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O pioneers! The original standard-bearers of the U.S. gay rights movement get their due in a new documentary.

On July 4, 1965, a small group of neatly dressed men and women staged a protest in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, carrying signs protesting discrimination against "homosexuals." Four years later, the Stonewall uprising in New York City marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. But these protesting predecessors made that moment possible. And now a new documentary, Gay Pioneers, brings it all back.

Originally produced by filmmaker Glenn Holsten for PBS affiliate WHYY of Wilmington, Del., the film--which juxtaposes footage of those early demonstrations with interviews of the demonstrators today--is now being utilized by civil rights group Equality Forum as a consciousness-raising and educational tool in screenings for teachers, politicians, and activists nationwide. Strengthening the group's efforts is the fact that several of the participants in the 1960s demonstrations are still with us today, both to speak of the past and look toward the future.

"Is the glass half empty or half full? I think it's half full. But back when I got started in the protest movement, the glass was completely empty." So says Frank Kameny, 79, who remains as committed to the movement as he was in the late 1950s, when he fought his dismissal from government service for being gay. In 1961, as the film points out, he and Jack Nichols launched the Washington, D.C., branch of the Mattachine Society, one of the first "homophile" organizations established in the United States.

"Things have changed in myriad ways since 1965--quite beyond anything any of us could have imagined," notes Kameny. "Of course, file recent election was a huge setback. But in any movement, on a long-range basis, you're always going to have setbacks. One thing we have which we've never really had before are straight allies, like Gavin Newsom."

Lilli Vincenz, another longtime activist featured in footage of past demonstrations intercut with present-day interviews, agrees. "I think our movement's going to gather steam and we're going to get more friends as a result of these terrible amendments," says Vincenz. "In 1965 there were just 10 of us. Three women, seven men. One lesbian--me--one straight woman, and one bisexual woman. The rest were all gay men."

"We've jettisoned the 'sickness' label, which was an albatross around our necks," says veteran activist Barbara Gittings, also featured in Gay Pioneers. "Now we're getting socked with the 'immoral' label. We used to get blamed for earthquakes--now we're destroying the family. We must take a firm stance on this--that we are moral and right."

And for that, one need only turn to Kameny: "If there's nothing else, I'd like to be remembered for coining the slogan 'Gay Is Good' in 1968. We should never forget that and never be told by anyone that gay is anything else. There's a major change under way that's obviously being resisted by the nutty fundamentalists. But in the long tam I'm quite confident that they will lose and we will prevail, because we are right and they are wrong and that is that!"

Ehrenstein is the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000.
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Author:Ehrenstein, David
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 18, 2005
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