A New Home Video Collection Is a Treasure Trove of Queer History

Feature image from Arthur Bressan’s Gay USA.

When gay filmmaker Arthur Bressan decided to document Pride celebrations in 1977, he was responding to a moment much like our own. Eight years after Stonewall, there was an increase in visibility and acceptance of gay people. There was also an increased backlash. Anita Bryant had launched her “save the children” campaign in Florida and had successfully overturned a Dade County anti-discrimination ordinance. Other politicians took note and tried to mirror this campaign in other states, including in California.

And so, galvanized by this bigotry, Bressan commissioned fellow filmmakers in major cities to record their Pride proceedings while he took the lead in San Francisco. The result was Gay USA, a documentary crafted as the most delicious kind of propaganda. It’s a portrait of queer joy and committed allyship made of on the ground interviews, cinéma vérité footage, and historical interludes.

Today, boutique home video label Altered Innocence released the new restoration of the film along with lots of other goodies in a set titled Gay USA: Snapshots of 1970s Resistance.

The film itself is an essential watch. I’m sure it worked in turning people gay in the 70s and it made me even gayer in 2024. It’s such a delight to watch a wide swath of queer people in a Pride celebration that’s true to the meaning of Pride. It’s especially inspiring to see this knowing the national discourse surrounding them at the time.

But Bressan doesn’t allow his desire to make pro-gay propaganda get in the way of complexity. He lets queer people disagree with each other — like showing one lesbian say that she hates the word dyke and then another lesbian say that she loves it. There are cracks in the utopian vision — some purposefully left in, some maybe revealed with time — that nevertheless don’t take away from the utopia.

I love the film and I love this set even more. There is an incredible commentary track on Gay USA from Autostraddle fave Jenni Olson and Don Romesburg, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State. They underline the connections between 1977 to today, not just the passing of anti-LGBT laws, but the focus on queer teachers and the passing of the Hyde Amendment the year prior that limited abortion access. They also name several of the interview subjects who are not explicitly named in the film itself; people like Stewart Loomis, Judy Grahn, and Pat Parker.

And it’s not just Gay USA on this release. There are other documentaries of 1970s Prides including lesbian activist Lili Vincenz’s document of the first, Pride Gay and Proud, and Wakefield Poole’s Freedom Day Parade accompanied by a commentary track. There is also a half hour of lesbian-centric raw footage shot by the Women’s Liberation Cinema in 1971 that’s been collected with narration from the filmmakers.

There’s a sadness watching these films and remembering that this hope was met with Ronald Reagan and the AIDS crisis. But there’s also hope in seeing this joy from fifty years ago and recognizing our own joy and anger and hope and fear of today. It’s so important that these films and this footage is preserved and widely distributed. This set is the care our ancestors deserve.

Out of the closet, into the streets! Let’s learn from those who came before. Let’s meet hatred with pride, with community, with revolution.

Gay USA: Snapshots of 1970s LGBT Resistance is now available to buy

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 517 articles for us.

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