Blue Jean / Publicity photo

Lesbian-themed ‘Blue Jean’ Examines Section 28, ‘Unidad’ Remembers Queer Latino Organization

Acclaimed as one of the strongest lesbian-themed movies in years, the new “Blue Jean” is in theaters now. For director Georgia Oakley, it was important to tell this story.

The film is set in 1988 England, where Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government is set to pass Section 28, a law against gays and lesbians. Jean (Rosy McEwen) is a gym teacher who has to stifle her personal life. When a new student arrives, it presents a challenge for her.

As Oakley was researching another project, she came across a newspaper article about Section 28 and was surprised that she had not heard of it, since she had been at school during the time. It lasted for 15 years in the U.K., until 2003.

“I started to piece together aspects of my own history that I had not previously understood, notably why I had grown up with a complete absence of queer role models, and why in my school there was no mention of homosexuality whatsoever,” she said. “Many of the people around me in London had not heard of it either.”

While researching, she found interviews with lesbian PE teachers who had worked under this law in the ‘80s and ‘90s and also spoke to politicians and activists who had been fighting against it. Altogether it totaled almost 50 people.

“The research phase was extensive and we continued to find out details,” Oakley said.

The director was fascinated that the situation these subjects were in forced them to splinter off their identity and attempt to juggle many identities at once.

“It was like a double life and that was not sustainable,” she said. “Most of those women ended up having some sort of mental health crisis or having to quit the profession.”

McEwen did not know about Section 28 either.

“That was why I wanted to do it, because it’s a story most people don’t know enough about,” she said.

In her eyes, Jean is a woman pretending, wearing a mask.

“She is frustrated and sad and self-destructive,” McEwen said. “I think we meet her at a time when she is balancing her plates and thinks she has everything in order — her home life and girlfriend Viv, which is very well hidden, and her school life. When [new student] Lois comes in, that disrupts things and when she and Viv start to break down, she starts to crumble. With the paranoia and these invisible shackles that she has around herself she feels there is no way out. It’s not her fault. She is a product of this society she is in. It’s the subliminal messaging she has been receiving.”

McEwen vividly remembers Oakley telling her a story about one of the women she talked to who experienced almost exactly what Jean did.

Now streaming and available on public television throughout the month, “Unidad: Gay & Lesbian Latinos Unidos” is a documentary that looks at the Los Angeles organization Gay & Lesbian Latinos Unidos (GLLU), which was established in 1981. The organization was one of the first major queer Latino organizations in the country and the film charts its early days of activism. It’s directed by Gregorio Davila and produced by Mario Novoa.

The two also worked on the film, “L.A.: A Queer History,” currently on PBS. In it, one of the interviewees talks about LA’s history and mentioned GLLU.

“As queer Latino filmmakers, we gravitated obviously towards something we identified with and we always talked about the lack of representation growing up,” Novoa said. “As we were realizing our identity, those stories would have been important to hear and be a part of. GLUU became a really strong voice for the gay and lesbian Latino community at the time.”

Davila echoed those sentiments.

“Growing up as a queer Latino, there were no organizations or stories that I knew of,” he said. “I didn’t know of GLLU — there was no internet back then.”

Coming out of Stonewall into the queer rights movement of the ’70s, people at the time felt empowered. “They were encouraged by the Black civil rights movement and all of the movements happening from the ’60s to the ’70s were evolving,” says Novoa. “Chicano history tells us that was happening for Latinos, specifically in the Southwest of the country, so you had this empowering moment for everyone. Gay and lesbian Latinos were trying to form some sort of coalition, to work on policy.”

Although GLUU is no longer around, Davila feels that if the organization were, it would be on the cutting edge of current activism. “They have always been very adaptive; they started off all male and quickly realized they needed women in the organization. Not many people self-identified as trans, but I am sure the organization [today] would be on the leading edge of inclusion.”

“Blue Jean” is now in area theaters

“Unidad: Gay & Lesbian Latinos Unidos” is available June 24 on Georgia area public television channels and is also on streaming