Before #OscarsSoWhite: The Forgotten Story of Queer Nation's 1992 Academy Awards Protest

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
image

The scene outside the 1992 Oscars. (Photo: Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images)

For audiences watching at home, the scene outside the 64th Academy Awards on March 30, 1992, was show business as usual. The hottest stars of the year — including nominees Nick Nolte (Prince of Tides), Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs), Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear), and Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon (Thelma and Louise) — showed off their designer duds and gushed to TV reporters. But had those cameras panned over the actors’ shoulders, America would have seen a very different picture.

Across the street from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, several hundred protesters, loosely organized by the gay-rights activist group Queer Nation, marched and chanted behind a police barricade. Celebrities exiting onto the red carpet faced signs like “Hollywood Stop Censoring Our True Queer Lives” and “Worst Picture: Silence of the Lambs,” while a team of LAPD officers on horseback pounced on demonstrators who stepped too far into the street. “I got hit with a billy club and dragged away into a van,” organizer Annette Gaudino, now the statewide coordinator for the Campaign for New York Health, tells Yahoo Movies.

This was the Hollywood Homophobia Oscar protest, a culmination of more than a year of effort by Queer Nation, ACT UP, and other organizations to make Hollywood take gay lives and portrayals of gay characters seriously. Though most at-home Oscar viewers were oblivious to this, the protesters’ actions heralded a shift in the film industry, which finally began to represent LGBT people and the AIDS epidemic in meaningful ways as the 1990s progressed. Now, as the Oscars face backlash and talk of boycott by another group that’s chronically underrepresented in Hollywood, we look back on the last major Academy Awards social protest, 24 years ago, and what changed (and didn’t) in its wake.

‘The gays killed JFK’

“Angry Gay and Lesbian Activists Plan to Upstage Oscar Tonight,” declared the Toronto Star on March 30, 1992. As sensationalist as that headline was, the activists had reason to be angry. By 1992, the gay community had been decimated by AIDS, an epidemic that had been alternately ignored and vilified by the government and media for the prior decade. As of 1990, gay men accounted for 60 percent of recorded deaths from AIDS, and the total death count was rising rapidly; by 1992, it would approach 200,000 and there was no effective treatment in sight. LGBT people in the United States also faced an unprecedented wave of hate crimes, which would continue to increase throughout the 1990s. Los Angeles County alone reported a “record high” in hate crimes in 1992, and the 161 incidents targeting gay men and women resulted in just seven arrests.

None of the activists protesting at the Oscars believed that movies were to blame for AIDS or hate crimes. However, given the massive cultural influence of American films both at home and abroad, Hollywood’s silence on the AIDS epidemic was alarming to the many men and women who were losing their friends, lovers, and children. The film industry had a long history of either eliminating gay characters from stories or treating them with overt hostility. This was the subject of film historian Vito Russo’s 1981 book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, the first major study of the way LGBT people were portrayed in the media. Russo — who died of AIDS himself in 1990 — demonstrated how film had shaped the popular imagination by showing characters with homosexual traits as freaks, clowns, or psychopaths, while more normal or appealing gay characters were routinely revised as straight (for example, Paul Newman’s character in 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, who was in love with a man in the Broadway play, or Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery’s best-friend characters in the 1985 film The Color Purple, who were lovers in the original novel). “The Celluloid Closet was like a bible to us,” activist Judy Sisneros, a leading member of both ACT UP and Queer Nation at the time, tells Yahoo Movies.

image

Tommy Lee Jones played a flamboyantly gay conspirator in JFK. (Photo: Everett)

Hollywood’s antigay tendencies were still thriving in the early 1990s, and 1991 was a prime example. “That was the year of ‘The gays killed JFK’ and ‘Trans people are serial killers who will make you into a coat,’” jokes Gaudino, referring to the villains in JFK (with its highly fictionalized gay cabal of assassination conspirators) and Silence of the Lambs (with its serial killer who murders women to wear their skin), respectively. It was also the year of Fried Green Tomatoes, a film based on a bestselling novel about a female friendship turned romance, in which the protagonists’ lesbian relationship was eliminated; Prince of Tides, featuring one character traumatized by a gay rape and another who was a wise-cracking, flamboyant gay stereotype; and L.A. Story, in which all references to a lesbian character’s love life were cut before release. A few independent movies offered more balanced portrayals, including Gus Van Sant’s lauded indie drama My Own Private Idaho and the drag-ball documentary Paris is Burning — neither of which, despite making multiple critics’ best-of-the-year lists, were nominated for Oscars. (“So when our stories were getting out there, they were being completely ignored [by the Academy],” notes Gaudino.)

All of those films — particularly JFK (considered a Best Picture frontrunner) and Silence of the Lambs (the eventual winner) — would be singled out by the media in the months leading up to the Oscar protests in early 1992. But the protesters’ efforts began with another film entirely, one that was decidedly not an Academy Awards contender: Basic Instinct.

image

Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. (Photo: Everett)

'Kiss My Ice Pick’

In the spring of 1991, director Paul Verhoeven’s sexually charged thriller Basic Instinct, starring Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas, began filming in San Francisco. Even before production, the movie was making headlines for screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s $3 million payday. The record-breaking script leaked to the public — and gay rights groups were alarmed by what they read. The film’s lurid plot involves a homicide detective (Douglas) investigating a crime novelist (Stone) for allegedly murdering a rock star with an ice pick during sex. Four of the film’s main female characters, including Stone’s, are lesbian or bisexual; all are portrayed as unstable, man-hating stalkers and killers.

At a time when functional lesbian characters were routinely erased from mainstream films, to have Basic Instinct be the most high-profile Hollywood portrait of queer women seemed like a slap in the face. Some activists saw a parallel to the controversial William Friedkin thriller Cruising, released 10 years earlier, which depicted gay nightclubs as hotbeds of murder and depravity. “There were some really feisty women who were like, ‘This is our Cruising,’” says Gaudino, who co-founded the Basic Instinct protest group Catherine Did It (named with the cheeky intention of spoiling the film’s ending). “It was a perfect marriage of activists already being engaged on these issues, and then this vehicle coming along for us to run with.”

In April, representatives from GLAAD, Queer Nation, and ACT UP met with the producers and filmmakers of Basic Instinct in Los Angeles to plead their case and recommend script changes ranging from modest (e.g., change some of the murder victims to women so that “man-hating” isn’t the primary motive) to radical (turn Michael Douglas’s protagonist into a lesbian, preferably played by Kathleen Turner). According to the book The New Censors: Movies and the Culture Wars, Eszterhas was responsive and submitted 13 pages of revisions to “reflect a sensitivity to many of the opinions expressed by gay community leaders.” But Verhoeven and the film’s producers rejected the changes outright and released a statement accusing gay activists of “censorship by street action” — which Gaudino still finds ironic. “What we were actually trying to highlight is that any depiction of LGBT folks that wasn’t just about our sexuality, or an urge to kill [others] or kill ourselves, was systematically being edited out,” she says. “We weren’t the ones that were being censors; it was the Hollywood machine.”

Protesters made their presence known during shooting and screenings, adopting slogans like “Kiss My Ice Pick,” and handing out educational pamphlets containing passages from The Celluloid Closet. Their attention-seeking methods paid off: Organizers from Queer Nation, ACT UP, and GLAAD became regulars on local news and radio stations and were quoted in the national press. As Basic Instinct’s theatrical premiere on March 20, 1992, drew closer, reporters began asking what their next move would be. And so the activists began talking about the Oscars.

image

Oscar host Billy Crystal, wearing a red AIDS ribbon. (Photo: Craig Fuji/AP)

'We’re going to be as disruptive as possible.’

“I’m gonna make a little confession here: A lot of it was, ‘If you build it they will come,’” says Gaudino of her Oscar protest announcement. “Myself and two Queer Nation and Catherine Did It colleagues were being interviewed on [San Francisco PBS affiliate] KQED, and I said something like, ‘The Oscars have shut us out, and we’re going to shut them down!’ And the guy was like, could you repeat that? I was like, ‘Sure.’ But I didn’t really have a plan!”

Sisneros says that Oscar protest plans began as “a community thing” in Los Angeles and blossomed into a bigger movement with the participation of Queer Nation San Francisco and other groups. (The gay media watchdog GLAAD was involved in the Basic Instinct protests but declined to align itself with the Oscar protest.) As a member of ACT UP, Sisneros was involved in the previous year’s Oscar protest, specifically directed at Hollywood’s neglect of the AIDS crisis. Outside the March 1991 event, Sisneros and others handed out rhinestone-studded “Silence = Death” buttons, and a protester was planted in the orchestra to disrupt the ceremony — though his shouts of “A hundred thousand dead from AIDS!” were eliminated from the broadcast by a quick cut to a commercial.

Given ACT UP’s failure to make waves at the 1991 Oscars, Sisneros and other protest leaders understood that they couldn’t actually “shut down” the 1992 Academy Awards. But by keeping their plans vague, they allowed media speculation to run rampant. “We don’t want to give away the game plan,” Queer Nation member Michael Du Plessis told the Washington Post. “We’re going to be as disruptive as possible, both inside and outside,” added Gaudino. The New York Daily News reported plans for “massive covert action,” saying that gay groups had “infiltrated” the Oscars at all levels to cause a “powerful disruption.” Tabloids Star and the National Enquirer breathlessly predicted that activists were going to “out” Best Actress nominee Jodie Foster as a lesbian. One horrifying rumor declared that protesters planned to throw blood. “Nobody was going to throw blood at Jodie Foster,” says Gaudino. But Sisneros says that the rumor was par for the course in a time of AIDS phobia. “That blood-throwing thing was something that stemmed from AIDS protests from ACT UP, from where people became alarmist and said, ‘These infected people are going to throw blood on you if you don’t do this,’” she explains.

So what was the actual Oscar protest plan? “In a broad sense, we did want to disrupt,” says Sisneros. “We wanted to disrupt as far as the status quo, what Hollywood was doing, how they were representing queers in movies. That we wanted to storm the stage? I mean, probably some people did, but that was not going to happen. And I think that all these accusations actually worked to our benefit because it made people start paying attention to the message.” So the goals of the protest weren’t to stop the Oscars in their tracks, but to take the high-profile guests out of their comfort zone, to grab media interest, and to make people pay attention.

To this end, Queer Nation planned a straightforward protest in an unmissable location — right across the street from the Oscars. The organization had signs and banners made and encouraged activists from around the country to join them. A few of the protest’s leaders decided that they would engage in civil disobedience by sitting in the street, thereby blocking arriving limousines and forcing celebrities to walk directly past the protesters. Two weeks before the ceremony, ACT UP Los Angeles — which, says Sisneros, had $25 in its bank account at the time — threw a party to raise funds for bail.

image

Silence of the Lambs star Jodie Foster accepting her Best Actress Oscar. (Photo: Everett)

‘Welcome to Cape Fear’

On the afternoon of March 30, a large crowd of demonstrators gathered at a designated meeting spot a few blocks from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the red carpet had already been rolled out. In addition to the members of Queer Nation and ACT UP, many people had come into town specifically for the protest — and while no one seems to have done a head count, most reports mention “hundreds” of demonstrators. The group marched together to the event as the first limousines began to arrive. “And then,” recalls Sisneros, “it was just chaos.”

“Our goal was to stop the limos and force them to get out of their cars and walk, because then they would see the larger protest and they would see the signs. That was the idea,” says Gaudino. “But we got into the street and the cops were there.” Dozens of police officers, some on horseback, others in riot gear, corralled the crowd behind barriers. To add to the chaos, Christian-affiliated protesters were demonstrating nearby, holding up their own signs with antigay slogans: a protest against the protest.

As planned, a few Queer Nation organizers, including Gaudino and Sisneros, pushed past the barriers in order to link arms and sit in the street. Before they even sat down, the LAPD made its move. “I saw the flank of a horse, and the guy on the horse was swinging a club at me,” recalls Gaudino. The arrested protesters were handcuffed with plastic ties and taken into a bus, then to jail. “I spent the Oscar ceremony in a holding cell with two of my colleagues, eating bologna sandwiches next to sex workers who were arrested that day,” says Gaudino. In total, 10 people from the demonstration were arrested, on charges that included “disturbing the peace” and “throwing objects at vehicles.”

Nevertheless, the protest continued — and just as the organizers had hoped, some of the celebrities were forced to get out of their cars and walk right past the demonstration. “They actually didn’t clear the street for a little bit, because I think they were afraid that more people would jump into the street, so the first arrivals had to walk a little bit farther,” explains Gaudino. “And all the arrivals, even when the street was finally clear and they were able to pull up, saw the crowd with the signs.” Even if they ignored the signs, they couldn’t drown out the noise. Microphones by the bleachers masked the sound for TV audiences at home, but in an amateur red carpet video from that night, posted to YouTube, protesters’ chants of “Burn, Hollywood, burn!” are audible during the red-carpet arrivals.

Watch amateur video of the arrivals:

A few guests and reporters did acknowledge the demonstrators. Director Debra Chasnoff, who would go home that night with the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, tells Yahoo Movies that she arrived with “an entourage of eight women who all happened to be lesbians … and we got out and we raised our fists in solidarity with the Queer Nation protesters.” One television station spoke with ACT UP member Scott Robbe, who said in 2013 that someone from the bleachers threw a full can of Coke at his head during the interview.

For the most part, though, the media and nominees attempted to ignore the elephant on the red carpet. But the tension was palpable, particularly since guests feared that protesters would disrupt the Oscar ceremony. According to Gaudino, one of host Billy Crystal’s opening jokes — “Welcome to the Oscars, or as it’s known tonight, Cape Fear” — was a direct reference to the nervous crowd.

'That was really cool what you did’

The Oscar ceremony that night proceeded without disruption. And yet, the telecast itself was quietly groundbreaking when it came to LGBT issues. To the surprise of protesters like Gaudino, many of the nominees and presenters wore red AIDS ribbons pinned to their formalwear, the meaning of which Crystal (who also sported a ribbon) explained to the audience at home. Best Cinematography presenter Richard Gere went off-script to appeal for more government spending for AIDS programs. Beauty and the Beast lyricist Howard Ashman, who had died of AIDS in 1991, was awarded an Oscar for Best Song — which was accepted by his partner Bill Lauch, who declared he was “proud and happy” to receive the “bittersweet” honor of “the first Academy Award given to someone we have lost to AIDS.” And when Chasnoff won the Academy Award for her documentary Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment, she thanked her life partner in her speech, making her the first lesbian to come out publicly at the Oscars.

image

Director Debra Chasnoff with her Oscar.

How much of this was because of Queer Nation and the publicity generated by their Oscar objections? For Chasnoff, it was definitely a factor. “I did it for both personal reasons — I couldn’t imagine winning an Academy Award and not thanking my life partner, of course I’m going to do that! — and then also I was very aware of what was happening with the protest and everything that had been going on,” she tells Yahoo Movies. “And you have to remember, this is 1992 … This was before Ellen DeGeneres. There was nobody. And so it felt really important to me, if one had the opportunity to be on that stage, to be completely open about who I was and proud of who I was.”

During backstage and post-ceremony Q&As with the press, several celebrities spoke approvingly of the protesters. Whoopi Goldberg told The Advocate, “It’s important to let people know that we have a responsibility to make films in a correct fashion.” Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, despite his film being a target of demonstrators, acknowledged that “there is great cause for anger from the gay population of this country” and expressed his conviction that “it’s the responsibility of filmmakers to have a much broader range of characters.” As for Jodie Foster (who did not come out during her acceptance speech for the Best Actress award, as some Queer Nation activists had hoped), she voiced her qualified support for the protests, saying, “I think protest is good. Protest is American. … Criticism is also good. Anything other than that falls into the category of undignified.”

Watch Spike Lee and John Singleton present the documentary awards:

Privately, the Silence of the Lambs star took a moment to congratulate Chasnoff. “I walked into the Governors Ball, holding my little gold statue, and the first person I ran into is Jodie Foster,” says Chasnoff. “And I’ll never forget her wrapping her arms around me and saying, ‘That was really cool what you did.’” Whether she was talking about Chasnoff coming out, or calling for a protest of General Electric during her speech, the director doesn’t know. (Foster’s representatives did not respond to our request for comment at press time.)

‘We hit a nerve’

Most major news outlets didn’t mention the protest as part of their Oscars coverage, but those that did made it out to be largely a failure. “The protests fizzled,” reported the New York Times, describing the audience reaction as “relief mingled with sympathy.” The Los Angeles Times dedicated a small article to the protests, which began, “A vow by gay activists to disrupt the 64th annual Academy Awards ceremony failed to materialize Monday…” and ended by describing how the glamorous stars “eventually directed attention away” from the protesters. (In fairness, the publication was also one of the few to mention the arrests.) An article in the gay interest magazine The Advocate offered the most thorough coverage. (In the following weeks, Queer Nation members decided to settle and go on probation rather than spend months in court fighting the charges.)

Watch the presentation for Best Song:

The news cycle quickly forgot the protest, but its effect on Hollywood was hard to deny. In the aftermath of the controversy, Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas announced that he was working on a new screenplay about a heroic lesbian police officer that would appease his critics. (Oddly, it appears that he never put the script on the market.) Jonathan Demme, who always said that Silence of the Lambs’ cross-dressing killer was never meant to be transgender, began working on his next feature film: Philadelphia, one of the first mainstream Hollywood films about gay men and the AIDS virus. In 2014, Demme told the Daily Beast that Philadelphia wasn’t made as a reaction to the Hollywood homophobia protests, but acknowledged, “I see the linkage, and on a certain level, lucky me to have the opportunity to do a very positive gay film on the heels of being accused of making a film that had very stereotypical gay characters.”

As the decade progressed, Hollywood still remained attached to its simpering gay men (Braveheart) and killer lesbians (Single White Female, Wild Things) but cautiously began to expand its portrayals of LGBT characters with films like Ed Wood (1994), Boys on the Side (1995), The Birdcage (1996), and In & Out (1997). The industry was further motivated by the success of LGBT-themed independent and foreign films distributed in the U.S., including The Wedding Banquet (1993), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Bound (1996), and Chasing Amy (1997).

image

Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme. (Photo: Bob Galbraith/AP)

Certainly, the 1992 protest didn’t singlehandedly inspire this shift in perspective. But it did serve as a wake-up call for the industry, forcing filmmakers and stars to look at an egregious blind spot in their movies. Some reacted with defensiveness, like Basic Instinct star Michael Douglas, who told GQ at the time, “I’ve always supported gay rights. But this whole thing of being politically correct is really a bore.” Says Gaudino, “Definitely for a lot of liberals, it was like a gut check: Are we wrong about this? Despite what was said in the media, it made them defensive for a reason. We hit a nerve.”

Sisneros believes that the demonstrations made it easier for the film industry’s many LGBT employees, as well as aspiring filmmakers, to openly discuss issues of homophobia in the industry. “It brought together a lot of the community that had been working in Hollywood for decades but that didn’t want to rock the boat, didn’t want to lose their jobs. … it really helped some of those people to come out and be more vocal about queer representation in film,” she says. “And I think it also helped encourage younger filmmakers who didn’t see themselves on the screen to say, ‘Hey, we can still do this, at least independently.’”

image

Spike Lee at the 1992 Oscars — he presented Chasnoff’s award for Best Documentary Short. (Photo: John Barr/Liaison)

'Burn, Hollywood, burn’

In 2016, the Academy Awards are once again facing a backlash — this time for underrepresenting actors and filmmakers of color. The #OscarsSoWhite protest has migrated from a Twitter hashtag to a larger movement, with notables like Spike Lee and Will Smith skipping the ceremony, and the Academy rushing to make changes to its voting process. It may seem unconnected to the 1992 efforts of Queer Nation, but as Gaudino points out, both past and current protests are about taking Hollywood out of its comfort zone and forcing the film industry to look at the people they’re excluding.

“Way back in the day with Queer Nation, we totally understood that this was bigger than sexual orientation: This was also about gender and about race in Hollywood,” she explains. That’s why demonstrators chanted “Burn, Hollywood, burn” — a reference to the 1990 Public Enemy song of that name, which criticized the film industry for its stereotypical view of black lives — and why the literature Queer Nation handed out during the Basic Instinct protests included references to Hollywood’s long tradition of vilifying minorities, beginning with 1915’s pro-Ku Klux Klan silent film The Birth of a Nation. “I personally fully support the dialogue that’s happening right now and anybody who feels the need to boycott the Oscars,” adds Gaudino. “I think they need to be shaken up again.”

Chasnoff, who now makes social-justice-oriented educational films through her nonprofit GroundSpark, agrees. “I think the Academy Awards are a legitimate place to focus cultural criticism about the serious lack of representation or distorted representation that goes on in the film industry, which has such a big impact on creating the culture we all live in,” she says. The director also notes with amusement that the presenter who handed her that 1992 Oscar was Spike Lee. “And now he’s the person who’s calling for a boycott this year. So things come around, don’t they?”

Read Yahoo Movies’ complete Oscars coverage here.

Read more:
Hollywood Is a 'Straight, White, Boy’s Club,’ Blistering Study Finds
Oscar No-Shows: The A-List Winners and Nominees Who Missed the Ceremony
Sylvester Stallone Told 'Creed’ Director He Was Ready to Boycott the Oscars
'Longtime Companion’ Is 25: An Oral History of the Trailblazing, Heartbreaking First Major Movie About AIDS