As one of his last executive orders, President Obama has declared the area encompassing the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park the first National LGBT Landmark in America. This designation is taking on particular significance in light of the recent mass killing at the gay club, Pulse, in Orlando. This tragedy has heightened awareness that homophobia still plagues the states and that the need to accept gay people as equals is as important as ever.
In the middle of Christopher Park the statues of two women sit together on a park bench. They were modeled on a couple, Leslie Cohen and Beth Suskin, who were brave enough to pose for the sculptor George Segal in 1979. Their story takes us back to the mid-twentieth century when lesbians wouldn't dare reveal their true feelings. At that time, they couldn't finance their own businesses, hold government jobs or teach. It was even against the law to dance in public with the same sex.
The decades leading up to the mid-seventies were harrowing times for lesbians and their stories are deeply moving. They feared the condemnation of their parents, peers and co-workers. Despite the progress that has been made, this apprehension still torments people, especially those in the more conservative areas of the country.
Clubs offered one of the few safe havens for women to congregate, but they were generally seedy bars operated by the Mafia. Sahara was the first bar in New York City owned and operated by women, for women. It opened in 1976 in an elegant Upper East Side duplex. Decorated with Italian furniture, it had a long, polished mahogany bar and a stage downstairs. The entire upstairs was a dance floor with a DJ booth. The owners hung contemporary artwork created by women – at a time when the art world was controlled by a handful of white men. On Thursdays they opened the club for political fundraisers and cabaret. Both men and women were invited in on these nights. Celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Patti Smith, Pat Benatar, Warren Beatty, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Elaine Noble, the first openly gay state Representative, appeared or performed there. We are reaching out to these bold celebrity feminists, straight and gay, who crossed the threshold of Sahara to be a part of this film.
It was a seminal and revolutionary time. After overcoming an initial gay-straight confrontation, there was great camaraderie in the women's movement. The country was three states shy of passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Women were eager to help each other gain stature in business, politics and social causes.
Now, at a moment of extreme polarization in this country and the resurgence of opposition to gay marriage and transgender rights, the stories that humanize the struggles of these women serve as inspiration to a new generation. Millennials often ask “What was it like for you?” They will finally know after watching Sahara.
No one has yet to tell the story of 20th Century America from the point of view of young gay women. Haunted by exposure in a world where the American Psychiatric Association designated both male and female gay people as mentally ill, they were there every step of the way - from the conformity of the Mad Men era to the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war demonstrations, long hair, smoking pot, women's liberation. It all finally coalesced in the mid-seventies when gays, straights and lesbians joined forces to demand equality in the workplace, at home and in bed.
The film transcends gender as it covers it. It is about normalizing romance between women as an inherent part of the culture, no different in its essence than heterosexual relationships. Our primary storytellers are all in their sixties and early seventies, attractive, articulate, professionals, many with higher degrees. They lived through a historical moment of reckoning and their stories are hilarious, poignant and heart wrenching. The film will also include profiles of Millennial lesbians eager to hear the tales of their trailblazing forerunners and to tell their own coming out stories.
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