Kate Davis: Stonewall Riot Girl

With husband and filmmaking partner David Heilbroner, celebrated documentarian Kate Davis tackles the ugly truth about the Stonewall riots in Stonewall Uprising. Why? Ask her ex-girlfriend.

BY Brandon Voss

June 16 2010 1:00 PM ET

Was your husband, David, always interested in gay rights, or did you introduce him to those issues?
He’s always been comfortable with gay people — some of his closest friends are gay — so there’s never been a boundary or distance between him and gay issues. But I don’t think it’s a totally random coincidence that we would end up making films about gay and transgender rights even though we’re not squarely in those communities, because sometimes it takes a little bit of distance and perspective.

Had you read David Carter’s book about Stonewall before PBS approached you to make the film?
No. Like many people, I thought I knew everything about the Stonewall riots, but I found that there’s a lot to the story that most people don’t know.

What did you learn about the riots that most surprised or horrified you?
We didn’t really think it would be the case going in — and this became increasingly important as we did our research and looked at archival material — but we realized that the riots could only be understood by understanding the context of the time. It was a really dark, medieval time, though we’re talking only 40 years ago. I was shocked, for example, by the laws of the time and how the main institutions dehumanized gay people to the point where lobotomies and shock therapy were routinely performed. You would’ve thought that a city like New York, especially in the Village, was a refuge for gay people during this period of free love and the birth of the social revolution, but the gay bars were essentially illegal, Mafia-run, and the NYPD was particularly strict, cracking down on gays all the time. Police went as far as dressing up in drag to entrap gay people and throw them in jail. It was terrifying.

Of the many gay men and women you interviewed for the film, whose personal story touched you the most?
Everybody’s did in its way. Danny Garvin was so scared of coming out in the Navy that he tried to slit his wrists. Martin Boyce talks about never wanting to tell his mother, who was in a wheelchair, because it would’ve broken her heart, and how he spent his childhood trying to imitate straight people. Virginia Apuzzo, who has gone on to be a real force in gay rights, went to a convent because she was so torn up inside and wondered if she was doomed to go to hell.
Tags: film

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