Gay USA (1977): Arthur Bressan’s Landmark Docu, Shot on a Single Day in Various Cities

Like the seminal documentary Word Is Out, Gay USA was a collective production, this one made under the banner of Artists United for Gay Rights.

However, unlike Word Is Out, this major non-fiction was shot over the course of a single day, June 26, 1977, and it was the product of one filmmaker, Arthur Bressan, who conceived the project and shaped its form.


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In the wake of the Miami defeat of a gay rights initiative on June 7, Bressan decided to join the San Francisco demonstration at City Hall.  Bressan then formed camera crews in six cities (San Francisco, San Diego, N.Y., Chicago, Houston, and L.A.), using their pride parades to chronicle an emerging gay consciousness–and movement.

By cutting from one major city to another, the film gives the impression of a united and simultaneous coast-to-coast struggle, targeted against the social ills of bigotry and oppression.

If Word is Out explores personal lives and private experiences, Gay USA aimed to capture social experiences and communal excitement.  It was the first film to chronicle the intense anger and joy embodied in public expressions of freedom.

Bressan amplifies the 1977 material with footage from the first Christopher Street Parade in 1970, and subsequent parades in other cities. Slides, stills, footage of civil rights marches and Nazi parades are interpolated in the film.

In Gay USA, Bressan orchestrates a diversity of life styles: lesbians, sympathetic straight families, drag queens, professionals, youths, ex-prisoners, dykes on bikes, blacks, school teachers, anti-gay dissenters. Bressan’s montage presents a dialectical opposition of sound and image, giving the work a spirited tone of debate. A proponent for repealing laws against gays is juxtaposed with an anti-abortionist who supports Anita Bryant. A statement by a young gay Catholic, who voices his protest against Church policies, is followed by a fundamentalist citing the Bible for condemning homosexuality as an “unnatural way of living.”

“Dykes on Bikes” lead off the procession, followed by thousands of women sporting banners: “We are your teachers,” “Gay, Alive and Healthy,” and “Remember the Witch Hunts.”

The film picks up further momentum with the “Are You Gay” sequence, in which a handheld tracking camera, cutting from response to response, chronicles a diversity of reactions, ranging from “I don’t think I can classify myself” to “that’s none of your business.”

The kaleidoscopic vision imparted by Gay USA combines some frivolous joy with more serio attitudes. Although Bressan’s tone is largely positive, the inclusion of dissenting opinions enriches his work.

Even in an environment such as San Francisco, where gay guys can openly pursue a “free” life, there still is intimidation, abuse, and violence.

It just happened that a few days prior to the 1977 San Francisco march, Robert Hillsborough was brutally stabbed on the street.  Bressan dedicates Gay USA to him and closes it with a memorial at City Hall.

Bressan’s ideological and aesthetic contrasts underline the differences within the gay community on various issues, including cross-dressing, drag for fun, and so on.

A parade float with blow-ups of Stalin, Hitler, Anita Bryant, a Ku Klux Klan, and Idi Amin, is intercut with Nuremberg footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s powerful fascist documentary, Triumph of the Will, as a young man notes that “in fascist societies, people are taught to dress and act alike.”  Bressan highlights the point that lack of individuality has often served as the basis for racist and sexist stereotyping.

Jointly, Word Is Out and Gay USA reflected the politics of a rapidly growing gay minority, with each film giving a platform and propagating voices long denied access to the mass media due to bigotry and oppression.

Unfortunately, when initially aired on Public TV, the two documentaries were mostly seen by gay viewers, ultimately failing to realize their potential as consciousness-raising agents outside of the gay community.