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Weho Documentary Shows How Far Gay Rights Have Come

"On These Shoulders We Stand" tells the story of 11 LA LGBT residents and the struggles they fought for gay rights. Free screening Thursday at 7 p.m.

Gays today enjoy the freedom to walk down the street holding hands, the ability to rally and hold , protection from both employment and housing discrimination, even the right to marry in some states. But those rights were earned after some long, hard battles.

Thursday night, the One City/One Pride LGBT arts and culture series closes out with a screening of On These Shoulders We Stand, a documentary chronicling some of the early efforts of the gay rights movement. The free screening is at 7 p.m. at the Renberg Theater at the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N McCadden Place (at Santa Monica Blvd.)

A lush and moving film, On These Shoulders We Stand tells the story of 11 Los Angeles residents and the battles the waged, the hardships they endured, 40, 50 and 60 years ago, so people today can be out and proud.

Among the people profiled are Nancy Valverde, a Latina woman who was repeatedly arrested for wearing pants in public at a time when LA had an ordinance requiring citizens to wear sex specific clothing; , president of the National Organization of Women (NOW) New York chapter, who was voted out of office after coming out as a lesbian and then moved to LA to become an activist; Kevin Thomas, a longtime movie critic for the Los Angeles Times, who struggled to get more balanced coverage of gay issues in the macho world of reporters; and Rev. Troy Perry, who founded the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in 1968, and went on to become one of the most visible activists of the next two decades. 

For director Glenne McElhinney, compiling these tales into a movie was an act of love. She is an oral historian, who travels the state capturing people’s stories so future generations will not forget.

“Our history is under reported, under acknowledged,” said the 55-year-old McElhinney. “Our history is shunned. We’re being told that our history doesn’t matter. But it does.”

An Oakland native, McElhinney worked 33 years as an auto mechanic and service advisor in the Bay Area. She abruptly changed careers in 2007 after watching the documentary Paragraph 175, which tells the story of Nazi persecution of gays through interviews with five men still alive 50 years later.

“That movie was so moving. I took the DVD out and said, ‘I’m going to do what he’s doing,’” McElhinney recalled. “I was so inspired that he was searching for older LGBT people to tell their stories. I knew I had to do that too.”

Thus she began her quest to capture LGBT oral histories while people are still alive.

“So much has already been lost, especially since so many people died of AIDS,” said McElhinney, who was honored for her work at this year’s with the Pat Parker Arts Award. “It’s so important to get these stories down so our history won’t be erased.”

On These Shoulders We Stand began as a series of video vignettes presented in October 2008 in Pittsburgh at the annual Oral History Association conference.

“Historians saw the footage and went crazy,” she recalled. “They said it was too good to only show it once.”

With this encouragement, she began a grueling five-month, 18-hour-day editing process, whittling down 17 hours of footage into a 75-minute film. Shoulders had its world premier at Outfest in July 2009. 

“People were actually amazed I only had 17 hours,” McElhinney reports. “Normally you’ve got to shoot hundreds of hours to get as much good material as I had.”

These days, she is working on multiple versions of Shoulders for different target groups – a 55-minute version for classrooms and PBS, a 22-minute version for law-enforcement training and an eight-minute edition for training nursing home/assisted living facilities staff.

“When we were filming, we were blown away,” said McElhinney. “We had no idea how hard life was for these people. Now we’re trying to get the videos out there so people can understand and appreciate how far we’ve come.”  

Contact Glenne McElhinney though her Impact Stories website.

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