A Queer History Feature Screenplay
A pre-Stonewall gay activist who set the stage for the modern gay rights movement is forgotten from history until he meets a headstrong young man. As the young man helps the activist finally receive the recognition he deserves, he’s taught important life lessons from the activist’s youth.
Two groups of gay men in two time periods arrive at the same bar in New York City. In 1966, activists lead by DICK LEITSCH perform one of the first gay civil rights demonstrations in the country. In the present day, PAUL HAVERN and his friends attend a party called Mattachine. The bar is JULIUS’, just around the corner from the Stonewall Inn. At the Mattachine party, Paul is a fast-talking, too-smart-for-his-own-good gay man with a mean sense of humor. He observes photos of Dick’s gay rights demonstration, called the SIP-IN, on the walls of Julius’. He’s intrigued but distracted by boy drama. Turns out he’s also hot-headed and self-righteous.
Paul learns about the Sip-In from a historian and curmudgeon named TOM. At the time, it was illegal to serve gay people alcohol. The very presence of a homosexual was considered disorderly conduct and would get a bar closed down. So Dick Leitsch, president of a gay rights group called the MATTACHINE SOCIETY, plans a demonstration. He and three others go to Julius’ wearing matching suits. They announce themselves as “orderly” homosexuals when ordering a drink. The bartender dramatically puts his hand over the glass and says he can’t serve them. A photo is taken and stories run the next day in major newspapers. This leads to a change in the law, making gay bars legal. Paul is fascinated by the story so Tom invites him to a party in honor of Dick Leitsch.
Paul drags his friends to the party. There, it’s revealed that Dick Leitsch is still alive. He’s in his eighties and has the same sharp wit as Paul. The two of them hit it off immediately. Dick talks about his activism with charming humility and raunchy jokes. Dick relishes having someone to share his life’s story with. And Paul loves learning about gay life in the sixties.
When Dick first showed up to the Mattachine Society, the leaders say it’s better to have society think homosexuals are mentally ill than to think they’re criminals. Dick calls out this thinking. He says being gay is not only acceptable, it’s good. The message is well-received, and Dick becomes president. Dick transforms the Mattachine Society into one of the country’s first activist groups. Under his leadership, he outlawed police entrapment policies in New York City and made it legal to serve homosexuals alcohol. But by the time the Stonewall Riots happened, a younger, more radical generation took over and wrote the history we now know.
In the present day, Dick learns he has terminal cancer. When Dick passes away in a hospice, the lessons Dick has been teaching Paul all along finally sink it: make an effort to maintain friendships, because chosen family is all queer people have. It’s an incredibly powerful moment as a torch is passed between generations. At Dick’s funeral, Paul gives a speech filled with profanity and vulgarity, which causes an uproar — exactly how Dick would have wanted it.
I’m obsessed with queer history. Four years ago I worked on a campaign to landmark historic LGBTQ sites in New York City. I directed a series of short documentaries called PROTECT OUR PRIDE in coordination with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. They were campaigning to get the Stonewall Inn and other sites protected and preserved by designating them landmarks. While it might sound a little dry, it was a thrilling experience. Stonewall is now on the national registry thanks to their efforts! I also got to meet an animated cohort of queer historians who changed the way I look at the city around me.
Through them, I met Dick Leitsch (pronounced “lightsh”).
Dick was a pre-Stonewall activist who changed the course of the gay rights movement, legalizing gay bars and ending police entrapment policies in New York. His activism while president of the gay rights group the Mattachine Society made the Stonewall Riots possible. But after the riots, he was forgotten from history. He spent decades volunteering at a church until a historian tracked him down. During the three years I knew Dick, a family grew around him. Historians and queer folks young and old — we grew close as Dick finally received recognition for his activism. Then he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He passed away last year. I was one of four people in the hospice room when it happened.
I assumed a more veteran filmmaker would come along to make the film version of Dick’s life. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had success with both a feature documentary and a short comedy but a feature based on a real person’s life terrified me. At Dick’s funeral, I looked around and realized there was no other filmmaker in the world who knew Dick as intimately as I did. If I didn’t make this film, no one would. Almost exactly one year later, here I am applying to the Directing Labs with DISORDERLY.
I was always drawn to the similarities between Dick and his contemporaries and me and my own friends. These connections to the past make history feel personal. They make history feel alive. For example, it’s no secret that my community is stereotypically dramatic and rambunctious, among other things. It turns out the generations before us were just as petty. They also fought over boys. And they did it all while fighting for their rights. Dick often said being gay is all about sex. Based on how the community acts, you might think that’s true. But when you look closer, Dick’s actions showed that being gay is about friendship and chosen family. This theme is the spine of DISORDERLY.
I passionately believe the most beautiful part about being queer is the formation of a chosen family. These families nurture us and help us grow. Within these families, queer history is passed down from generation to generation. DISORDERLY depicts this process and the audience participates. This family will be their family, too.
Tonally, the film will feel like hearing a story from Dick himself. Dick had a sardonic wit that was always entertaining. Fortunately, every project I touch ends up with a similarly irreverent tone to the humor. My work also has a compassionate touch with strong heart, which manifests itself in the tenderness Dick showed in his old age.
While the film does have moments of extreme hardship and heartbreaking loss, the characters never slip into woe. Instead, they rethink and re-strategize. Having said that, it’s important for me not to shy away from characters’ flaws, especially in Dick Leitsch himself. Ego, anger, revenge, jealousy — these are traits we all experience. I want to watch someone really wrestle their way through these emotions while running an early gay rights organization.
Visually, each of the two time periods depicted will have different styles. The period sections should feel like a film made in the sixties. Nostalgic, like a Hitchcock film. The present-day scenes will feel contemporary, shot in a more handheld, verité style.
Initially, the title of the film seems to be about homosexuals being considered disorderly as it relates to justification for arrest. But after watching two generations of gay men demonstrate similar raucous antics, we realize the community is and always has been disorderly.
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