Stormy Leather by Matt Sussman
When Cruising (1980) finally arrived in Bay Area theaters Feb. 15, 1980, San Francisco's gay community had long been up in arms. The 1978 murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone were still fresh in many people's minds. Gay bashing was still a regular occurrence. Word had spread through the gay press about efforts to disrupt the movie's filming in New York, and the verdict was clear: Hollywood was profiting from gay murder.
In a December 1979 Oakland Tribune article, Konstantin Berlandt, a member of the group Stop the Movie Cruising and perhaps the film's most vociferous adversary in local gay rags, called Cruising "a genocidal attack on gay people." Two months later, the STMC helped organize a demonstration at the Transamerica Pyramid, protesting one of Transamerica's subsidiaries — the film's distributor, United Artists. On opening day hundreds of protesters picketed the St. Francis Theatre.
"I don't remember what I thought of the whole thing other than it was kind of stupid and annoying," recalls Marc Huestis, one of the cofounders of the city's Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (now the SF International LGBT Film Festival). "As long as I've been here, there has always been the battle between the respectable gays and the fringe gays," Huestis continues. "The respectable gays — many of whom I will say probably went to the leather bars to cruise after their protests — were all into showing a positive face."
The issue of positive representation — and whether or not Cruising's problematic yoking of gay sadomasochism and serial murder warranted merely protest or outright censorship — was at the core of much of the debate. One reader wrote to San Francisco's Sentinel, "It is ironic that we who have long been victims of prejudice and censorship should attempt to use these weapons of oppression against the movie." In a February 1980 cover story, "The Men of Cruising," in Mandate (the gay "international magazine of entertainment and Eros"), Rod Morgan, one of the gay extras in the film's bar scenes, commented, "If the protesters want progay propaganda, let them get the money together and make their own movie."
"The stakes of gay representation were very different at the time," reflects Michael Lumpkin, artistic director of LGBT media nonprofit Frameline. "They were much higher because it was, like, 'Hollywood hasn't given us anything, and then they give us this?' " However, critic Scottie Ferguson, writing in the Advocate in April 1980, found a thrilling frisson in Cruising's portrayal of gay men and asked readers, "What Hollywood film has made the sexual electricity of the gay male seem so vibrant and visceral and unnerving?"
By 1995, when the Roxie Film Center revived Cruising, Ferguson's observations had been somewhat vindicated. Mainstream LGBT film was taking off, and thanks to the risky work of directors like Gregg Araki and Tom Kalin, new queer cinema had confronted audiences with visceral and unnerving representations of violence-prone gay men.
In contrast to the largely positive reevaluations in the local press, David Ehrenstein implied in the Bay Area Reporter that the Roxie's revival was tantamount to screening the notorious anti-Semitic film The Eternal Jew (1940). Representatives from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation showed up to hand out protest literature. "It was hilarious," former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine recalls. "There was a line around the block, and 90 percent of those waiting were in the leather crowd, and these GLAAD folks are trying to persuade them not to see the movie."