The Gay Deceivers Was an Early Landmark for Queer Cinema

This 1969 film offers a compelling context for queer cinema and culture prior to the 1970s.

Movie poster for The Gay Deceivers, 1969 (IMDb)

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.

Fifty-five years ago this month, New York City police raided Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, kicking off a multi-day protest that came to symbolize both discrimination and violence against LGBTQ Americans and the nascent gay rights movement that was challenging such trends. Stonewall was a hugely prominent and important moment that was built on many years of activism and protests.

On July 2, 1969, just four days after that June 28th police raid, the independent film The Gay Deceivers (1969) was released in theaters. The mainstream emergence of American queer cinema is often linked to a number of 1970s trends, including the films of director John Waters (especially after 1972’s groundbreaking Pink Flamingos), the cult success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and the prominent links between the LGBTQ community and the decade’s disco craze (and its many cinematic representations). Just as we need to understand LGBTQ activism before Stonewall, engaging with this 1969 film offers a compelling context for queer cinema and culture prior to the 1970s.

First, a quick, mostly spoiler-free synopsis of this unique and quirky comedy: Elliot Crane (Lawrence P. Casey) and Danny Devlin (Kevin Coughlin) are a pair of straight male friends who decide to pretend to be gay in order to evade the Vietnam War draft (tagline: “Only his draftboard and his girlfriend know for sure”). The Army places them under surveillance, and they have to take a number of steps to keep up the façade, including moving into a gay apartment complex run by Malcolm (Michael Greer) and his life partner Craig (Sebastian Brook). That setting and couple, along with other aspects of the experience, challenge and change Elliot and Danny’s lives and relationship, to comic effect but also ultimately producing thoughtful examinations of identity.

The most striking social context for the film is the intersection between the Vietnam War-era counterculture and gay identities. Two of the film’s central artists brought to the production significant prior experience with cultural representations of the war and its effects on American society: Actor Lawrence P. Casey (who played Elliot Crane) had been a star of the popular TV show The Rat Patrol (1966-1968) and had gone on USO tours to visit with American troops in Vietnam; and writer Jerome Wish’s two prior screenplays, Angels from Hell (1968) and Run, Angel, Run! (1969), had told two stories of a Vietnam vet turned counterculture motorcycle gang leader.

As The Gay Deceivers’ plot illustrates, in this period gay identities were defined as entirely outside of and contrasting with the U.S. military and thus the war. But one of the film’s final twists (MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW) reveals that the two Army investigators surveilling the main characters are themselves gay men, adding another layer to the intersection of these social issues. The first shot of the film is the famous Uncle Sam “I Want You” recruitment poster, juxtaposed with stereotypical images of gay men, and by the film’s end the tropes have even more thoroughly been reversed, with the Army represented by gay men who don’t want straight phonies to serve.

Bringing a different side of late 1960s counterculture to the film production was actor Michael Greer (who played the openly and proudly gay landlord Malcolm). Greer (1938-2002) himself was a military veteran, having illegally enlisted in the Air Force at the age of 16 and served for three years in Japan and Korea. But it was when he returned to the U.S. around 1960 that Greer began to develop his groundbreaking professional career as a comedian, singer, and cabaret performer. With none other than Judy Garland as a fan, his performances in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and beyond established his artistic reputation, which he parlayed into a career as one of the first openly gay actors in mainstream Hollywood films. And he didn’t just act in those films, but worked to help shape them to be more inclusive. As scholar Vito Russo describes in his groundbreaking book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981), “Greer not only wrote his own role as a flamboyant queen (complete with Bette Davis imitations), but apparently rewrote the screenplay in places, making it ‘funnier and less homophobic than was intended’ wherever he could.”

That homophobia is certainly part of the film and its comedy, although the premise itself recognizes that the homophobia is a social construct and one that can be manipulated to avoid other horrific social realities like the draft. Moreover, one of the most significant elements of The Gay Deceivers goes beyond the premise: its portrayal of multiple, multi-layered communities of gay Americans in this 1960s era. That includes the apartment complex run by Malcolm and his partner, clearly a safe space for not just LBGTQ individuals but couples as well. And it also includes a gay bar that Elliot visits in an important scene late in the film, a space that echoes the Stonewall Inn but that is portrayed as far more above-board and explicitly part of its community and city than that place had been allowed to be before the police raid. Whatever we make of the evolving perspectives of the protagonists, the film as a whole portrays an America in which gay communities are fully and vibrantly present.

As we commemorate Stonewall’s 55th anniversary this Pride, The Gay Deceivers can remind us of those presences and layers, those histories and communities, those social spaces and cultural texts, that shaped LGBTQ America and all Americans.

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