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The naked activism of Pat Rocco
An underground filmmaker's radical visions of body liberation
Pat Rocco was a pioneering California gay activist and filmmaker, who documented and dramatized LGBTQ life between the years 1967 and 1978. Rocco’s films feature lyrical and deeply romantic narratives, often imbued with provocative political and social commentary, as well as extensive nudity. Although he is one of the lesser-known underground gay filmmakers of the era, Rocco was shooting hallucinogenic homoerotica four years before James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus was released. He walked the fine line between camp sentimentality and heartfelt romanticism, with a visual style similar to the Kuchar Brothers. His films hold an affection for marginalized outsiders, reminiscent of John Waters’ early work, but with none of the shock value, and far more nudity.
While many of his films are gay recontextualizations of the old Hollywood weepies, or absurdist experimental shorts (like Boy on the Run, in which a jail escapee flees to the woods, strips naked, and bounces around on a pogo stick to music appropriated from The Lawrence Welk Show), Rocco’s films began to confront more serious subject matter in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots. In both his fantasy pieces and his documentaries, Pat Rocco’s films repeatedly propose that nudity can represent a radical expression of liberation, and a reclamation of an abandoned or subjugated personal identity.
Pat Rocco is credited for being a key organizer of the 1970 Los Angeles Pride Parade, the city’s first Pride event, which evolved into an annual festival by 1974. The parade was the first LGBTQ event in the world to receive a city permit, but only after the ACLU intervened when the Police Commission attempted to shut down the parade by demanding an outrageous $1.5 million bond as a condition of granting the permit. Rocco was the first president of the Christopher Street-West Association, and in 1978, he founded Hudson House, a network of shelters and makeshift community centers for homeless gay men and women. His cabin in the San Gabriel Mountains became a gathering space for a number of lesbian and gay organizations, prominent leaders, and friends he made over the years.
Rocco is best known for his 16mm shorts. His earliest films are dreamlike vignettes that depict the yearnings and aspirations of men unable to live openly in a society during an era in which homosexuality was heavily stigmatized and aggressively policed. Ron and Chuck in Disneyland Discovery (1968), which depicts a blossoming romance between two young men who meet at the Anaheim theme park, is probably his most infamous film. Shot guerilla-style throughout the Disneyland property, the film depicts the two men holding hands and exchanging affectionate glances among some of the park’s most recognizable rides and attractions, all set to music pulled from familiar Disney animated features, and culminating in a nude romp in the woods (the one segment filmed offsite). Allegedly, Disney officials feared that taking legal action would only give the film notoriety, so Rocco avoided serious charges, although he was banned from the park for life and forbidden from ever showing or distributing Disneyland Discovery.
Mind-altering visual sequences of naked bodies frolicking in nature – such as the one at the end of Disneyland Discovery – is a common feature of many of Rocco’s films. Nude men are frequently seen splashing in streams, climbing rocky embankments, or running naked in fields and forests. Up, Up, and a-Wow (1968) features a naked Rob Dilly climbing a tree, while The Boy, the Forest, the Dream (1968) captures Ted Huston slowly undressing along the trails of Los Angeles National Forest’s Mount Baldy, near Rocco’s cabin. Dusk Glow (1968) depicts two men running and dancing in a golden meadow. There’s an undeniable erotic element to his films, but as Variety pointed out, Rocco’s style is “that of a romanticist, not a pornographer.” The wistful, otherworldly nude scenes are artfully shot, and though they sometimes come across as melodramatic or campy, the image of naked men holding hands as they traipse through nature represents Rocco’s vision of a fairytale world where love, liberation, and the ability to live openly and without shame are all possible.
“Filmmaking became a platform for the activism,” Rocco recalled in the 2021 documentary Pat Rocco Dared. “The nudity films and what was going on in the community… there’s the two sides of Pat Rocco.” After hosting “The Original Pat Rocco Male Film Festival” at the Park Theatre in 1968, now recognized as the first gay-themed film festival in the United States, Rocco began to produce more overtly activist films beginning with A Breath of Love (1969). One of Rocco’s most audacious films, A Breath of Love features a completely nude Brian Reynolds performing a freeform dance in the forest, working his way into the city, and eventually onto the middle of the busy L.A. Freeway. Traffic races by on both sides, before being brought to a complete standstill by the lone, nude man. In a city that was aggressively raiding gay nightclubs, arresting LGBTQ citizens on the streets, and openly working to shut down gay organizations and events, the image of a solitary nude gay man bringing the L.A. Freeway to a halt served as a powerful metaphor of subversion and resistance.
Beginning in 1970, Pat Rocco turned to documentary work, and these films contain rare and crucial footage of the beginnings of the U.S. LGBTQ rights movements. Signs of Protest (1970) captures a demonstration at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood, which drew controversy for its “fagots (sic) stay out” sign, reportedly installed in 1933. In front of the Beanery, Rocco interviews Reverend Troy Perry, who produces a 1964 issue of Life, in which the restaurant owner is allegedly quoted as saying, “homosexuals should be shot.” The sign, and matchbooks containing the offensive slogan, stayed in place inside the restaurant until 1985.
Changes (1970) is Rocco’s groundbreaking profile of a soft spoken Los Angeles trans woman named Jennifer Michaels. A lengthy interview is followed by a psychedelic-tinged montage of the woman walking through the city, culminating with a long shot of her sitting in an idyllic park, topless, splashing her feet in the water. “Gender is a pretender…” Rocco softly sings in the background, as Jennifer looks to the sky, breasts proudly bared in the sunlight. It’s a remarkable scene.
Meat Market Arrest (1970), captures two men being taken into custody on obscenity charges after performing an artistic nude dance in an El Segundo Boulevard nightclub. “I kind of like the idea of being the first nude male dancer,” Bob Philpot tells Pat Rocco. “This is 1970, this is not 1919.” The club’s attorney, Walter Culpepper, notes, “A dance which is performed nude is not in and of itself a criminal act… I think if someone wants to dance in the nude, that’s the ultimate form of freedom.” As the dancers – one black man and one white man – and the club owners are led away by police, Pat Rocco looks into the camera and says, “I think it’s another example of what might be considered a form of police harassment. I will go on record as saying that, and obviously I’m going on film as saying that.”
A number of important figures in LGBTQ history appear throughout Rocco’s documentaries. A Man and His Dream (1969) profiles the Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, while Harvey Milk Speech in Los Angeles (1978), filmed just five months before Milk’s assassination, documents the gay leader’s protest against the Briggs Initiative, which would have banned LGBTQ people from working in California schools.
Perhaps the most compelling and historically significant of Rocco’s documentaries is We Were There (1976), which features footage of the Pride activities in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the summer of 1976. These are joyous, grassroots events, with incredibly diverse crowds, and none of the classism, ageism, and overwhelming commercialization of modern Pride events. Rocco’s camera lingers on a number of nude bodies, only these are everyday people, and not actors. We’re encouraged not to lust over or objectify these bodies, but to behold their power, their celebratory energy, and their exuberant pride. Early in the film, we see a number of topless women in the San Francisco parade, and a handful of nude men. A woman standing with a group of friends peels off her t-shirt and shakes her breasts defiantly. An ecstatic and completely naked man jumps and twirls in the street, laughing and happily waving at parade-goers. In the voiceover, Rocco explains, “The heat wave the city was having prompted many of the parade watchers to shed their clothes, and with the friendly attitudes of their police department and the liberated standards of the city, this proved no problem at all, as people enjoyed this freedom of expression as perhaps in no other city in the United States.”
Rocco notes the absence of naked revelers in the Los Angeles festivities, likely a result of the anti-nudity ordinance passed by the City Council in 1974, during a meeting which featured a nude appearance by Academy Awards streaker and gay activist Bob Opel. “Certainly the Los Angeles Police Department isn’t ready to look the other way at this kind of open expression.”
Rocco’s camera captures more nudity following the parade, in a festival in Golden Gate Park. “The hot sun and the liberated standards prompted many more people to shed their clothes, and when a water pipe broke, they had a field day splashing and cooling themselves off in the unexpected but very welcome cool shower,” he observes. There’s a tangible sense of euphoria in these images, in which adults whose lives had long been relegated to the edges of society, are suddenly out in the sunshine, laughing and frolicking like carefree youth.
Pat Rocco’s work was the subject of a periodical called SPREE (the Society of Pat Rocco Enlightened Enthusiasts) beginning in January, 1969. SPREE promoted Rocco’s movies and stage shows, and sponsored a variety of social events, including nude pageants and clothing-optional pool parties, as well as gatherings at Rocco’s Mount Baldy cabin, where visitors were often photographed partially or fully nude. The cabin was “the place where friends and organization members could enjoy complete privacy in a lush mountain setting, that also included a cool running stream that often turned into a clothes-optional experience,” he would later recall.
The October, 1971 issue of SPREE includes an article on the Liberation Houses, which offered housing and support for homeless LGBTQ people. Photographs taken inside the Liberation Houses feature nude men casually reading and doing chores among their clothed housemates. A caption to one of the photos explains, “Nudity is never a hangup at the Liberation Houses, and the freedom to romp around in the raw whenever you’ve a mind to makes for a relaxed, congenial atmosphere.”
Pat Rocco remained an activist for the remainder of his life, spending much of the 1980s and 1990s in Hawaii. He occasionally reemerged for festival appearances and film screenings, and he recorded music (including the first album of the millennium in 2000), before moving back to California in 2017. He passed away the following year, survived by his partner of 46 years, David Ghee.
Being a member of a marginalized group is often accompanied by increased societal scrutiny, discrimination, policing, bullying, and violence. Avoiding dehumanizing and even dangerous situations requires adherence to a complex system of masking, concealment, repression, and deception. Pat Rocco confronted this by creating films in which the marginalized are openly affectionate, vulnerable, happy, and often naked, in broad daylight. In an era where sexual minorities were forced to exist as anonymous “others” in the shadows, Pat Rocco offered his audience a vision of a fundamentally different possibility – a life out in the open. It’s significant that Rocco’s early fictional utopias are populated by naked people. In these films, nudity becomes a dramatic representation of emancipation from societal repression, and a powerful symbol of liberation.
The happy naked festival attendees in We Were There, the trans woman boldly exposing her nude breasts in Changes, and the naked and clothed bodies casually commingling in the photographs of the SPREE gatherings, the Liberation Houses, and the Mount Baldy cabin are, in a sense, the actualization of Rocco’s fantasy films. These images present nudity as a bold act of cultural defiance, a rejection of irrational and societally compelled shame, and a restoration of the authentic self. They are the realization of the promise he teased in those early movies – a world in which joyful free expression and unapologetic individuality is achievable. 🪐
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