Kate Davis: Stonewall Riot Girl

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com June 16 2010 1:00 PM ET

On June 28, 1969, an outraged gay mob resisted a police raid of the Stonewall Inn and ignited the modern gay rights movement. Directed by Kate Davis and husband David Heilbroner, Stonewall Uprising is the first documentary that tells the story through interviews with actual riot participants and regular patrons of the Greenwich Village gay bar. Based on David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution and produced for the PBS American Experience series, Stonewall Uprising also marks the sixth collaboration of the Emmy-winning filmmakers, whose credits include Southern Comfort, which documented the final year of a female-to-male transsexual and earned the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. From a Stonewall Inn barstool in June 2010, Davis speaks to us about her long kinship with the LGBT community.

Advocate.com: I must admit that I didn’t expect a husband-and-wife filmmaking team to be behind a documentary on the Stonewall riots. What about the subject appealed to you?
Kate Davis: Well, David and I have both been making films on LGBT subjects, civil rights, and equality issues in general for about 15 years, like Anti-Gay Hate Crimes and Transgender Revolution for A&E. But I’ve been fighting the fight since I was in high school in the late ’70s. I’ve never identified as straight, nor am I gay; I’m just attracted to who I’m attracted to. Why did I care enough about the subject to actually politicize these feelings? I guess I felt repressed myself — that sense from a young age that a girl’s supposed to act a certain way and a boy’s supposed to act a certain way. I actually took my girlfriend to the senior prom, and I wore a full tux.

How did that go over?
Now it’s a regular scandal, but back then there was just a dumbfounded reaction. The administration didn’t even know how to shut down the prom because they were so shocked. They’d never seen such a thing. Although the Stonewall riots had happened in ’69, I wasn’t really aware of it at 16, 17, and gay issues just weren’t talked about at my high school, even in the late ’70s.

Was your sexuality a struggle?
Yes, because I liked girls as well as boys, and there wasn’t a place for that. I did form a gay rights committee in the yearbook, which was then banned by the administration, but it was a fake group anyway because nobody was out. Frankly, I chose the smartest, shiniest stars of my class, who all presented as straight, and they were all willing on principle to be a part of this gay rights committee that was phantom, just to make the point that we could have and should have really existed.
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.KATE DAVIS BODY2 X390 (CORBIS) | ADVOCATE.COMYou also spoke to the NYPD officer who led the Stonewall raid, but your most controversial interview subject might be former New York City councilman and mayor Ed Koch.
Yes, he will not be everybody’s friend, but I’ll tell you why we have Ed Koch. It’s not a film about his often very questionable political actions at the time — he was on record for supporting crackdowns — so it wasn’t a Frost/Nixon situation where we were out to get Ed Koch. In my mind, it was important to get him to legitimize the claims we’re making in the film that the New York government and police force were really out to get gay people, and Ed Koch admits that was the case.

Why does your film make no mention of the prevalent myth regarding Judy Garland’s death and funeral as a possible catalyst for the riots?
We asked every single participant about Judy Garland, and we would’ve included it if anybody had said it was fire on the match, but no one did. As a matter of fact, one person interviewed in the film was actually at Judy Garland’s funeral, and even he said, “Look, we were street kids. We loved her, but there was a larger anger at play here.”

Was your ultimate goal to make a film with mainstream crossover appeal, or were you content to document gay history primarily for gay audiences?
I believe it can reach everybody on different levels. It’s been very gratifying at various festival screenings to see how many gay people, older and younger, have been amazed at how little they knew about the riots or the laws in place at the time. For some, it’s a nostalgic way to remember their childhood, both the pain and the humor that was used as a defense. But like Milk, if I may be so bold to use that as an example, this film is a good story, an important story, and it should become a much firmer part of American history. I hope this film educates and inspires people to see that while the battle isn’t over, we’ve clearly come a long way. So part of our larger goal was to help make gay history American history. Why isn’t this being taught in our schools? It should be up there with Rosa Parks. Gay youth, even if they’re focused on the gay marriage debate, may not really know where we came from. One kid said to me, “Oh, I think I’ve heard of Stonehenge.”