Friday, June 1, 2012

Break on Through

The federal appeals court in Boston ruled Thursday that the portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that refers to federal benefits is discriminatory to gay married couples and is therefore unconstitutional. May 31, 2012 will be noted on the chronology of events significant to the inevitable codification of gay marriage in the U.S.  Pew Research reports that the strongest opposition to conferring the equal right of marriage is among voters over age 65 and only 48% of that particular population are opposed to gay marriage. The vast majority of voters under the age of 35 support gay marriage. Most of the legislators who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1966 later expressed profound regret. In 2010 I noted to my kids that Robert Byrd, who had filibustered against the Civil Rights Act, still served in the Senate. They were amazed that an elected official who demonstrated such backwardness and prejudice was actually still in office. I hope it's a short list of politicians who supported the Defense of Marriage Act and continue to serve when my kids tell their kids about when gay marriage wasn't legal.

Jane Cantillon, a long time Silver Lake resident and major player on the local cultural front has been laboring for over six years on what at the office we call a credit card film. My company is providing archival footage for the project.   Jane's documentary is about The Other Side, L.A.'s last piano bar, a long time watering hole for elderly gay men. Old standards are performed and the lively crowd sings along. Many customers remember World War II but there are a surprising number of men in their twenties and thirties at the bar too. The older customers describe gay life in Los Angeles in the 40s, 50s and early 60s. The fuzz! A raid is imminent.  A light-bulb flickers. Everyone switches partners. "Grab a girl," they yell, “Dance with a Dyke.” Gay men are entrapped by plain clothes cops in bars and charged with lewd conduct.  They're roughed up in jail. “He was drunk and he fell down,” the constabulary claim.  

The interviewees aren't Stonewall veterans or Act Up radicals. Hairdresser Guy Richards is a hybrid of Paul Anka and Warren Beatty in Hairspray.  He sings in French and accompanies himself on the piano. He remembers tooling up to a secret club at the end of a Malibu dirt road in his Rolls Royce.  "First you give it away.  Then you sell it. Then you buy it all back," he sighs.  Guy Richards seems naturally forthcoming but Cantillon is remarkably adept at coaxing subjects who don't even consider themselves out of the closet to comfortably share very intimate details about how one went about having a sex life at a time when homosexuals were widely demonized.

Cantillon sets out to document the history of the gay bar but the film, like the subjects interviewed, transcends this often grim and degrading scene.  The Other Side is less about the corrupt LAPD, fear and ignorance than it is about the transformative qualities of love and connection.  These life stories won't be recorded for having changed history but they memorialize a handful of men who managed to navigate a meaner, harsher time.

Tom Gibbons and Robert Clark sit close together on a couch in a living room filled with stylish 1960s art. Tom surmises their relationship.  "I wouldn't be alive." He pats Bob's hand.  Bob responds in a stage whisper, "I would."  They crack up with wonderful gusto at humor they've honed together over  54 years.

Duncan Donavan worked for gossip columnist Louella Parsons.  While Duncan lazes on the beach in Laguna reading Das Kapital a self confident swell named Thomas Patrick approaches him and invites him to dinner. Duncan declines, having another date that night. Thomas Patrick shows up where Donavan and his friend are dining and sits down at the table.  Donavan tells him to leave.  Patrick continues his pursuit and connives his way into Donavan's apartment.  Donavan is outraged. But a seconds later the pair are kissing. “We were together 27 years" notes Donavan.  He adds, "Men are unreliable."

It is noted that while there are customers in their twenties and thirties in addition to the senior set at The Other Side there are very few men in their fifties.  The AIDS plague caused unspeakable grief and suffering but nearly twenty years after 1995 when AIDS related deaths peaked at around 42,000 in the U.S. we realize how the attenuate hysteria led to a huge setback for the gay rights movement. The case of Loving vs. Virginia which removed all legal impediments to marriage across the races wasn't decided by the Supreme Court until 1967. The marriage of the parents of the President of the United States would have been considered a crime in 16 states at the time of his birth.  While there remained vocal opponent to the Civil Rights Act of 1967 and Loving vs. Virginia most people weren't surprised by these decisions.

The guarantee of civil rights, regardless of sexual orientation is long overdue in this country. The voices of many who would have advocated for this were silenced too soon. Jane Cantillon's film documents the experiences of the generation before, now dying off.  Many of the subjects of the film have passed away since being interviewed. These men lived secret lives and endured countless humiliations, yet they found love.  The few elderly customers left at The Other Side sing together with young men who probably feel no need to conceal their sexual orientation but can only legally marry in a handful of states.  I have faith that in my lifetime homosexuals will have the right to marry throughout the nation.  The Other Side sadly will close its doors on June 24.  Artifacts of a time when gays were deprived of basic human rights will some day be studied like relics of the Holocaust and Jim Crow are now. Jane Cantillon's rich commemoration of gay history will endure longer than the piano bar and documents not only the struggle but also a few quiet triumphs and the sweetness of enduring love.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

There's a graffito above Riverside Drive, not far from The Other Side, spray painting a message to the effect of "in 20 years, we'll be ashamed to admit there was ever a debate over gay marriage," and this jibes with the legal and cultural shifts with interracial marriage and Civil Rights within our own lives. While my students still debate the issue of same-sex marriage, they now do so sitting next to those who are "out," and this surely must be an evolution. Those vehemently opposed to gays have found themselves a few feet away from their gay classmates, and I have had three classes when a student has declared him or herself as gay in the classroom, before their challengers. I wonder what in 20 years, and probably 20 seconds later sometimes, they undergo as they and we watch the gradual expansion of tolerance, subtly, and even silently? In such ways, I suppose, cultures evolve and I hope affection spreads. xxx me