Not everything began with Stonewall. Such is the pretext of Glenne McElhiiney’s On These Shoulders We Stand, a new and groundbreaking documentary about Los Angeles’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community from the 1950s through the early 1980s.
On Thursday night, McElhiiney will screen her film on campus in Taper Hall Room 202 at 6 PM. The event will be moderated USC’s own Professor Chris Freeman, a scholar of English and American literature and co-editor of Love, West Hollywood, an anthology of GLBT stories and memoirs centric to Los Angeles. For Freeman, Thursday’s screening – sponsored by the USC’s Queer and Ally Student Assembly – is a welcome colaboration.
“Glenne contacted me when she was working on post-production,” said Freeman. “She knew about my work on gay LA–we had many mutual friends. I was so impressed with her right away–truly a self-made filmmaker. She was inspired by the documentary PARAGRAPH 175 about gays in Germany–and she knew that she wanted to pursue documentary and oral history projects.”
Indeed, On These Shoulders We Stand draws the lion’s share of its power from the many Angelenos – most of them now senior citizens – interviewed by McElhiiney. Their oral accounts of harassment, intimidation and eventually, activism for equal rights hold a powerful magnifying glass to a movement that has largely been excluded from mainstream education materials.
“My first thought was that I would be so excited to teach [the film],” said Freeman, who currently teaches Queer Los Angeles: Making History, Making Culture. “The stories are honest; the history is accurate; the film is beautiful.
Among the film’s many powerful threads is the story of Nancy Valverde. An out lesbian in the 1950s, Valverde was repeatedly accosted and arrested by Los Angeles police officers for infractions as minor as wearing clothes that were deemed inappropriately masculine for a woman – a crime at the time. Though her experiences were greatly traumatic, Valverde refused to relent and would find herself within the ranks of Southern California’s early gay rights movement in the 1960s.
“Nancy took control of her life and destiny, educating herself to fight the police harassment she experiences for over a decade,” said Freeman. “Today, we take for granted that we can go to the Abbey and have a martini with our partners–hold hands, even smooch a little. That simple night out was not only difficult; it was dangerous 30 or 40 years ago. A person could be arrested, harassed over what today seems like nothing.”
Valverde, along with other cast members of the film, will attend the screening for a Q&A session to follow the screening. Freeman is confident that the attendance of the film’s seniors will enhance the experience of the film for first time viewers.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have Glenne screen the film for my Queer LA course twice,” Freeman said. “Each time, the students have been struck by the poignant stories in the film. The lives from days gone by come to life, and the people who lived to tell the tales get to have their say.”
Freeman also noted that McElhiiney’s film is unique for its acknowledgment of the more optimistic aspects of Los Angeles’s early LGBT community. Such optimism is most evident in the film’s seniors themselves, who refuse to lionize themselves as crusaders of a cause, but gregarious, humored individuals who were thrust into a battle without warning. Like most people would, they fought back. On These Shoulders We Stand is a testament to those early battles and their great significance for the present and its increasing victories for America’s entire LGBT community.
“I love talking to audiences about this film,” Freeman said. “I love Glenne and respect her and her work so much–and the individuals in the film are heroes of my tribe.”