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‘Where’s our history?’

Filmmaker John Scagliotti fills some gaps in the human narrative

For more information, or to donate toward the completion of the film, please visit John Scagliotti notes all persons donating $100 or more will get a director’s cut of the film before its release.

GUILFORD—“Where’s our goddamned history?” filmmaker John Scagliotti wants to know.

Where are the archives, museum exhibits, textbooks, and films documenting the history and contributions of queer people, those who make up the ever-expanding LGBTQI acronym?

“We had to do it on our own. We had to. The institutions are homophobic,” Scagliotti said.

“But to get there involved a fight, a struggle,” he noted.

Scagliotti knows quite a bit about that history and that struggle. As a young, out, gay man, he was arrested and summoned to court for the crime of dating.

Years later he attended — and boycotted — many straight friends’ weddings while his long-time relationship with Andrew Kopkind was denied legal and cultural legitimacy, simply because Kopkind died years before Vermont allowed civil unions and the rest of the nation legalized same-sex marriage.

Professionally, Scagliotti created PBS’s “In the Life,” the nation’s first and longest running LGBT news series; he produced the Emmy Award-winning 1985 film, “Before Stonewall,” and directed its follow-up film, “After Stonewall.”

Locally, Scagliotti hosts the yearly CineSlam LGBT film festival in Brattleboro, and in the 1970s he published what was likely southeastern Vermont’s first gay newspaper.

Now, in a converted second-floor room in an old barn deep into the woods of Guilford, he and film editor David Hall are putting the finishing touches on “Before Homosexuals,” a sort of “prequel” to the Stonewall films.

“Before Homosexuals,” a documentary with some dramatic re-enactments, covers about two-and-a-half millenia of queer history on nearly every continent, and ends at “about the early 1900s, with Oscar Wilde,” Scagliotti said.

The film is still in production, with some rights clearances in the works. Scagliotti expects a December release, likely beginning with the film festival circuits.

A long road

Although Scagliotti first envisioned making a film about the history of homosexuals in 1983, he started working on this film a little over five years ago.

Why did it take so long?

Scagliotti provides part of the answer in a question he asks in the film: “What was it about people like me that made people so afraid?”

In the “Stonewall” films, writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde talks about history being cyclical and circular. She points out that, as time progresses, the circles of history get bigger. It is only recently that those circles included queer people.

“This is why we’re making the prequel 30 years after ‘Before Stonewall,’” he said.

“Before the gay revolution of the 1980s and 90s, there were no openly gay people in academia, which meant no tenure and no grants” allowing anyone to study gay history and culture, he said. But, “the big changes in the institutions,” when members of the academic union made their presence known en masse, “allowed gay history to be saved, because you need money and tenure to do that,” Scagliotti said.

“There were no archives,” he said emphatically. “If you went to the National Archives” looking for any evidence of gay life and culture, “they wouldn’t have it — they’d destroy it or hide it,” Scagliotti said.

In one scene in “Before Homosexuals,” Scagliotti is at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Behind him is a photographer snapping pictures of documents. Scagliotti paid him to digitize some of what he described as “boxes of gay stuff, not organized.”

“We’re saving this stuff,” he said.

Scagliotti is part of a new movement to develop archives of LGBT memorabilia, but because so much has already been lost or destroyed — by homophobic institutions and family members, or individuals who were afraid or simply didn’t think their lives were worth documenting — Scagliotti estimates only about 20 percent will be saved.

And most of it will not be about rural queers.

Local history

Even in southeastern Vermont, where queers have a long history of creating and influencing the culture — from the Andrews Inn to the commune movement to the Ladies of the Rainbow — there is no institutional collection of LGBT-related documents or ephemera.

Scagliotti is working to fix this omission.

To kick off 2009’s CineSlam LGBT film festival, held every year in June to celebrate Pride Month, Scagliotti co-produced with David M. Hall a historical visual exhibit, “Our Lives, Our History — Celebrating 40 Years since the Stonewall Riots.”

The exhibit included “We Were Here!” a grassroots display featuring memorabilia from local queers, their friends, and family members. “About 20 people were involved and they brought their stuff” and put it up for all to see, Scagliotti said.

“I don’t think such a thing has been presented before in the area. My hope is that this presentation will get some folks in the archive-preserving local history field in our local towns to begin to see LGBT lives and stories in rural America and all the great things they have done as something worthy of preserving in a serious manner,” Scagliotti said in a news release announcing the event.

Scagliotti also had another purpose for this exhibit: he wanted to film it for inclusion in “Before Homosexuals.”

“All this stuff was hidden,” Scagliotti said, because “there’s nowhere to put it. It was all from people’s private collections.”

‘Liberation of the spirit’

To illustrate some of the film’s points and add life and movement to history, Scagliotti recruited local artists to recreate scenes relevant to queer history.

For part of the section on the 19th-century “liberation of the spirit,” Scagliotti wanted to tell the story of Natalie Clifford Barney, the American expatriate artist and polyamorist lesbian who produced a play of Sappho’s poems in her Paris salon.

Instead of telling, Scagliotti showed. He gathered local women to play the actors, a local hairdresser to give them period-appropriate stylings, and local photographer Liz LaVorgna to snap pictures of them posing in the Latchis Theatre’s Greek-inspired lobby.

“We spent all day on this to use four pictures from the shoot,” Scagliotti said.

Susan Bonthron, book artist and owner of Guilford’s Otter Pond Bindery, made a tunnel book — a three-dimensional book that creates a landscape of layers — to illustrate the portion of the film about an early Chinese lesbian poem.

Bonthron also provided some of the music for the score, joining neighbors Jeremy Gold, Joan Peters, and Scagliotti’s husband David Hall (the father of the film’s editor) at Dave Snyder’s recording studio, Guilford Sound.

Even the Strolling of the Heifers parade was (inadvertently) recruited to provide context and illustrate themes in the film. “It was a few seconds,” Scagliotti said, used for the “Liberating Spirit of America” chapter of “Before Homosexuals.” In it, the director stands at the intersection of Main and Flat streets as Senator Bernie Sanders comes around the corner, waving to parade-goers.

“All of my films are local,” Scagliotti said, “they have local roots — grassroots.”

“We traveled the world” gathering information and interviews for “Before Homosexuals,” he said, “and we brought it all back here.”

“It’s a sweeping history,” Scagliotti said, “and it’s all done here in Guilford.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #371 (Wednesday, August 24, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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