Reel in the Closet. Directed by Stu Maddux. San Francisco: The Clowder Group, 2015. 68 minutes.
Lesbian Mothers. Directed by Rita Moreira and Norma Bahia Pontes. New York: Queer Blue Light Gay Revolution Video, 1972. 27 minutes.
What is the significance of historical queer documentaries? The examination of two works, Reel in the Closet (2015) and Lesbian Mothers (1972), provide some answers. Made forty years apart, they demonstrate the value of the ordinary in queer moving images.
Both of these works deal with LGBTQ lives recorded with consumer-grade media from the mid-twentieth century. Reel in the Closet details the significance of home movies and videos for LGBTQ history, and Lesbian Mothers is the first documentary produced on video format on lives of lesbians.
The historical footages found in these works are captured using noncommercial media, such as 8mm film stock or VHS tapes, and, as such, they look smallscale, mundane, washed-out, and grainy. They capture everyday ephemeral moments and gestures over stretches of time, as series of improvisations that have been recorded in short lengths of film or video reels, sometimes without any sound. These moving images are the opposite of the glossy, the finished, the historical. They are utterly nonmonumental. In other words, they are ordinary. Their significance lies in making queer lives ordinary and visible.
Because, throughout the twentieth century until now, queer representation and imagery have been politicized, fetishized, objectified, monetized, pathologized, surveilled, alienated, isolated, feared, and ostracized.
Because, the truth is, queer lives have been institutionalized, regulated, policed, harassed, threatened, killed.
These works, containing footage from between the 1930s and the 1980s, are historical records of how people have shaped and maintained ordinary lives under these suffocating circumstances, of people carefully carving out private niches of self-expression in small, safe communities of queer groups and our allies.
These works are records of people building a sense of comfort and normalcy in the midst of the pressure cooker of aggression and disdain we have been facing within American society, outside of a handful of metropolitan centers.
Under these pressures exerted by society, with its strategies of domination and control, mainstream queer visibility tends to take two main forms. We either hide or explode. But the footages found in Reel in the Closet and Lesbian Mothers pertain to neither. These documents are what queer lives look like from inside the LGBTQ community, without the mediation of mass media's monopoly over narratives of identity.
Reel in the Closet, directed by Stu Maddux, is a documentary that argues that some of the most significant moving images of LGBTQ history come not from polished and widely-distributed works but rather from old home movies and videos found in closets and boxes. In the film, archivists who work with LGBTQ collections at various institutions present the gems stored within their vaults, to string together a history of what private lives have looked like for those in the LGBTQ community.
The footages of ordinary lives of gay men and lesbians from mid-twentieth century, encompassing dinner parties, strolls outside, and informal moments at home with loved ones, affirm the lives of LGBTQ people today by posing as a historical mirror, showing the roots of a culture that goes back decades and more. For many LGBTQ youth, this is important because they often find themselves isolated, without the support of older gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer people who have shared their experiences and can pass on historical and cultural knowledge specific to the LGBTQ community. The work aims to expand the existing visual vocabulary of LGBTQ lives through advocating the importance of collecting and preserving home recordings.
Lesbian Mothers, by Rita Moreira and Norma Bahia Pontes, is a video documentary that was shown in 1970s video festivals as a work representing both the gay and women’s liberation movements. The thirty-minute video is now available on the YouTube channel of one of the videomakers, Rita Moreira.
This work juxtaposes early 1970s views regarding the subject of lesbian motherhood, alternating between perspectives from lesbian mothers and interviews of the passing public—both accepting and hostile—interspliced with the pathologization of gay men and lesbians during that time.1 This historical documentary highlights the difficult circumstances of early lesbian activism, the force of condemnation against their ordinary lives that lesbians encountered in broader society, and how they persisted by reaching out to the public and sharing their own views.
Both Reel in the Closet and Lesbian Mothers would make valuable teaching tools in classrooms, particularly in visualizing the queer gaze as ordinary. For the LGBTQ community, these works help to affirm that, as with printed materials, ephemera is a key part of our history when it comes to moving images. For those outside the community, these works would help decenter their views and normalize the everyday lives of LGBTQ people by weaving it into the broader historical fabric of American society. Teaching these works alongside the seminal independent film and video text Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video by Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar, and John Greyson would help frame the activist outlook of these moving image works while also providing additional examples.2 For further contextualizing the broader cultural representations of sexual identities, Chris Straayer’s Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-orientations in Film and Video would provide additional support.3
Screening Reel in the Closet, Lesbian Mothers, and similar works would make good pedagogical tools in many fields, including women’s and gender studies, LGBTQ studies, film and art history, American history, media and cultural studies, museum and library studies, political science, sociology, and social work, among others. They offer important inroads toward showing how social structures of power and domination operate to turn the ordinary into anything other than that. Outside of academia, these works could be shown as a part of outreach and educational programs for LGBTQ youth and their allies. They would demonstrate that being ordinary is a form resistance. This is not unlike the case for many minority groups here in the United States, and as such, these works share a valuable lesson in giving visibility and viability to a marginalized group through the use of moving images for social justice.
1 Key historical contextualization of the pathologizing of LGBTQ people can be found in Eric Marcus, Making Gay History: The Half Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights (New York: HarperCollins, 2002) and Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
2 Martha Gever, Pratibha Parmar, and John Greyson, eds., Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video (New York: Routledge, 1993).
3 Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Re-orientations in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).