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Al Pacino in 'Cruising': A Look Back

A steamy thriller about murder in the gay pickup scene sparked protests 18 years ago

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They were gay and very unhappy: hundreds of angry homosexual men and women gathered at a San Francisco theater on Feb. 15, 1980, to protest the opening of William Friedkin‘s Cruising, a steamy crime drama starring Al Pacino as a cop hunting a killer who stalks gay leather clubs. Demonstrators picketed and distributed leaflets. Local police, fearing violence, were out in force. “This is the kind of movie the KKK would make about blacks,” Harry Britt, a gay city supervisor, shouted to the crowd.

Though that event was peaceful, protesters in Connecticut were arrested for blocking a theater; demonstrations also erupted in Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York — where the Cruising controversy began in summer 1979, when attempts were made to disrupt filming.

Critics charged that the film perpetuated the idea of gays as deserving victims of violence. Gay men and women decided to speak out, and the well-publicized Cruising protests caused Hollywood to think, says Rich Jennings, formerly of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). “The tide didn’t turn until gays came out and turned their own material into good box office.”