The film looks back to June 28, 1969, when a violent encounter between New York City’s homosexual community and the city’s police department exploded. It would change things for many in profound ways; however, it was barely documented by the mainstream media.

In 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in every state in the US, except in Illinois. Gay people had no political power, no rights. Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, a prolific husband and wife documentary filmmaking team based in New York City, were commissioned by PBS’ American Experience to make a film about the now-famous Stonewall riots that took place in New York’s West Village in the summer of that year. But before we even get to the recreation of that event, accompanied by commentary from some of the men and women who were there, Davis and Heilbroner meticulously and expertly illustrate the timbre of the general populace’s view on homosexuality. This is aided and abetted by vicious and incendiary propaganda about the dangers to society for which these “deviants” might be responsible, especially to young boys and girls vulnerable to encountering homosexuals in their schools, neighborhoods and playgrounds.

The film starts with various selections of archival material that showcase the ways in which this “mental defect” or “psychopathy” could threaten normal families. As responsible Americans, we had to be vigilant about watching for any suspicious behavior in our little boys and girls and “correct” any aberrant tendencies immediately. From the public service announcement produced and released by the Albert Einstein School of Medicine called “Boys Beware” (1961), to CBS Reports’ news hour: The Homosexuals (1967) hosted by Mike Wallace, to footage of Detective John Sorenson of the Dade County Morals & Juvenile Squad scaring the wits out of junior high school students about what will happen to them if they’re caught being “homosexual” – these outrageous and fear-mongering pieces show us that if you were growing up gay in the 1950s and 1960s, you could be subjected to arrest and personal ruin (with your full name and home address appearing in the newspapers). Or sterilization, castration, electroshock therapy, lobotomy, and so-called “medical experimentation” at the hands of clinicians and doctors. One subject remembers a place in Atascadero, California where parents sometimes sent their wayward children, recalling that the facility, placed in the middle of nowhere, was known as “the Dachau for queers.”

In this atmosphere, young closeted gay people flocked to havens like New York City’s Christopher Street and San Francisco’s Castro District to find a friendly and open place where they could be “out” and amongst their own kind. Though one subject tells us that, before Stonewall, there was no such thing as being, or coming, out. “There was just in.” The gays called themselves the “twilight people,” only appearing in the streets well after dark, hiding in the shadows, ever fearful of beatings by roving gangs out for a night of sport at their expense, or being harassed, beaten, arrested, and jailed by police. They had very few public places of refuge. One subject tells us that: “Gay bars were to gay people what churches were to black people in the South.” In fact, Stonewall is described as their “Rosa Parks moment, when the system of oppression started to crumble.”

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