Just a few years ago, Glenne McElhinney was working as a mechanic in the automotive industry. Today, she is a chronicler of GLBT history and the director of a new documentary, On These Shoulders We Stand. The film, which explores the struggles of the gay and lesbian community in postwar Los Angeles, will have its world premiere as part of Outfest 2009.
McElhinney has led San Francisco-based Impact Stories since 2007. What began as “a modest oral history project” has quickly grown into an effort to collect, preserve and celebrate California’s significant and unsung contribution to GLBT history.
Through her interviews with the diverse likes of activist Ivy Bottini, the Rev. Troy Perry and Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas, among others, McElhinney became aware of significant differences between the histories of the GLBT community in northern California and the community in southern California.
“I learned how hard it was in LA just to be gay, just to be yourself,” McElhinney told me recently by telephone. “In doing the interviews, there was a common thread that became apparent; it was uncanny how similar some of these stories were, and the people didn’t know each other.”
The 53-year old director, who was born and raised in northern California, admits to being surprised by “the reality of collusion between LA’s city fathers, the LA Times and the LAPD to make life miserable for LGBT people” between the 1950’s and the early 1980’s. According to McElhinney’s research, these entities worked hard to convey the message “Stay in the closet or get arrested” to GLBT Angelenos.
“LA’s place in the US in the LGBT rights movement is very important and largely unknown,” according to McElhinney. On These Shoulders We Stand counters the popular belief that the early gay rights movement was limited to New York and San Francisco.
McElhinney also discovered that a double standard existed in LA and Hollywood during the decades in which local gays and lesbians were persecuted. “A-list actors didn’t have their parties raided, but the average LGBT person in Hollywood was at risk,” McElhinney said. Kevin Thomas addresses the reality of this double standard in the film, as well as its residual impact on Hollywood’s approach to homosexuality today.
It was another movie, Paragraph 175, that inspired McElhinney to ditch her former auto-industry career and start Impact Stories. The award-winning 2000 documentary about the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals made a life-changing impact on her.
The oral historian-turned-filmmaker admits to being “tickled pink” about the selection of On These Shoulders We Stand by Outfest. McElhinney ultimately hopes the film receives a theatrical release. “Our real target is young people,” she says, “and getting the word out about how things have changed for the better.”
Click here to watch the trailer for On These Shoulders We Stand.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.