Eric Marcus is a journalist, founder and host of the Making Gay History Podcast. He joins us today to compare history with the 2015 Roland Emmerich movie Stonewall.
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
Did you enjoy this episode? Help support the next one!
Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:02:24] There’s some text on the screen to open the movie that helps gives a little bit of context. So, I thought that would be a great place for us to start as well. According to that text in the movie in 1969, federal law in the US prohibits government agencies from hiring homosexuals. They’re classified as mentally ill.
It’s illegal for homosexuals to congregate and be served. Alcohol and electric shock therapy is used to cure homosexuality. Can you give a little more historical context around what the laws were like during the timeline of the movie?
Eric Marcus: [00:02:55] Well, I can’t say that was with the best of times. The list that is offered is actually true. In 1953, President Eisenhower signed an executive order, banning gay people from federal employment.
So that means if you were found out. Or they found you out because they were very, they very actively sought out homosexuals and got rid of them. You could easily lose your federal job. I remember reading some of the letters that were sent to people who did the investigations. This is during, it was called the lavender scare.
It was concurrent with the red scare, but I bet you didn’t learn about that in school.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:03:30] Oh, not that I did not. No.
Eric Marcus: [00:03:33] And I saw a documentary recently called the lavender scare about that period of history. And there were people who in federal government who were very actively involved in, rooting it out.
Homosexual was one guy in particular. Talk with pride about, this guy who, whose life he ruined, who then left his office and shot himself. So thousands of gay people lost their jobs. And that included people in the military as well. So the people it’s a little hard to imagine now, but gay people were thought to be a security threat, because if, since you have to be closeted, because you would be fired, if you were found out or you could lose your family.
So it was a double bind. You can be blackmail because you have to be closeted and you have to be closeted because if you weren’t you’d lose your job. So it was theorized that gay people were prime targets for being blackmailed by Sophia to wants it to spy on the, on the United States. So I say people are scapegoated is when it comes down to, but yes, it was, it was, yeah, it was considered sinful by churches.
And indeed it wasn’t metal listed as a mental illness. So if you’re a doctor, you can’t have a mental illness. If you’re a lawyer, you’d lose your license. If you’re a school teacher, we can’t have mentally ill people teach school. So the pressure on gay people was enormous. And it wasn’t until 1961, when a law was passed in Illinois, that, that there was at least one state where it wasn’t illegal for people of the same sex to engage in sexual relations.
Yeah, so it was wild. And also you literally, it was against the law, at least in New York state to serve homosexuals alcohol on a bar. It didn’t say in the law that you couldn’t serve homosexuals. What it said was that you could not serve people in who were disorderly or could create a disorderly environment.
And that used by the state liquor authority in New York. To deny gay people, the right to be served in bars, which is why the bars were then owned by the mafia or run by the mafia because they set up a system with the police for payoffs so that these bars could operate.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:05:37] Wow. Wow. So I imagine, I mean, you mentioned that, you know, being illegal for federal employment, but I imagine a lot of private employers also followed suit in that way where they basically followed the.
Federal law or was it illegal for private employers to employ as well?
Eric Marcus: [00:05:53] It wasn’t illegal for private employers to employ gay people, but, but if you were, you couldn’t be out and be a school teacher you’d be fired. There was such a such scorn for homosexuals that if you were a lawyer, you could be fired.
It’s so hard for us to imagine now, but I remember interviewing people who were among the first, who, went to job interviews at law firms and said, I’m gay. And you know, either you hire me, you know, but I don’t want to work in a place where I can’t be myself. I was one of only two out, okay. People in the newsroom at CBS morning news in 19.
ADA, I’m sorry. I was the only one who was out in the newsroom at CBS morning news in 1988. I was only one of two journalists out at the Columbia university graduate school of journalism in the class of 1984. We had about 150 classmates.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:06:44] Wow. And that’s, that’s not that long ago.
Eric Marcus: [00:06:47] No, it was not that long ago.
No, I’m a dinosaur and dinosaur still walk the earth.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:06:51] No, but I mean, that’s not what I meant. I mean, think of it, like you’re saying, you know, it’s hard to think about now, but you know, we think of this as not ancient history. Right. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that, that it was that way.
Eric Marcus: [00:07:04] It was that way.
Yeah. I was warned by my professor more by my professors that it could ruin my career if I were out. And, he was very much against our classmate and I, who both out, wanted to do a story on AIDS. The AIDS crisis was unfolding at that time. He was very much against it and said we could catch AIDS through the camera.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:07:23] Okay. That’s yeah. There’s some ridiculousness.
Eric Marcus: [00:07:27] Yeah. Yeah. I know. And, But it’s, it’s so hard for us now to imagine and what it was like in 1969. Okay. People socialize them. The words we use were so different than, today we talk about trans people. People didn’t identify as such back then. So they were older.
They might be identified as gay. Or people who identified as drag Queens, we might think of today as gender nonconforming. It’s even hard to talk about those times because the language today is so different. We talk about the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Now there was a final movement in the 1960s. There wasn’t a gay rights movement.
It was called something different and it wasn’t a, a mix of communities. It wasn’t LGBTQ people that has come about over time
Dan LeFebvre: [00:08:07] now. Oh, so it was more separate than it, than it is now is what you’re saying.
Eric Marcus: [00:08:12] So right after Stonewall, you were saying there was a gay rights movement or gay liberation movement.
And then it was the gay and lesbian movement. Has women asserted their power. And from the 1993 March on Washington, bisexual people negotiated a spot for themselves. So it was the 1993 March on Washington for. Gay lesbian BI rights or lesbian gay BI rights. He was added later. There was a lot of tears that you can’t imagine.
You know, people now say, you know, we used to get along so well as a group gay people, you know, years ago. And why do we all have to argue now? Well, we never got along all that. Well, and then it’s always been tension between the different groups. Were much more accepting and embracing movement now than we were back then.
And in 69 at the time of Stonewall, the movement was tiny. There were somewhere between 40 and 60 homophile or gay rights organizations prior to Stonewall. Yeah. I only up several hundred activists in all and the entire United States.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:09:06] Oh wow. That’s a lot smaller than I would have expected. Yeah. Well, speaking of the, the timeline there, we kind of get into idea of what, what it was like.
Then according to at least, you know, in the movie in 1969, but I’d like to ask about the who and the, where that we see in the movie. The movie follows a young man by the name of Danny winters and he arrives in New York. And almost immediately you start hanging out with a group on Christopher street, in New York and they make up the main characters in the movie.
There’s Ray. Orphan Annie queen Kong, quiet Paul, and literally, and not spoil the ending, but we do see, like we’ve seen a lot of movies that are based on a true story. We see the real people in the movie at the end, and it talks about people like Marsha, P Johnson, Bob Kohler, Seymour pine, but the movie doesn’t mention any of the main characters in the movie at the end only.
Saying that it’s dedicated to unsung heroes of the Stonewall riots. So as I was watching this, I got the idea that that probably means the main characters are not real, but perhaps they’re fictional characters that were to tell a story of how not everyone gets their name in the history books, but they can still have an impact on history.
So, Oh, the main characters in the movie based on real people who were living on Christopher street in New York city.
Eric Marcus: [00:10:18] Well, I think everyone, but Danny from Indiana, the main character in the film. Now this was a very earnest film I have to say, but what I didn’t know. And I read all the criticism of the film when it first came out in 2015.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that it was a terrible, but it’s not, but there isn’t any such as the history that’s problematic. It’s a terrible movie. And so terrible that at times it was funny when it wasn’t supposed to be funny. But one of my, I’d say acquaintances, friends, colleagues is a man named Martin Boyce who I’ve interviewed, who was at Stonewall.
He was one of the street kids, but unlike most of the street kids, he had a stable home. He went to private school during the day and did what’s called scare drag in the evening with his friends who hung out in Christopher Park across from the Stonewall Inn. And scare drag was partial drag makeup, long hair out some women’s clothing, but not, not the rest.
and Martin was a consultant to the film. And when I asked Martin about it, you said it was actually a lot of, it was quite accurate in the portrayals of the people who were there. And I could feel Martin’s fingerprints on this because some of the names of the people who were in the street, kids were names of Martin’s friends.
And some of the characterization seemed to be similar to what Martin has described to me. And I wonder if the character Ray was Sylvia, Ray Rivera, Sylvia Rivera, who’s become a, is an icon. Trans activist was thought to have been at the Stonewall uprising, but there’s some debate about that or some dispute about it.
So, so, so I think some of the characters were composites. But the life that was shown in that film of these kids, who’ve been thrown out who came to New York, either from, from, from New York city itself or from outside of New York and were living on the streets and making money. However, they could mostly by hustling.
Those stories are true. There’s a scene in particular where Danny, the, the it’s such a, such a cliche, the blonde boy from Indiana comes to New York and descend falls in with this group of street kids. And he’s going to Columbia and his, his parents reject him. And his dad is the coach of the football team and he’s on the football team and he falls in love with the.
Oh, my God. It was like, it was crushed under the weight of the cliches. The name was cliches, but in there, there is, there is some historical fact, but Danny is completely made up. There is no Danny from Indiana who threw the first brick and stone.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:12:46] Okay. Well that was going to be a later question that I, yeah, he does throw the first,
Eric Marcus: [00:12:51] so we can come back to that.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:12:52] You’re talking earlier about how it’s hard to imagine things. There was something, as I was watching the movie that was. It was hard to imagine what it must be like. And that was the scene where we see Danny in high school and the whole class is watching this education video. Right. It’s how not a home sexuals are passive.
And they like to hang out in public restrooms and it suggests that your life is going to be at risk if they’re nearby. Right. And so it just seemed like this propaganda film that they’re trying to incite fear and hatred in the schools. Was that something that really happened in classrooms in the sixties.
Eric Marcus: [00:13:24] It did I’m too young to have seen those, those films. I grew up in principally in the seventies. I was born in 1958 and was 11 years old at the time of Stonewall. and at PS 99, public school in New York city, although class was out by, by then. But I’d never been to Greenwich village. Although my parents hung out in Greenwich knows they were, they were beaten next.
My dad was a communist. So, but I actually didn’t see Greenwich village until after I graduated from high school. Even though I lived on a subway line that had a stop in Greenwich village. That’s how sheltered I was living in what I call the Oklahoma or the Iowa of New York city. So those, those films were real and they were shown to classes and kids were warned about.
The creepy perv, who you’re gonna come across in the park. And he made you offer you a ride in his car and watch out for people like that. And there was an effort to warn young people about the dangers of homosexuality, because they didn’t really understand their understanding of homosexuality was quite different from our understanding today that you could be recruited into this life, that they were men lurking in the bushes waiting.
To drag you into this life. That’s so horrible, but if you try it once, it’ll be what you do for the rest of your life. The first time I saw those problems, there are a couple of propaganda films that are shown frequently and as part of documentaries and were included in this film. The first time I saw him, I thought, no, nobody would show that kind of thing, but they did.
And you can imagine the terror that it struck in the hearts of young gay people, and what it would do to poison the minds of straight kids and, their understanding of their LGBTQ classmates. Yeah. When I was growing up in New York in my high school, There was one kind of a feminine gay kid. His name was, and you didn’t want to be Monty because he got teased.
He got teased mercilessly. There was nobody out in my high school, in the class of 1976. So I could certainly relate to the experience of, of this kid in Indiana. Once he was found out. Being tortured and being thrown out of his parents’ house. That was, that was something that happened then and happens to this day.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:15:36] Wow. Well, I mean, yeah, I could imagine how, if everybody else is saying these are people to watch out for, then it’s like, well, of course, that’s going to mess you up. If that’s what you’re taught to believe. That’s okay.
Eric Marcus: [00:15:48] And that’s what I grew up with. I didn’t see those propaganda films, but I can tell you when I was a teenager, 15, 16, 17 years old and realized I was gay.
I was just, I, and even by them, homosexuality of the roof, from that list of mental illnesses, I was crushed. I thought it was the most horrible thing that could happen to me, but I had been the best little boy in the world. I’d done everything right. And I was good at school. I didn’t take drugs. I didn’t stay out late except for my senior prom in high school.
And here I was this terrible thing that I knew would destroy my life and disappoint my family. And that was that wasn’t so long after Stonewall. It was just, that was a mid 1970s.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:16:24] Wow. That’s I mean, that’s sad. I’m glad that we’re starting to make changes to where that’s, you know, use today. And hopefully not nearly as impacted by that.
Eric Marcus: [00:16:34] I am from a range of young people from those who are out uncomfortable, comfortable from an early age and some who wind up in their twenties and thirties, still struggling, especially around religion.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:16:43] Yeah, I could see that. Going back to the movie. When we see Danny arriving in New York city, he gets a brutal welcome.
I mean, there’s a point where he’s going, he’s looking for Ray, the police raid the area and there’s absolutely no hesitation on the part of police whatsoever. They immediately just start swinging. Bhutan’s beating the unarmed people there, including Danny, most police brutality targeting gay people in the sixties, a common occurrence, like the movie seems to imply.
Eric Marcus: [00:17:09] Absolutely. And the problem was you couldn’t go to the police to complain about what was happening. So police operated with impunity. It wasn’t for no reason that gay people fought back at the Stonewall Inn. They’d been abused over and over and over again by the police. So the scene that was portrayed in the film of Danny had gone to look for Ray in a part of New York city that doesn’t really exist anymore.
It was over by the piers on the Hudson river, where there were abandoned years and an elevated highway, which has since been torn down and underneath the elevated highway, there were trucks that were parked overnight, trailer trucks, and gay men would often go there for sex. I’d read about this. I’ve never been there.
I was too young for that, plus I’m I’m germaphobic and terrified of those things. So you never would have found me there, but the scene that was portrayed seem pretty realistic. And I’m getting the, got it from Martin boys because Martin Boyce described that seemed to me as well. And the police went in and they rated the area where people get people at congregated and it really gave people didn’t have, or gay men didn’t have places where they could.
Together, you know, other than bars, which are owned by the mafia and public places. So the scene, the only thing I didn’t say that struck me as inaccurate or ridiculous about that scene, where Danny gets beaten brutally by the police is that, and they, they really pounded him with protons and punched him out.
And the next day he has a little cut on his lip and within a scene or two, the cut on the lip has gone. So I think a little continuity issue there. If he had been beaten as badly as he was showing, being beaten, he would have had broken ribs. Broken limbs and his beautiful face, which the camera lingers on quite often, I think they really were trying to appeal to like, like farm boys from the Midwest.
he would never have recovered as quickly from that, that beating, but that was not, that was not uncommon. I have been told stories that were horrific, about beatings of the hands of the police. the police were no friends to get people and you couldn’t go to them to complain.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:19:00] I can’t help, but be reminded of a quote that we’ve heard a lot this year, amidst the protest that we’ve had here in the United States.
I don’t remember. I don’t remember it off the top of my head, the exact words, but this is the quote from dr. Martin Luther King, jr. That says something to the effect of how a riot is the voice of the unheard. And it sounds like that’s exactly what was going on with the Stonewall riots. The uprising was the only way that they could be hurt.
Yeah. Speaking of Stonewall in the movie, it does set up how the operation there runs itself, because this is Danny’s first time as well in the movie as viewers, we benefit because the group explains to him how this works. Know you have to sign in, you can’t use your real name. I pause the movie and look, there’s like Daffy duck and John Wayne on the list, you know?
And then it says, as you mentioned earlier, you know, I mentioned that Stonewall is run by the mom. Big, and there’s no liquor license because it’s illegal to sell alcohol to gay people. So how well did the movie do showing how Stonewall was ran
Eric Marcus: [00:19:57] from my understanding of Seroquel and all the research I’ve done and things I’ve read, it was pretty spot on.
And the reason they had Stonewall up the way they did as a private club is because it was a layer of extra protection against the police. And so yes, you did have to sign in and people signed all kinds of names, Judy Garland, Donald duck, Mickey mouse. That seemed that, that was one of the things that, what impressed me about the film.
And there wasn’t a lot of impressed me was how they got some of those key details. Right. There was plenty of that. It wasn’t, but some of those key details were right. Some of it go, Oh my God, the guy who they have from the Madison society and Frank cam and the eyes just, I know we’ll get
Dan LeFebvre: [00:20:37] to that. Yeah. We will get to that.
Before we get to that, though, I do want to ask about some of the raids. We were talking about the police brutality and then talking about Stonewall. And when we see the group at Stonewall for the first time, there’s a raid that happens, you know, the lights turn on, everybody lines up against the wall. IDs are required.
I get the sense while I was watching this. This is a very common occurrence. Everybody knows, okay, this is the routine, right? This is what we need to do. The movie mentions a three article of clothing rule and suggest that the cops are being paid off by the mob. Every time they raid the place, which of course in my mind says, well, that’s gonna make them want to raid the place even more because they’re getting paid for it every single time.
How well did the movie do showing the raids on you
Eric Marcus: [00:21:18] actually did a really good job of that. And that, that was the routine of how raids were conducted. The police were sometimes caught in between, between politicians who wanted to publicize their efforts to clean up the city and clean up places like times square and clean up the village.
And that usually meant get rid of the homosexuals and the prostitutes and the, what would’ve been called then called transvestite prostitutes. We would never use language like that now, but, but, cross-dressing people who sold themselves, sex workers. So that was accurate. And that the rule about three articles of clothing.
Yes, indeed. You have to wear three articles of clothing that were appropriate to your gender. So if you were a cisgender person, as we would describe them today, so I’m a cisgender guy. So at the Stonewall and I’d have to wear at least three articles of clothing that were male identified. Now my friend Martin voice said that he would carry receipts with him.
To show that the three articles of clothing he had on underneath his drag were indeed clothing that he had bought in the men’s department of a, of a department store. So he carried those receipts.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:22:21] Wow. That’s I mean, that just seems like one of those laws that’s it’s there so that they can catch you for it.
The one time you forget to carry the receipts with you. Right. Or something like that, where it yeah. It’s just there so they can catch you with it.
Eric Marcus: [00:22:35] Yeah, they debate. Is that underwear, how masculine is that underwear or, for a woman who’s in male, it’s crazy stuff. And some of these laws date back. Years and have to do with ancient history in the U S but then I always found the three article.
I am wearing, I bought this shirt in a men’s department, just so you know, the one that you can see podcasts, but I’m wearing. although I don’t know about. These Birkenstocks, they would rather use unisex.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:23:04] Who cares?
You mentioned the Manichean society. And I do want to ask about them because there’s a character there, Trevor, who is according to the movie, and Trevor kind of mentioned this. He, again, we’re have the benefit of Danny being new to the area, so, right. So he’s explaining everything. Trevor explains that there a group fighting for gay rights.
And we also see, you mentioned, Frank Caminie, speaking to the group at one of their meetings as well. Were they real, were they real group that was fighting for gay rights? At the time,
Eric Marcus: [00:23:37] there was an organization founded in 1950 in Los Angeles by five men called the Manichean society over time chapters spread across the U S.
The most radical of the chapters was founded in 1961 by Frank , who is a character in the movie. Frank, I had a Harvard PhD was an astronomer, had hoped to work for NASA was fired in 1957 because he was gay. He challenged, he went to court all the way up to the Supreme court, which wouldn’t hear his case to try to get his job back.
And when he couldn’t get his job back, he founded the managing society of Washington DC to fight the U S government, which eventually. Rescinded its ban on employing gay people in the federal government. So Frank won his battle. The way he’s portrayed in the film is kind of silly. And the managing society is written off in a way as an old line organization that their assimilation, assimilationist accommodation is, and they have to wear coats and ties.
It’s looking at, at that organization through the contemporary lens of 1969. You might think that they were an old fashioned group, but when Frank founded the managing society of Washington DC in 1961, there were no protests out on the street. Frank is the one who initiated the first protest in front of the white house in 1965.
And the reason he wanted everyone to dress appropriately, at least as he considered it appropriate men in suits and ties women in skirts and blouses and heels. He was arguing that gay people should not be discriminated against in employment. And he said, if you want to be employed employable, he also believes your appearance.
Shouldn’t get in the way of the message. And that’s why he had people dressed the way they did the signs that all the protests were uniform. So it was a very careful branding effort for a people who had been largely hidden. Most Americans had never seen homosexual before, but as the sixties unfolded, the 1960s and young people became radicalized, young gay people felt that.
What the managing society was doing was old-fashioned. They shouldn’t have to dress a certain way to protest. And eventually, because of in large part, because of the Stonewall uprising that earlier generation was swept away and a new group of younger radical people came into the movement and the movement exploded.
It went from between 40 and 60 organizations to nearly 1500 organizations in the first year after Stonewall Frank Kamin, he saw how he was portrayed in this film. He would be rolling over in his grave. Because he was, he was a real firebrand and he’s portrayed as sort of this mousy guy in a suit talking before a group that applauded politely and Trevor who’s kind of a cool version cooler version of a managing member, kind of smoking hot guy.
Cool. You just knew Danny from the Midwest was going to fall for, and he’s just he’s portrayed as this manipulative user, but also an activist. I found his character, particularly annoying and repellent, but the, the guy who wrote the film tried to do is create a tension between machine, the old line group and the younger activists, which is actually a true tension.
I just objected to the way he did it. Because again, it seemed like such a cliche that Danny was betrayed by Trevor and Trevor found a younger man and, you know,
Dan LeFebvre: [00:26:51] yeah, that makes sense. Yeah.
Eric Marcus: [00:26:54] Yeah. Yeah. I mean the gears grind so loudly in this film, you can just feel the index cards lined up on the
Dan LeFebvre: [00:27:04] corkboard.
It’s interesting that you mentioned Frank getting fired from NASA. And I think there was even a moment there where Danny’s like, Oh, I want to work for NASA when he, when he talks to him. In fact. So I liked that little detail there of that. It sounds like that part of it might’ve been, you know, an homage to Frank.
Eric Marcus: [00:27:22] Yes. Well, Frank had wanted to work for what was becoming NASA, but he lost his job. And that was the end of it for him, because any job in the federal government for an astronomer required security clearance and no. Person who was known to be gay, could get security clearance. They ruined his career.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:27:37] Oh yeah.
Well, is that part of the, probably goes back to the being categorized as mentally ill similar concept to, you know, teacher and that,
Eric Marcus: [00:27:44] well, no, that was, that was because they could be the blackmail issue, less the mental illnesses.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:27:49] Oh, okay. Going back, I guess you mentioned too, the, the red scare and tying all that into it and.
What stood out to me while I was watching the scene with Frank Kameny and the Manichean society, he said something to the effect of how the American people will start to understand that firing us just for being gay is plain wrong. And of course it was this year 2020. If you’re listening to this in the future that the U S Supreme court ruled gay and trans.
Gender employees are protected under the civil rights act of 1964. So that just happened in 2020, but they’re talking about this sort of thing and a 2015 movie set back in 1969. So it seems like it’s long overdue. Are there any other examples of similar decades, long fights just to get basic rights?
Eric Marcus: [00:28:35] Well, for LGBT LGBTQ people, yes.
Leading aside other civil rights movements, which took much longer even than, or LGBTQ people. The right to serve in the military, the effort to remove people from the military began toward the end of world war II. The first protest about gay people in the military was in 1964 at the white hall induction center in the financial district in New York, the city.
It was the, from what I understand the first public protest by gay people ever in night, it was in 1964 and it was over gay people being thrown out of the military. And the argument was if you’re going to throw it away, one of the military for being gay, at least give him an honorable discharge and don’t ruin his life.
So that was a battle that was fought for decades as well. And the issue of mental illness was also fought over a period of time. I mean, it’s, it’s shameful that the issue about employment has taken this long and there’s still no law protecting gay people. Against discrimination and national law, I guess, discrimination in a combination.
So in the cities and States where you’re not protected by local laws, you can be thrown out of your apartment for being gay.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:29:38] Oh, wow. I guess I never realized that that seems crazy.
Eric Marcus: [00:29:42] Or not served at a restaurant.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:29:43] Wow. So that’s all up to the state level. Is that city level, or is that the establishment
Eric Marcus: [00:29:48] state or state or local?
It depends upon the state in which you live. Yeah. I’m no expert on it, but yeah, you can still run into problems. Wow. Yeah. I mean, is there are these cases about bakers not wanting to bake cakes for gay weddings?
Dan LeFebvre: [00:29:58] I think I’ve seen stuff like that in the news. And it’s just one of those shock, like really.
Eric Marcus: [00:30:02] Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was like, don’t you have better things to do.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:30:06] Yeah.
Eric Marcus: [00:30:08] What does a gay wedding cake? Do you have any, they aren’t asking for a cake with their private parts reproduced on the top of the cake. It’s just their names to cake. Yeah. It’s okay. What is a good cake? No, but I love that about the film.
That was a 2015 film in which Frank Kelly is talking about gay people and employment and discrimination. And here we are all these years later, and it was a decades long battle to gain protections and employment. And it’s not to be underestimated, what a huge deal that is.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:30:36] Yeah. And I, I, I appreciate your pointing out some of the fights that are still ongoing that still need to be addressed for sure.
Eric Marcus: [00:30:43] Yeah, yeah.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:30:45] To the movie. One of the villains, one of the main villains, I guess I should say that we see in the movie is Ron Perlman’s character, a guy named ed Murphy. And as the movie explains it and takes advantage of people. Him some out, we see this happening with Danny in the film, but then at the end of the movie, there’s a bit of text at the very end that explains ed Murphy ended up as a gay activist and was posthumously made grand Marshall of the New York pride parade.
How well did the movie do showing the character arc of Edward?
Eric Marcus: [00:31:14] Well, I wish I had done a better job of reading David Carter’s book on Stonewall because I’m guessing he went into detail about that. I’d always heard something about it, but the ed Murphy I knew was the reconstituted ed Murphy. So the film portrayed somebody who was, you know, there were gay people who took advantage of other gay people.
You know, we’re just, we’re human. We are equal opportunity opportunity.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:31:35] You say it, like you said before, they’re trying to earn a living like they’re trying to make their way. And unfortunately, sometimes that means putting other people down in order to survive.
Eric Marcus: [00:31:43] Yeah. So, so I learned something from the film.
I’m hoping that it was close to accurate because you know, ed Murphy comes off as a, a terrible person. I’m guessing the scene where he pimps out this young Danny from the Midwest to an, an, an older gay couple, one of whom is dressed up like Ethel Merman. And for your listeners who don’t know who Ethel Merman is, go to YouTube and look up Ethel Merman.
And that was how this older gay man was dressed up in their fancy apartment with his husband. And. And trying to rip off the clothes of young Danny, who, who, every time anyone tried to do to him with a portray in the film, he gets the same expression on his face of both a horror, a mixture of horror. And, Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening to me.
And we’re supposed to imagine what’s happening to him then I, it was just a pathetic scene, but the ed Murphy figures into this, because he’s the one who’s pimping out this young kid. I don’t doubt that there were people like ed Murphy operating in that environment at that time. So I have to go back and read David Carter’s book.
David Carter recently died. His book was, he spent 10 years writing a book about Stonewall. It is the definitive history of the Stonewall uprising and everything that occurred around it. So for anyone who’s interested in knowing more, that really is the, the authoritative account
Dan LeFebvre: [00:32:58] King of the uprising.
We’re at the point in the movie where we see the uprising itself, or it’s been called the Stonewall riot in history as well. The movie has the date as June 28th, 1969. We mentioned earlier, Danny’s the first one to throw the brick in the movie.
Eric Marcus: [00:33:16] God, I suppose, first of all, Judy Garland, who, for people who don’t know who she is, she was a, an iconic actress singer who was very popular among, especially gay men and a lot of gay fans and is famous for the movie.
The wizard of Oz. There’s been much debate about whether or not her death, which coincided with the Stonewall uprising. Her body was on display the 27th of June at Campbell’s funeral home on the upper East side. So people went to see her body and then some of them went down to the bar, but it’s not believed that her death had anything to do with it.
And David Carter theorized that these street kids probably didn’t even know who Judy Garland was or had no attachment to her. And the way that older gay men did, I guess the way it’s portrayed in the film, it’s suggests that. One of the characters. I think Ray goes uptown to see Judy Garland’s body and that they’re upset about her death.
It’s likely that that had nothing to do with it. As I’m watching this unfold outside the Stonewall, and you just know, you know, there’s a riot that’s about to occur, and I know how this plays out. And one of the accounts, someone throws a rock that breaks a window. And I see Danny arguing with, I believe it was Congo, Congo woman, at least that’s how come the woman was known by Martin Boyce.
And she’s just known as conga. And the film takes a brick out of her bag. And Danny suddenly has the brick in his hand and I’m thinking. Oh, please. Don’t Danny. Danny, shouldn’t be the one to throw the first brick because it’s going to ruin your life screenwriter. If you portray the first person who throws a brick at the Stonewall and as a blonde boy from the Midwest, because.
Even if it was true that shatters every myth about Stonewall and it wasn’t true. It wasn’t a blonde boy from the Midwest who threw the first rock or brick. No one knows exactly who threw the first rock or Britain as with any riot or any uprising that gets started wherever you’re standing. There’s a different perspective on what’s happening.
So as was described to me, what happened at first was people started throwing coins at Stonewall Inn. And that was to say to the police, you came for your payoff. Here’s some more. And I learned that from Sylvia Rivera, who is one of the people who was believed to be a participant of the Stonewall uprising.
I didn’t know that detail
Dan LeFebvre: [00:35:28] and the police were inside. Right? Cause in the movie we see the police inside. So I’m just picturing this in my head. They’re throwing coins at the Stonewall with the police essentially barricaded inside.
Eric Marcus: [00:35:37] This is the throwing the coins before the police are barricaded.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:35:40] Okay.
Eric Marcus: [00:35:41] At least that’s how it happened.
They’re throwing coins. And what happens is there somebody does throw a rocket breaks, a window. I was glad to see that the way the filmmaker portrayed the uprising is pretty close to how it’s been described to me by people who are there. And by Lucian trust out of forth, who was a village voice reporter who was on the scene at the time, published the first or one of the first articles on July 3rd of 69, describing what he saw because as it’s often portrayed now or described is described as a much bigger riot.
Than it actually was. So people talk about Molotov, cocktails and firebombs, and what you see in the film as the kids are squirting lighter fluid on the plywood behind the glass window that had been broken and they set fire to the plywood. That’s about the extent of how much flame there was there.
Weren’t Molotov cocktails that weren’t firebombed. If you compare what happened at Stonewall in terms of riot ranking, And given what was going on in the 1960s, the late 1960s with confrontations, with the police and riots in the major cities, it was a very small uprising. What made it different was that it was great people fighting back against the police.
And instead of the police chasing gay people, you have these street kids who people thought of as weak and fearful. You have these street kids chasing the police through the village, and nobody could believe that that was happening. So that’s what made it unique. And then the, the unrest went on for a total of six nights.
It ebbs and flows, but I was impressed that they, that they didn’t overdo it. There’s a kick line. That’s portrayed in the film of the kids. Doing a kick line and doing a chant. We are the Stonewall girls. We wear her hair and curls. We wear our jeans below our Nellie knees. There are various lyrics that I’ve heard, but as the daily news wrote about it, and this is the New York daily news, the newspaper wrote about it in 69, they suggested that it was a line of drag Queens and full regalia in high heels and bouffant hairdos, which actually is a much better.
I love that myth better than the actual reality, which was a street kid, someone moderate modified dragon. And I talked to Martin Boyce who was at Stonewall about the high heels. He said, we didn’t wear high heels to the stone. You you’ve more flats. You couldn’t run from the police wearing high heels. So in that regard, I thought that the filmmaker did a good job of portraying the scene and with the riot police, with their shields and the photons, all of that I’ve heard described.
Now we can’t compare it to. The actual film of what happened at Stonewall, because there is none, you can’t compare it to hundreds of photographs that were taken. Because as far as we know, there were a handful of photographs taken Fe the most famous ones taken by Fred McDarrah. There are five of them that I’ve seen.
So we only know from accounts of, at the time of what happened and the filmmaker, I thought did a pretty good job of not overdoing it. I think his biggest mistake was having Danny the hero of the film, the first bird, but Danny serves a useful purpose, a storytelling purpose, because he is our eyes. He is the innocent coming from the Midwest.
It doesn’t know anything about Gabe or the village. And so we get to see it through his eyes. It just happens to be completely made up and asking for trouble because the Stonewall uprising is such contested history already that to portray it in a way that suggests the hero of the event is a blonde whiteboard from the Midwest.
When in fact the street kids were from a range of races and ethnicities, and it was a big mistake to my mind.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:39:07] Now you mentioned it went, went on for six nights, but we only really saw one in the movie. Was it all around the Stonewall or did it start to spread out a little bit more?
Eric Marcus: [00:39:16] It’s spread out into the streets of the village.
So a year later there was a pride March that was called the Christopher street liberation day, March on the anniversary. The one year anniversary of Stonewall, it was specifically called the Christopher street, which is where Stonewall is liberation day. The year of activism that occurred after Stonewall was to live great, the streets of the village.
They didn’t want the focus to be on Stonewall because Stonewall was a mafia owned bar that closed two weeks after the Stonewall uprising. So why would you celebrate a place like that? I mean, in the years, since it’s become iconic and around the Laurel people celebrate Stonewall, but all they know really most people is that Stonewall was a place where gay people fought back against the police.
It’s it represents freedom from oppression. The one thing that I did quibble with in the film is they call it the lip, the gay liberation March in the film that occurs a year later. And they compress the timeline in such a way that suggests that it happened very quickly after the Stonewall uprising and that it just happened.
And in fact, there was an enormous amount of organizing that went into that first March one year from the Stonewall uprising and it involved engaging with 20 different organizations, homophile organizations on the East coast that all agreed to that. March actually is a longer story involved with that.
If you have questions about it, I’m happy to answer that.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:40:41] I was actually going to be, my next question had to do with the March, because like you said, that was something that really struck me about the movie too. It happens so quickly. Like the timing in the movie, you have the uprising and then there’s like a couple, like we see Danny go, go home.
He visits his sister. He’s like, Oh, we’re going to have a parade next month to commemorate. And then a couple of seconds later, they’re having the parade. I thought that was next month. Right? I’m assuming this then transitioned into the pride parades that we see around the U S today is kind of how that went.
Eric Marcus: [00:41:11] Yes. Yes. I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you how it happened in the shortest version of the story. So from 1965 to nine, 1969, there was a March was called the annual reminder. Yeah. In front of independence hall in Philadelphia on July 4th to remind, and this was organized by Frank Kennedy and the managing society and several other organizations, it was to remind Americans that gay people didn’t have their rights, that they could be fired from their jobs, that they could be thrown out of the military.
So it was called the annual reminder. So the annual reminder was held on July 4th, 1969, just a few days after the Stonewall uprising, like it had been every year and that fall in the, in November of 69, there was a meeting of the East coast region conference of homophile organizations. It doesn’t just roll off your tongue here.
It’s Aramco. They met in November of 1969 in Philadelphia. And for young people, Ellen Broidy, Linda Rhodes, Craig Rodwell. And Fred sergeants wrote up a resolution. These were young activists. They wrote a resolution asking that the reminder day, March being moved in 1970 to New York city tomorrow, the one year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and that the people who attended should be able to dress however they want to.
And that all the other organizations around the country. Should have marches as well and have them every year thereafter to Mark the Stonewall uprising. That’s how we wound up with these celebrations and marches that occur every year, either on the anniversary, three around the anniversary of Stonewall, and sometimes other times of the year.
It was a well organized, well planned events. And it was called the Christopher street liberation day, March, not the gay liberation March. I don’t know if Danny actually participated. Probably they were blonde boys from the Midwest who did, but it wasn’t surprisingly diverse group of people. And it was the largest gathering of openly gay people in the world.
Ever. There were somewhere between two and three or 4,000 people who marched from the village of sixth Avenue to central park, where there was a gay him. Or a, B M those were gatherings of people were that weren’t organized. It was just a chance to be together and celebrate. And there were thought to be between five and 10,000 people at that day in central park, following the first March of 6,000 years.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:43:24] Wow. That’s I mean, that’s pretty good attendance for the first.
Eric Marcus: [00:43:28] Yeah. There’s the reminder day marches got in Philadelphia, got several dozen people. So none of this was the, even the organizers couldn’t believe what happened, that they started out actually with a few hundred people at the beginning of the March.
And one of the chants was. Off the sidewalk into the street and equal joined the March along the way. And there’s a scene in the movie. That was just, it was so, so painfully cliched. So Danny’s mother and sister show up, they’ve taken the train or bus from the Midwest to be at the March. And Danny sees it, mother and sister on the side of the sidewalk and his mother has gotten a new hairdo and they look so happy.
And of course the father who’s, the coach was not there. But I’m thinking Danny go over and hug them. They came all the way from the Midwest to see you. And he just looks back in waves at them and keeps on marching. And I’m thinking. There’s something wrong here. And you know, I didn’t get to write the movie, but if you’re going to go, if you’re going to go all in with the blonde kid, from the Midwest, you gotta have them hug his mother and sister who gone all that way to see him
Dan LeFebvre: [00:44:27] in the March.
I agree. And that leads right into another question I want to ask. So if you did make this movie, if you did direct the movie, what’s a key thing that you would change about it.
Eric Marcus: [00:44:39] Well, the problem is you have to change the main thing about it. So you’d have no movement. I mean, there is a great movie, a great narrative movie to be made about Stonewall.
The stories are really something. And you can use the story as an entry point into what New York city was like in the late 1960s or the sixties as some of these characters grew up. And what was their life experience like? And how did Ray come to be on the street? How did conga come to be on the street?
Why did we have to have a blonde boy from the Midwest? Be the, be the eyes to this story? So there is a. A terrific story to be told, but if I were to do it and I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t be the ones running. I might assemble a team. I wouldn’t be the writer. I would not have my eyes and ears or my guide through this piece of history, be a blonde kid from the Midwest, because you’re just asking for trouble because kids of color played such a central role in the Stonewall uprising.
They were the kids who challenged the police first. They were what I described as street kids, 15, 16, 17 year old kids who had nothing to lose. So how do you make a movie about Stonewall when you center the story on a kid who’s coming from the Midwest is going to go to Columbia on scholarship. So that I think was a fatal flaw on the film.
No one could see past that, but if you do see past that, then what you see as a film. That’s so Laden with the cliches that it’s hard to really. Oh, it’s just still Ethel Merman, Ethel Merman. Sarah saw herself dressed up, someone dressed up as herself. stripping off my young boys pants. Oh my God. It was just an act of, thank you, Dan, for getting you to watch this film because I studiously avoided seeing it because I didn’t want to be interviewed about it.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:46:17] So I’m like, Hey, you want to be interviewed about it?
Eric Marcus: [00:46:20] Well, the controversy has passed and I love that your podcast is about is it looks at films that are trying to tell history, you know, allegedly true stories. It really was a well intentioned effort, but, but it couldn’t, it couldn’t help, but fail by having this main character named Danny as cute as he was.
And he was chewing as a bug’s ear. And you just want them to take him home and introduce them to your grandmother. but he was the wrong person to be the star of the film. One
Dan LeFebvre: [00:46:50] thing towards the end of the movie really got the idea, especially, you know, in the text at the end of it, it starts to talk about how even today, you know, 40% of all homeless youth in America are LGBT homosexuality remains a crime in 77 countries.
One reason why I started this podcast was to help shine a light on different areas of. And we all know that movies are never going to be entirely true, but still it’s very easy to see it as, okay, this is, this must be what happened or similar to what happened. And if nothing else, hopefully this movie helps shine a light on that part of history.
Eric Marcus: [00:47:25] Yes, what it does shine a light on the flight of homeless, LGBTQ youth and the life that they portray is the tragic life that many people still live today in New York city. So, this is, this is not the ancient past. This is, this is how, this is how people are living on the streets of New York today. And that is a terrible tragedy.
Yeah. If you want to get a perspective, people are interested in documentaries and history, portrayed in the documentary to see how things are dealt with. In other parts of the world. There’s a new film called welcome to Chechnya. Which shows what’s happening in Chechnya, which is a part of Russia where gay people are being hounded down and eliminated.
They are trying to basically, they don’t have gay people in Chechnya. and this one was about the people who are being hunted down. What’s being done to them. And. An organization in Russia, that’s trying to rescue and has been rescuing LGBTQ people and getting them out of church and out of Russia, it was, I saw it recently and it’s so startled.
It’s shocking and horrifying. You can’t believe that this is going on today, that people are being demonized and killed because simply because
Dan LeFebvre: [00:48:33] they’re gay. Wow. It’s easy to look back on history and be like, that was back then. Right. And so everything is right now, but it’s clearly not. What would you say to somebody listening to this that wants to help?
And this clearly, you know, a global, what would you say that they could do to help.
Eric Marcus: [00:48:49] Oh, there are so many ways to help in ways. And everyone has different ways of helping and you can volunteer for organizations that fight for LGBTQ rights. if you’re a parent of an LGBTQ child, you can get involved in an organization called P flag, which was once called parents, friends, parents, families, and friends of lesbians and gays.
You can see for an organization like Lambda legal, which provides legal representation and fights cases that go all the way up to the Supreme court. In every community, just about every community in the U S there are ways to get involved, whether you want to get involved locally, nationally, or internationally.
And there organizations that need funding to help spirit people out of Chechnya to save them from being killed. But one key thing that I think is important for everyone to do is to, to be a little bit more informed than we are. this history is only now just being taught in schools. And most places not.
So it’s hard to watch a film, like a Stonewall film with a critical eye, if you know nothing about the history. And I have to admit that when I started my work, I did a book called making a history, which was published in 1992. It’s an oral history of what was then called the gay and lesbian civil rights movement.
When I started my work, I had no idea that there was any movement history before 1969. I didn’t know that it was founded in the U S in 1950 or that the first gay rights organization in the world was founded in Berlin in 1897. And that the first person, the first gay rights gay rights activist to out himself was a German who outdid himself in 1867 at a conference.
There’s lots of history and it’s really interesting history. And it’s threaded throughout American history through the LGBTQ civil rights movement is American history. Just one story in particular that I find tragic that isn’t taught routinely. One of dr. Martin Luther King, jr. His principal mentors is a man named Byard Rustin.
He was also the principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom. He was an out gay man. And the reason we don’t learn about him as part of the civil rights movement is that he was kept in the background in the background because the fact he was gay and out, let’s all kinds of problems with suggestions that he was having an affair with dr.
Martin Luther King. It was the FBI that, or J Edgar Hoover who promoted that rumor. So there are key people in history who we don’t learn about because they were gay and their stories have been. If not a race they’ve been hidden. So we opportunity now to share these stories. And I was lucky enough to interview a lot of these of the people who were there.
The very beginning of the movement, because when I started my work 30, some odd years ago, these people were still alive. I was shocked to find that they were still alive and I got to record their stories and then share them first in a book. And then now on a podcast, I’m making a history podcast.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:51:26] That segues right into your work.
And I know you’ve, you’ve got a lot of great books and you do have that excellent podcast making gay history. Well, first let me just say thank you for shining a light on those moments of history that I think. Sorely needed to be highlighted more and more for sure. But can you share a little bit of information about your podcast and where someone listening can learn more about you?
Eric Marcus: [00:51:47] Sure. At making gay history? What we do is we bring LGBTQ history to life and the voices of the people who lived it. And we do that by principally drawing on my archive of more than a hundred interviews that I recorded for the two additions of my book, making gay history. We also draw on other archives.
And we also have done some of our own research and to finding a long lost interviews like with Byard Rustin, which was on a cassette tape, in a box underneath the bed of his surviving partner, Walter Nagel, who very graciously let us use this incredible interview where via breast and talks about the impact of his sexual orientation on his work with dr.
King. I mean, it’s an extraordinary interview and our podcast will be found, founded all the places you can find podcasts. And you can also find making gay history on our firstname.lastname@example.org or each episode that we do. We do, especially a magazine article with links to lots of additional information, and we include archival photos.
So for anyone who’s interested in digging in deeper, we provide the resources. We also partnered with an organization called history on erased. At any race.work to develop LGBTQ inclusive American history curriculum. Our work has done specifically for eighth and 11th grade American history classes. And I also work with an organization called facing history and art selves, but also develops resources for educators to use in the classroom.
And also there’s another organization called the one archives at the USC libraries. They’re also developing resources for educators what’s happening now is that kids are demanding to be taught this history and teachers. And administrators are being forced to catch up. They’re also state laws requiring it and some States in the U S but it’s the kids who are, who are saying to their teachers.
I want to know this history and not just gay kids, straight kids too, who want to know what’s being, what’s been kept from them. And some of these stories are just, just terrific. We also now have a making gay history play. That’s called making gay history. Before Stonewall. We had 10 performances in New York city at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich village.
It was, Written by or adapted from my work by a professor named Joe Salvador at New York university. And our last performance was on Martin, New York city. Shut down several days after we had our final performance. And we’re now licensing the play to high schools and community groups. The first performance will be a school in Chicago.
And then possibly a school in Vermont. And, and we, the story of, of the history before Stonewall was told through the stories of 20 characters, actually 20 real pay people. I’m the 21st character because I’m in the play as the interviewer, which was a freaky thing to see,
Dan LeFebvre: [00:54:07] are you playing yourself? Or you have other people that you get to cast as, as yourself
Eric Marcus: [00:54:11] in this production, all 10 actors, 10 actors played each play, two different people.
And each actor plays me so 10 different people played me. Yeah. So I was played by an African American lesbian by a white cisgender guy by, by an Asian American. It was, it was something, it was, it was, it moved me to tears.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:54:34] Well, Eric, thank you so much for your time to come on and chat about Stonewall. I know I learned a ton and I’ll make sure to add the links to all of your work in the show notes for this episode as well.
Eric Marcus: [00:54:44] Thank you. I just love talking about this. It was so much fun and I’m glad I got to see the film and I hope I never have to watch it again.