Equality Forum, in partnership with WHYY, the PBS member station in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, produced a 30-minute documentary highlighting one of the turning points in the LGBT civil rights movement. In Gay Pioneers, we are given an idea of what life was like for openly gay people in the 1960s and how a handful of activists successfully took back the narrative from the homophobic establishment. Through their hard work and their protests, they helped shape events that would bring about the riots at the Stonewall Inn, and the beginning of the nationwide LGBT rights movement as we know it today.
The documentary begins with a letter sent to the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover by Frank Kameny, representing the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights advocacy organizations. Kameny asked to meet with Hoover to discuss the issue of gay life in the United States and the indignities they suffered daily. Hoover never would respond to that letter, only issuing an internal memo that any correspondence sent to the FBI by the Mattachine Society be disregarded.
That was 1963. Activists were becoming embolded every day, first picketing in front of the White House to protest Fidel Castro’s decision to send homosexuals to labor camps in Cuba. The activists argued that while homosexuals weren’t sent to labor camps in the United States, was the U.S. government’s treatment of gay people any better? The FBI took notice and wrote dossiers on all the activists involved.
By 1965, activists were bold enough to organize protests which advocated for full gay equality and better treatment by the government and by society. To make sure their message would be heard loud and clear, the first protests were held in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, on our nation’s birthday, July 4.
Forty activists were sharply dressed and held up signs such as “Homosexuals Should Be Judged as Individuals,” “Homosexuals Ask For Equality Before the Law,” “Equal Opportunity for All…All Means All!” and “Homosexuals Are American Citizens Also.” Their dress and behavior were strategic: by dressing conservatively, not engaging in banter between naysayers, and focusing the attention on their message, they managed to take back the narrative from the homophobic establishment. This was the same establishment that labeled gays as child molesters, social deviants, people that normal Americans could not relate to. Passersby were surprised to see that these homosexual activists could be, and probably were, people they knew in their day-to-day lives.
Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings were just a few of the protesters who made their identities public. Barbara Gittings spoke about having the least to lose out of all the protesters, so she raised her voice, but she was still afraid that once her address would be publicized (as was custom at that time), her house would be firebombed. Luckily, she was never seriously harmed, nor were any of the other protesters.
Having made their point in such a public forum for the first time, the protesters wanted to keep gay rights in the public eye. They organized “remembrance protests” every July 4 from 1966 through to 1969. The 1969 protests were the most electric, as they occurred just days after the Stonewall Riots in New York City. Protesters came from New York City and Washington, D.C., and were a lot more vocal than many of the people in the original group. Crisp suits gave way to mini-skirts and bell bottoms, and two women made their own statement by holding hands — shocking for that time.
Gay Pioneers talks to organizers Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, who explain the significance of these protests in their own words. Sadly, both of these activists have died, but their legacies live on in small part due to this documentary. Five other participants are also interviewed, from a church reverend to a then-meek and closeted 18-year-old college co-ed. Considering the 50th anniversary of these protests just passed, it’s more important than ever that Gay Pioneers is on everyone’s must-see documentary list. It will be followed up shortly by another documentary, one chronicling the events surrounding the 50th anniversary weekend in Philadelphia, showing us just how far we’ve come in a half-century.
Gay Pioneers was produced by Equality Forum with the help of WHYY. Malcolm Lazin served as the executive producer while Glenn Holsten was the producer and director. The Equality Forum is an international organization that seeks to advance LGBT civil rights. To learn more about Gay Pioneers, visit gaypioneers.com. You can purchase your copy of the documentary by going to lgbt50.org/store.