September 18, 2015 / 9:30 PM / in 2 years

Films chronicle gay rights from Stonewall to U.S. Supreme Court

TORONTO (Reuters) - The fight for gay rights was sparked by demonstrations against a heavy-handed police raid on a New York nightclub in 1969, and registered a coda this year with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is legal across the country.

Actress Ellen Page arrives with her girlfriend, Samantha Thomas, on the red carpet for the film "Freeheld". REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Amid a rush of films exploring gender and sexuality at the Toronto International Film Festival this month are two stories that neatly bookend the nearly half-century of struggle.

“Stonewall” is a fictional take on the real-life riots that brought gay liberation onto the streets. “Freeheld” tells the true story of Laurel Hester, a New Jersey police officer who was dying of cancer a decade ago when she fought a legal battle to pass her pension benefits on to her same-sex partner.

Oscar winner Julianne Moore plays Hester and Ellen Page portrays Stacie Andree, a young mechanic who helps Hester get over her fear of revealing her sexuality to her fellow cops.

“They’re incredibly inspiring people who did something so important in a time of difficulty and sadness that I can’t even personally imagine,” said Page.

Cast and crew from both “Freeheld” and “Stonewall” spoke to Reuters on the sidelines of the festival, which concludes this weekend and also includes films about LGBT pioneers and teenage coming-of-age stories such as “Closet Monster” and “Girls Lost”.

Transgender narratives drew Hollywood stars Susan Sarandon, Naomi Watts and Elle Fanning in “About Ray”, while Eddie Redmayne is getting early Oscar buzz for playing gender-conflicted Danish painter Einar Wegener in “The Danish Girl”.

Page, who came out as gay in 2014 after reading the “Freeheld” script, has since worked on a documentary series about gay experiences worldwide and was also at the festival to promote “Into The Forest”, which she featured in and produced.

“Personally, it was so important,” she said. “To get to play a person I know and respect and I am inspired by is an incredible opportunity.”

PROGRESS MADE BUT STRUGGLES REMAIN

The origins of the U.S. gay rights fight is showcased in “Stonewall,” which director Roland Emmerich described as “a reminder and a celebration” of the progress made.

The director said he personally waited until he was already well-known for action and disaster movies such as “Universal Soldier” and “Godzilla” before publicly identifying as gay.

“I knew I was gay but I never felt I can come out publicly because at that time I felt like a gay director didn’t fit with the movies I wanted to do,” he said of his early career.

With LGBT youth still disproportionately homeless, Emmerich said marriage equality had not ended the struggle.

“A lot of the issues are still there,” said actor Jeremy Irvine, who plays Danny, a country boy who finds community in Greenwich Village. “As far as we’ve come, there’s still clearly this very large underlying problem.”

One such example came earlier this month, after a Kentucky county clerk was jailed for refusing to sign marriage certificates for gay couples. The incident illustrated that the Supreme Court victory did not end the fight over same-sex marriage.

“It’s never bad to be reminded that everybody is the same,” said Moore.

Editing by David Gregorio

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