Sunday, June 20, 2021

Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. | Gay USA

taking stock

by Douglas Messerli

Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. (director, with Frederick Schminke, Pat Rocco, Grant Smith, and Bill Moritz) Gay USA / 1977

Anita Jane Bryant was born in Oklahoma in 1940 and began singing on stage at the age of six, performing occasionally on radio and television. In 1958 she was the winner of the Miss Oklahoma contest and was runner-up in the 1959 Miss American pageant at age 18 soon after graduating from Tulsa’s Will Rogers High School.

    Throughout the 1950s Bryant had a total of 11 songs on the US “Hot 100,” three of them, “Paper Roses,” “In My Little Corner of the World” and “Till There Was You” selling over one million copies. In 1960 she married Miami disc jockey, Bob Green, the two of them frequently representing themselves as the ideal Christian couple with four children, two of them twins.

      In the 1960s she often toured with Bob Hope on holiday appearances for the United Service Organizations during the Vietnam War, and received the Silver Medallion Award from the National Guard for “outstanding service by an entertainer” as well as the Veterans Foreign Wars Leadership Gold Medallion.

      In 1969 Bryant became the spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission, winning over millions of orange drinking converts with her commercials touting "Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine” and singing “Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree.” Soon she also appeared in advertisements for Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Holiday Inn, and Tupperware while also teaming up with the Disney “Orange Bird” character which she brought into her orange juice commercials.

     In short, Bryant was an extremely popular family entertainment figure when in March 1, 1969 Jim Morrison and The Doors played at the Dinner Key Auditorium, a converted air hanger with 7,000 seats. The night was hot and muggy and the crowd, must of it standing, had grown impatient for the performance. Morrison, drunk as he was accustomed to being for many of his later performances, went into what some observers, including a couple of his fellow band players, described as a kind of hypnotic trance. After forgetting the lyrics to a couple of songs, he encouraged the crowd to strip: “Love one another. Love you brother, hug him. Man, I’d like to see a little nakedness around here...grab your friend and love him. Take your clothes off and love each other,” he yelled according to one report. As one reporter of the Matt Meltzer describes it “aside from the vaguely homoerotic elements of his screams, there wasn’t much that was so very offensive in his unorthodox performance.”

     But when, soon after, he stripped off his shirt and began shouting “You want to see my cock?” to which the crowd yelled in delight and rushed forward, the event turned into chaos. No one quite has the true answer of what happened that evening, and some can’t even name the correct date. But hundreds claim to have seen Morrison’s penis, although his fellow keyboard player onstage that evening, later declared on radio, "They hallucinated. I swear, the guy never did it. He never whipped it out. It was one of those mass hallucinations. I don't want to say the vision of Lourdes, because only Bernadette saw that, but it was one of those religious hallucinations, except it was Dionysus bringing forth, calling forth snakes. And they started coming down on a rickety little stage, and the entire stage collapsed.” Morrison and his band narrowly escaped.

     A circus media outcry followed and 22 days later, Anita Bryant appeared with many others at a Rally for Decency at the Orange Bowl to protest the event.

     Wanted for his “crimes,” Morrison surrendered to the FBI in Los Angeles that July and faced a Florida trial in 1970; he was ultimately found guilty of two misdemeanors — indecent exposure and “open profanity.” Morrison was sentenced to six months in jail and a $500 fine, but he appealed the sentence and was released on $50,000 bond, granted unanimous clemency by Florida’s Clemency Board and pardoned by outgoing Florida governor Charlie Rist. But the event is generally described as the beginning of Morrison’s end; he would be dead less than a year later.

      Bryant, on the other hand, had found a new career in politics. Creating with others the “Save Our Children” campaign, she became the campaign and later foundation’s spokesperson. Bryant argued: "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children" and "If gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail biters." Those outrageous comments and many others gained her national attention, which soon turned into an organized opposition to gay rights that spread across the nation. Jerry Falwell Sr. and numerous others traveled to Miami in support of her anti-gay beliefs which they declared would be embraced across the nation.

     In 1977, Dade County, Florida, passed an ordinance sponsored by Bryant's former friend Ruth Shack that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Bryant led a highly publicized campaign to repeal the ordinance, as the leader of the “Save Our Children” coalition. The campaign was based on conservative Christian beliefs regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality and the perceived threat of homosexual recruitment of children and child molestation. She described gay people as “human garbage.” Bryant argued:

"What these people really want, hidden behind obscure legal phrases, is the legal right to propose to our children that theirs is an acceptable alternate way of life. [...] I will lead such a crusade to stop it as this country has not seen before.”   

      On June 8, 1977, Bryant's campaign led to a repeal of the anti-discrimination ordinance by a margin of 69 to 31 percent. And in that same year Florida legislators approved a measure prohibiting gay adoption, a law which remained on the books until November 25, 2008. And indeed she lead successful anti-gay attacks in many parts of the US which led to Senator John Briggs initiative in California which would have made any pro-gay statements regarding homosexuals or homosexuality by any public school employee a cause for dismissal; fortunately, later statements against the initiative by current president Jimmy Carter, Governor Jerry Brown, former president Gerald Ford, and former California governor Ronald Regan meant that it was roundly defeated. She led Save Our Children campaigns, furthermore, in Minnesota, Kansas, and Oregon. And after being publicly “pied” in Iowa in October 1977, her career and her advocacy, particularly with the pushback of gay activists began to take a downturn.

     On June 21 Robert Hillsborough, a San Francisco city gardener was killed in an incident of gay bashing. Will Kohler describes the incident on the internet site Back2Stonewall:

"Robert Hillsborough, and his roommate, Jerry Taylor, went out to a disco for a night of dancing. They left sometime after midnight and stopped for a bite to eat at the Whiz Burger a few blocks from their apartment in the Mission District. When they left the burger joint, they were accosted by a gang of young men shouting anti-gay slurs at them. Hillsborough and Taylor ran into Hillsborough’s car as several of the attackers climbed onto the car’s roof and hood. Hillsborough drove off, and thought that he left his troubles behind him. What he didn’t know was that they were following him in another car. Hillsborough parked just four blocks away from their apartment. When they got out of the car four men jumped out of the other car and attacked them again. Jerry Taylor was beaten, but he managed to escape.  Robert Hillsborough wasn’t so lucky.

     Robert was brutally beaten and stabbed 15 times by 19-year-old John Cordova who was yelling, “Faggot! Faggot! Faggot!” Witnesses also reported that Cordoba yelled, “This one’s for Anita!” Neighbors were awakened by the commotion, and one woman screamed that she was calling the police, which prompted the four attackers to flee. Neighbors rushed to Hillsborough’s aid, but it was too late. Hillsborough died 45 minutes later at Mission Emergency Hospital. Cordoba and the three other assailants were arrested later that morning.”

In may seem strange to begin a piece about the celebratory film, Gay USA, about gay pride marches in the US cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Chicago, and New York City on June 26, 1977 by describing one of the many homophobic monsters that have long haunted US history and a brutal incident of gay hate, but as lesbian filmmaker and historian Jeni Olson—one of the individuals behind the preservation of this film—brilliantly points out, these series of events lay behind the insightful and amazingly prescient achievement of a filmmaker that up until that day had been perceived primarily as a maker of porno films. Although we’ve since learned that Arthur J. Bressan’s earlier work was far more complex and interesting than this mistaken description of early works hint, it is still almost mindboggling that he would be able to imagine such a project, coordinate filmmakers in those six cities, edit the results, and produce a work that not only commemorates and gives meaning to that day’s events, but presents the history of those marches and charts out a future for gay pride that still has significance today.

      Bressan’s work, as Olson has described it, “is a remarkable collective portrait of LGBTQ experience in the early years of the modern gay rights movement. As an estimated 250,000 celebrants enjoy the day in San Francisco (more than double the attendance of the previous year), Bressan’s camera crews interview dozens of attendees who share their stories,” as well as straight supporters, and, importantly, individuals who clearly shared Bryant’s homophobia.

      One man who claims to have attended the parade only as an objective observer agrees that gay marchers have every right to march, but appears not so be so very objective, nonetheless, in assessment of gay people as having an imbalance of sexual hormones, creating a problem that represents “an accelerating genetic process across the country that is not a healthy problem.”

       An elderly woman detests the parades which didn’t happen in her day and shouldn’t be allowed to exist today either. “I’m 70 and when I grew up fortunately I never had this to face. And my now grown children didn’t have to see it.” Why she had ventured out to watch it, nonetheless, is never explained.

       A New York man, citing Bryant, argues that gays are attacking boys and girls in the (New York) Port Authority, the arrival point of millions every year who travel by bus.

       Another man questioned states that “If the country goes this way it will be a very unhealthy thing,” the interviewer suggesting that “Gay people don’t want the country to ‘go’ this way, they just want their rights.”

       But many others who identify as straight, some having even brought their children say that they’re worried for all human rights, and fearful of anti-abortionists and for racial inequalities as well.

       A woman who has brought her two sons claims that she wants them to see what’s happening and insists that they enjoy the noise and open fun. Her well-spoken pre-teen speaks out: “I believe in equal sexual rights for kids.”

      In San Francisco some mention the horrifying effects of Anita Bryant and the recent murder of Robert Hillsborough as being their reasons for attending. Others note the parade’s vast diversity, and still others describe its combination of seriousness and fun.

      A completely masked man’s sign reads “I am the homosexual you don’t want to see.”

      A woman insists that “To be with this many people and out in the streets and with so many men and feel so safe has never happened before.”

      After a rather long series of queries about how people define themselves, with a microphone poked into their face with the question “Are you gay?” one individual responds “Today I’m more than gay, I’m jubilant.”

       At another point in the hour and 20-minute movie a 30-year old man who was once arrested and jailed for several days just for being gay, announces that he’s proud and joyful for this moment.     

      A woman from Kansas tells of the limitations she’d experienced in her home state and of the several jobs she’d lost. Two lesbians from Wichita explain why they eventually had to move to New York.


     Poet Pat Parker reads from her poem “But Gays Shouldn’t Be Blantant”: 

Have you met the woman

who's shocked by 2 women kissing

& in the same breath,

tells you that she's pregnant?

BUT GAYS SHOULDN'T BE BLATANT.

 

Or this straight couple

sits next to you in a movie

& you can't hear the dialogue

Cause of the sound effects.

BUT GAYS SHOULDN'T BE BLATANT.

 

And the woman in your office

Spends your entire lunch hour

talking about her new bikini drawers

& how much her husband likes them.

BUT GAYS SHOULDN'T BE BLATANT.

      When the screen shows the inverted pink Act Up insignia and a float featuring blow-ups of Stalin, Hitler, Anita Bryant, a Ku Klux Klan member, and Idi Amin, the director intercuts with footage from Leni Reifensthahl’s Nazi parade documentation, and a narrator describes some of the history of how gays were rounded up and sent to concentration camps by Hitler and the Nazis to die.

      And at another point, after an interviewee describes the changes from the early 1970 Christopher Street day parade celebrating Stonewall, Bressan interweaves brief previously forgotten footage of that parade along with a discussion of the history of the Gay Pride parades.

      An older man, when asked what he thinks about the outrageousness of some of the gay men in drag costumes recounts some important gay history of a time when homosexuals were often forced to hide their identity in order to keep their jobs and function in the majority heterosexual society: There were always those among us who stood out as being what people describe as outrageously gay. We’d always say “So and so was not for ‘streetwear.’ You couldn’t be seen walking with them down the street. They’ve always been there and,” he admits, “gave us cover. We could stand on the side and say that’s what a gay person looks like. But today we can join them, march with them, and hold hands.”

      Bressan and his colleagues’ coverage has so much to say and more. But it is the row upon row of marching faces: the black, hispanic, asian, white, and native American teachers, philosophers, dancers, hard hat workers, lesbians, parents, writers, singers, drivers, historians, drag queens, cooks, cops, farmers, dykes on bikes, firefighters, actors, scientists, and so many others marching side by side down the streets of six cities as far as the camera’s eye can register that finally brings tears to the human viewer. So many thousands of people dressed in sweaters, dresses, pants suits, extravagant attire, or half naked joining with one another to say “we’re here, we’ve always been here, and we’re not going away” makes anyone with a heart and brain to go with it extraordinarily proud of being an LGBTQ individual in the USA.  

     As Bressan’s central figure Robert says in the director’s 1985 film Buddies: “... Gay Day is great. Just look at all those people, most of the year passing for straight and then, wham! they’re out. The world has to see them and deal with them. ... You know, a chance to be yourself without worrying who’s watching or what they’re thinking. ...For me it stands for not letting the world say that I’m not here. That there’s only supposed to be straight people, straight love....”

      But Robert was speaking from a perspective of eight year later when gay marchers were not merely expressing their pride but their anger for their government and fellow citizens ignoring them in the time of AIDS.

     1977 was a seminal year in part because it was one of the last years when the simple joy of being able come together and show your face among so many thousands of others still stood as a forceful anecdote against homophobic hate. In the few years since the Stonewall riots the LBGTQ movement had grown up to become a powerful force that truly could, so it seemed, change gay people’s lives.

     Just six months earlier Harvey Milk had been sworn as the first gay San Francisco city supervisor. Despite Anita Bryant and all the others like her, gays knew that they had begun to win their cause, and celebrated that realization in a manner that could never be as innocent and pure-minded ever again. 

     Bressan’s important film, aired alas only on Public TV and watched mostly by gay viewers—just imagine how powerful this film might have been if seen by general audiences throughout the nation—expressed that well-deserved pride and joy shared by the whole community. It was a time for taking stock.

     Only 5 months and 1 day later, on November 27, 1978, San Francisco City Supervisor Milk was shot and killed by Dan White. On June 5, 1981, less than 4 years later, the AIDS epidemic was formerly recognized by medical professionals in the United States.

Los Angeles, June 26, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2021).         

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