there are still places where they can't simply be themselves.
Although they're set four decades apart, Stonewall Uprising and 8: The Mormon Proposition depict similar worlds. The difference is that the latter film portrays a sect that drives its gay members to despair, while the former is about a time when mainstream American society isolated, degraded and punished all gays.
The more skillfully constructed of the two, Stonewall Uprising builds to the 1969 event one witness calls the "Rosa Parks moment" of the gay-rights movement: the weekend when patrons of a Greenwich Village bar violently resisted the sort of police raids that had previously been accepted as the price of their brief forays out of the closet.
Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (Waiting for Armageddon) present an evocative overview of anti-gay hysteria in the 1960s, a period when homosexuality was illegal in every state except Illinois. Gays were routinely abused in such institutions as California's Atascadero State Hospital, dubbed "Dachau for queers"; New York City's gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn, were run by the Mafia in collusion with the NYPD Morals Squad.
The filmmakers don't just use clips from dubious "educational" films like Boys Beware, which warned of lurking pederasts. They also excerpt from "The Homosexuals," a grim edition of CBS Reports that host Mike Wallace probably wishes would disappear. It aired in 1967, but in tone seems closer to the Salem Witch Trials.
There is little footage of the Stonewall riots themselves, so Davis and Heilbroner use a mix of talking heads, still photos, reconstructed scenes and stock footage. The latter can be jarring, as when they insert a bit of a calling-all-cars scene from a crime picture that clearly predates 1969.
The movie's witnesses include two Village Voice reporters and a former Morals Squad member who's now sympathetic to the people he used to arrest.
But most of the film's talking heads were active participants, and they recall both the Stonewall uprising and the march that commemorated it a year later with pride and relief. Walking en masse up Fifth Avenue, one Stonewall veteran recalls, "We were ourselves for the first time."
A Difficult 'Proposition'
The leaders of the Mormon church would seem to have no sympathy for such sentiments, at least by the lights of a pointedly polemical new documentary that suggests they pose a challenge to its theology.
As 8: The Mormon Proposition explains it, the men of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that after death they will become "gods" with multiple "spirit wives." (The eternal reward for heterosexual female Mormons is left unclear.) This vision of the afterlife, the film argues, is threatened by same-sex marriage, and so Mormons began to quietly campaign against it, first in Hawaii and then in California, where in 2008 they backed Proposition 8. The measure won, in part because of an impressive flow of pro-8 contributions into California, mostly from Utah.
No one from the church hierarchy would be interviewed for the movie, although the filmmakers have located some revealing documents and audiotapes; when the film screened at the Sundance festival, a church spokeswoman dismissed it as "obviously biased."
On the other side, the filmmakers interview a sympathetic mother, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and a gay California couple chagrined that Prop 8 passed after they had already married.
The documentary soon proceeds to the struggles of gay Mormons, especially young ones; it says their suicide rate is high in Utah, where some gay teenagers exiled from family homes live in makeshift squats. Gay Mormons who seek "treatment," the film reports, are subjected to electroshock and prefrontal lobotomies -- discredited procedures used at Atascadero State Hospital decades ago.
8: The Mormon Proposition is less thorough and cohesive than Stonewall Uprising, but it can't be ignored. The movie poignantly demonstrates that, 41 years after Stonewall, there are still places in this country where gay people cannot simply be themselves.