Gap in the syllabus: Documentary, film, and ‘The Gay 80s’

Published

Credit: Julia Rosner

Ilia Hionidou
Writer

Earlier in 2019, the UK experienced a wave of protests against same-sex education in primary schools. Ilia Hionidou interviews academics about their experiences in teaching courses that feature LBGTQ+ content. The series discusses the benefits and backlashes of including LGBTQ+ studies in higher education across the UK and the US, and aims to inform readers about important moments in LGBTQ+ history.

In the early hours of the morning on 28 June 1969, policemen raided a bar in Greenwich Village, New York City (NYC). This particular dive bar was run by NYC’s oldest and largest Italian-American mafia-affiliated crime family, the Genovese, who saw the acquisition of the bar as an economic endeavour aiming to exploit the city’s LGBTQ+ market. In 1969, homosexuality was illegal in the USA, with Illinois as the only exception. NYC’s State Liquor Authority (SLA) allowed clubs and bars to serve homosexuals alcohol, so long as their behaviour was not deemed “disorderly”. Such “disorderly” conduct included kissing, touching, and dancing in a visibly sexual manner, all of which were prohibited behaviours for LGBTQ+ people and would jeopardise a bar’s alcohol license. Mafia-owned gay clubs were some of the only spaces available for them to socialise, drink, and dance. The mafia upheld business at gay bars by paying corrupt policemen in exchange for protection; the policemen would tip off the clubs when the police were planning to carry out a raid. These laws and regulations served as the backdrop to the 28 June riots which would indelibly shape the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. The name of the bar was the Stonewall Inn.

The Stonewall Uprising was immortalised in the 2011 documentary film of the same name, produced and directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner and based on David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. This film features as the first assignment of The Gay 80s, a class run by Adjunct Senior Professorial lecturer Bob Connelly at American University (AU). The class examines historical LGBTQ+ events through the lens of documentary films in order to better understand the impact of the AIDs epidemic on American society in the 1980s.

Connelly began his work at AU whilst obtaining his master’s degree in Film from the School of Communications. In 2001, he taught a module named Gay and Lesbian Documentary and was later invited to teach a course named LGBT Issues for the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies programme. This was followed by a class called History of the LGBT Movement in 2009.

The number of courses that teach the history of the LGBTQ+ movement in the US are few and far between: “I would venture to say that my Gay and Lesbian Documentary class was the first gay-specific class at AU.” However, he notes that “as far as erasure goes, it’s actually quite the opposite, in that AU wanted to expand its offerings to be more inclusive in the types of courses that they were teaching”.

Connelly was both surprised and humbled by the popularity of his course The Gay 80s: “It is such a compliment that [the classes] seem to fill up. For this semester we had a cap of 20 students, and there were five students on the waiting list, and so I opened it up and I got four more of those students who ended up coming into the class. So, the class now has 24 students, and it’s a huge, huge compliment that these students want to take this course of study.” Connelly emphasises the students’ earnestness in their appreciation of LGBTQ+ history, stating that “nobody takes these classes half-heartedly”.

For many students, the historical materials that Connelly introduces in his classes are entirely new. While he does not ask students to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity, “if [a student] feels it’s important for me to know, they let me know in one way or another, whether it’s through class discussion or during office hours”. Connelly estimates that around half of the students in his The Gay 80s class identify as LGBTQ+, while the other half identify as straight, cis-gendered students. 

For the LGBTQ+ students, this module allows them to learn about their community’s history: “I’ve had so many really wonderful comments about that like, ‘wow I never knew this’ or ‘this makes me so proud’”. He also welcomes the positive feedback that the class receives from straight, cis-gendered students, who would comment that they “never realised the struggles that the LGBTQ+ community had in overcoming the obstacles that were in their path over the course of history”.

While the Stonewall Uprising is credited as the event that sparked the gay revolution, many prominent activists and civil rights organisations addressed the obstacles faced by the LGBTQ+ community long before Stonewall. These obstacles remain a living memory for many of the LGBTQ+ residents of Washington, D.C. In the 1950s, the White House passed Executive Order 10450 deeming homosexuals who worked in the federal government as communist sympathisers and therefore a national security risk. As part of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, the Executive Order was one of the many smear tactics employed by the US government that led to a series of mass firings across the US and strengthened the belief that homosexuality was a mental disorder. The targeted persecution and legislative discrimination against gay people that continued throughout the 1950s became known as the “Lavender Scare”.

In reaction to the “Lavender Scare”, the Mattachine Society was formed in Los Angeles, and was one of the first LGBTQ+ allied organisations created to protect the rights of homosexuals across the United States. In 1961, the Washington, D.C. Mattachine Society branch was co-founded by Frank Kameny, who had been dismissed from his job as a U.S. Army astronomer in 1957 because of his homosexuality. Kameny is now known as one of the most prolific activists of the American gay rights movement since he formally contested his firing in 1961 in what became the first known civil rights claim based on sexual orientation to be brought to the Supreme Court. Over the course of the next decade Kameny continued to push for gay rights and in 1965 he launched some of the earliest gay and lesbian public protests by picketing in front of the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department.

Until his death, Kameny lived opposite the Washington National Cathedral; just a mile east of AU: “Kameny used to come to AU for the GLBTA Resource Centre Annual Dinner. He passed away in 2011 but he was a face on campus.” Connelly remembers when Kameny came to AU to speak to one of his classes about the work he did in the early days of the movement: “I have tapes of Frank Kameny talking to my class. He was an astronomer and he had a very scientific mind; he had all of the things he wanted to say written down. He would talk about this, then you would see him check it off, and then he would talk about that, and you would see him check that off. He was just phenomenal – I even have one of the picket signs that he gave me [from] when they picketed the White House.”

Influenced by the creation of the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was founded as the first civil rights organisation in the US for lesbian and bisexual women. Established in San Francisco in 1955, the DOB hosted public forums on homosexuality and also collaborated with ONE, Inc., an independent gay-themed magazine. The DOB became an educational resource and support network for lesbian and bisexual women.

Barbara Gittings was the organiser of the New York branch of the DOB and cooperated closely with Frank Kameny to become one of the most revered activists for LGBTQ+ equality. As a librarian, Gittings was involved in the American Library Association and worked to encourage libraries to supply literature that featured positive depictions of homosexuality. She also founded the first American Library Association gay and lesbian caucus. Gittings spoke at AU before she passed away in 2007. For Connelly, the meeting was “like touching history. It made everything so much more personal and so much more real.”

With the involvement of activists such as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings at AU, Connelly notes that the acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ themes in the circles of higher education can build bridges between academic and non-academic communities. Students frequently step out of academic circles on a daily basis, allowing the influence of these classes to reach far beyond the four walls of the university seminar room: 

“Often, whether they have same-sex parents, or opposite sex parents, [the students’] parents have lived through the time periods that I’m discussing, especially with this Gay 80s class.” With that, Connelly says, the students use the class’ reading material to spark a discourse about these issues with their parents, who are perhaps unaware of the intricacies and nuances of the history of the LGBTQ+ movement: “I’ll have a student say ‘I called my mother last night and told her what I learned in class’ … That’s really exciting for me.”

Furthermore, the evolution of the academic conversation concerning LGBTQ+ topics reflects the social moment that the movement is in. Connelly uses his 2001 class on Gay and Lesbian Documentary to highlight that, “it was ‘Gay and Lesbian,’ it wasn’t ‘LGBTQ’ because that’s what the issues were in 2001, it was specifically gay and lesbian issues”. For Connelly, the introduction of the LGBTQ+ acronym is a result of the social issues that reflect the concerns and interests of the students that he teaches: 

“To the students today, ‘Gay and Lesbian’ is so last century to them. Now, students are more concerned with gender identity and gender fluidity and that is completely represented by the fact that we refer to the movement as the LGBTQ movement, or the LGBTQ+ movement, as opposed to the Gay and Lesbian movement. Amongst both LGBTQ and straight students, the conversation about transgender identities, and gender fluidity, is in the atmosphere and it’s an issue that they – no matter what their identity is – are concerned about.”

How, then, can universities become more inclusive of LGBTQ+ themes? Connelly argues that universities should ensure that LGBTQ+ issues remain a part of the mainstream narrative: “I think what’s really important is to keep the conversation going and to keep the topic in the air somehow.” For example, AU’s Centre for Diversity and Inclusion hosts various programmes that are LGBTQ+ specific, but are open to anybody in the university. Within the classroom, Connelly expresses that it is imperative to not gloss over the fact that important and influential historical figures are widely seen today as having been gay:

“Oscar Wilde, for example, is the archetypal gay writer that you think of, but you don’t think of Walt Whitman as being gay. And not that you should necessarily point that out if it’s irrelevant to the material, but if it is relevant to the material, bring it up.”

A LGBTQ+ Documentary and Film Watchlist:
An Early Frost (1985; 97 mins)
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989; 80 mins)
Gay Pioneers (2004; 30 mins)
Gay Power, Gay Politics (1980; 60 mins)
Personal Best (1982; 128 mins)
Sidney Shorr: A Girl’s Best Friend (1981; 120 mins)
Stonewall Uprising (2011; 90 mins)
The Gay Life (May 5, 1980; 60 mins < https://www.glbthistory.org/>)
Tongues Untied (1989; 55 mins)
Voices from the Front (1991; 93 mins)What Sex Am I? (1985; 60 mins)