From 1986 to 1993, Valda Lewis produced a New Orleans-based LGBT-themed television talk show called Just for the Record. In the process, Lewis fell in love with the camera and began filming events important to the LGBT+ movement: Pride parades, AIDS conferences, public protests, interviews with activists, national meetings, etc. Lewis is now putting that archival footage to good use in a new documentary, From Where We Stood: AIDS and the Culture Wars.
The footage alone is significant. At almost 1,600 hours, the collection is one of the largest broadcast quality collections of LGBT+ community life in existence. Filmed primarily between 1986 and 2000, the archival footage makes up the only collection in existence that documents simultaneously both the local & national lives and actions of the LGBT+ community during this tumultuous time, the apex of the AIDS crisis.
While many documentaries have been made regarding the AIDS crisis, most of them (and much queer history in general) focuses on the coasts—New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. From Where We Stood is unique in that it focuses on the center of the country—New Orleans, Dallas, Wichita, and Cleveland. In so doing, the film fills a gap in the historical record, especially with regard to grassroots efforts.
The documentary looks at the continued rise of the LGBT Movement during the 1980s and 1990s, following a cohesion of purpose fueled by Stonewall and ignited by Anita Bryant & the backlash from the radical right. The overall work of the LGBT+ movement during this era would have repercussions and effect massive change in the years that followed.
Highlights include the controversial NEA funding of Robert Mapplethorpe, the inclusion of an LGBT contingent in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade, Project 10 and the rage against LGBT teachers, The Cracker Barrel restaurant firings, increasing homelessness among LGBT youth, the fight against AIDS by ACT-UP, and distinctive efforts for inclusion through civil ordinances and “right to marry” initiatives.
Also included is material from various conferences: the annual Creating Change conference, hosted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which chronicles progress and setbacks at the national and state level; The National Gay and Lesbian Health Foundation conference which highlights the many social issues involved; and footage from the National Commission on AIDS which adds a federal government perspective. Contemporary interviews with key players in the movement chronicle the struggle for gay rights from their unique perspectives.
The concluding section of the film reveals the current social and financial predicament of the activist LGBT generation of the 1980s and 1990s. Studies conducted by a national organization for LGBT seniors show that these senior citizens still suffer from the effects of prior discrimination. Prohibited from marrying and often without secure, long-term relationships, these people have no or inadequate health insurance, meager Social Security benefits, and little hope of inheriting from their significant others. The documentary concludes with how things have changed and points to the work that remains to be done.
Lewis is a filmmaker, videographer, and web designer. Founder of The LGBT Legacy Project, she originated and now manages the massive Valda Lewis Collection of videos documenting the Gay Rights movement in the United States.
Born and raised in England, she has lived in the United States since 1983 when she immigrated to New Orleans. Motivated by the homophobic culture of the times she began producing Just for the Record on local public access television in 1986.
Lewis felt a need to showcase the community in a new way that would focus on everyday life as well as the political and social issues of the times. She hoped the programs would help normalize being gay for both the gay and straight communities, and that seeing others like themselves would help people who were afraid of their own sexual orientation understand and accept themselves. A monthly newsletter was mailed in a sealed plain envelope (like all LGBT publications at that time) that informed potential viewers of the program topics.
At that time, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was a major concern in New Orleans and throughout the country. Thousands of gay men were infected, and all felt the impact of the crisis. Ignored by political, religious, and academic leaders and shunned by mainstream culture, the gay community quickly realized it would have to take care of its own. Much of the show’s programming not only focused on the politics of the AIDS crisis, but also featured ways of giving or receiving spiritual, emotional, and physical support.
In New Orleans, Lewis also produced and aired programming for the REACH channel, designated for local religious programming. Videotaped sermons from the Vieux Carré Metropolitan Community Church, a member of the United Federation of Metropolitan Community Churches, helped counter the messages of fear and loathing being aired by radical and mainstream religious sources every day against the LGBT community and particularly those with HIV/AIDS.
Lewis moved to Wichita Kansas in late 1995. There she produced three award-winning documentaries including: Centennial Highlights, a historical overview of Wichita State University (WSU) commissioned by the University. In addition, over a three-year period, she filmed and produced an hour-long documentary For Generations: Making a Plaza of Heroines at WSU which follows 24 women as they collectively raise $750,000 for a major project of the Women’s Studies Department at WSU. The creation of the Plaza is documented – complete with trials and tribulations — from concept through groundbreaking and construction to dedication. The film won first place for documentary from the Kansas Association of Broadcasters.
Lewis later produced a historical documentary about (the late) Dr. George Tiller’s abortion clinic in Wichita and the fight for access to reproductive rights in that city. The 30-minute video won first place at the Kansas Film Festival.
On the national level, Lewis was producer for two ITVS-funded documentaries, Pride Divide (1995) and Out Here (1993). In 1990, she was the executive producer and editor of Forbidden Fruit Fight Back, which focused on the LGBT movement and homophobic attitudes across the country. The episode was nationally aired through New York-based “Deep Dish TV” in a series on censorship.
In 2000, Lewis moved to Cleveland, where she developed websites and publications for several non-profits, including the Cleveland Heights Parent Center, the local Cerebral Palsy agency, and the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland. She also served part-time as Media Director of the National Women’s Studies Association. During this period, she traveled often to southern Ohio, where she was making a documentary, The Devil’s Oven, which traces the coal mining industry of southern Ohio from its beginnings to the present day.
Lewis continues to work freelance in the non-profit arena creating websites, publications, and the occasional video for Cleveland agencies, including the Ashbury Senior Computer Community Center (ASC3). She also teaches digital technology skills to low-income seniors and is engaged in the battle to make Internet access available and affordable to all.
Lewis lives in Cleveland with her partner of 21 years and their two dogs.For more information about From Where We Stood: AIDS and the Culture Wars please visit https://lgbtlegacyproject.org/