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A squadron of policemen beat their nightsticks menacingly on their riot-shields. As they charge for-ward to take on the protesters, they are confronted by a chorus-line of high-kicking drag-queens chanting: "We wear our hair in curls,/ 'Cos we think we're girls."

This scene, depicted in the climax to Stonewall, a Screen Two showing tonight, is just one reason why the Stonewall riots have passed into gay folklore as a watershed. That night at a Greenwich Village gay bar in 1969, when homosexuals finally fought back against persistent police harassment has its place in the annals of the 1960s protest move- ment up there with Paris, Washington and Kent State. The British gay lobbying organisation even called itself Stonewall in its honour.

Anthony Wall, the co-executive producer of the film, attempts to put the moment into context. "It was the point at which gay people said, `No more Mr Nice Guy'. From a most unlikely quarter, they bit back. They were no longer trying to ingratiate themselves into straight society. It was the gay equivalent of the black civil-rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. It merged naturally into the climate of the times - a golden age of aggressive and self-confident assertion of your rights. It was a language which they could adopt - and which people still adopt. Look at the green movement."

Ruth Caleb, who co-produced the film, agrees. "It is an important moment. Firstly, it wasn't a bunch of earnest activists fighting; the catalysts were these drag-queens. Secondly, it was the defining moment of the gay rights movement. It was the first time they had spontaneously combusted. The timing was right for the gay rights movement to bond together."

Gays certainly lived under a tyrannical yoke in New York in the late 1960s. Homosexuality was still illegal, and gay men weren't even allowed to order alcohol in bars, or dance without women being present on the floor, or wear "suggestive swimwear" uncovered. They were also compelled to wear "a legal minimum of three items of clothing appropriate to their gender as prescribed by nature". In the film, a brutish cop raiding the Stonewall Inn on the night of the riots snarls at one habitue: "I'm sorry, sister - that pathetic little blouse don't say `man' to me." Remember, this was less than 30 years ago.

The fightback in Stonewall is led by the bar's drag-queens, who are inspired by the death of their heroine, Judy Garland. La Miranda (Guillermo Diaz), one of their leaders, says they are resisting the harassment "for the sheer, irresistible, goddamn glamour of it". After an earlier raid, La Miranda sits in a police-cell and complains: "They confiscated my damn make-up bag. That's brutality."

By becoming drag-queens, of course, they have already made a pretty clear statement of their difference. "When they join The Life," Wall explains, "there is a sense in which they free themselves from the absurd conventions of any given society. They achieve the liberation of being the opposite of what they're supposed to be."

Directed by Nigel Finch, who died of an Aids-related illness during the final stages of editing, the film is not restricted in its resonance. It has significance for anyone who has experienced oppression, be it bullying at school or sexual harassment at work. "Why it strikes a chord," Caleb declares, "is because it is a proclamation of people being what they are. People should be able to stand up for their sexual proclivity. In that, it's a feel-good film."

It is, Wall asserts, also deeply political. "The last thing Nigel would have wanted would have been for the basic point to get lost in the wash. The film is not just meant for a particular constituency; it is broadly political and life-affirming.

"These people didn't mean anybody any harm, yet they had to suffer these laws. When a closet-case who loves a drag-queen shoots himself, he is making a political statement. He's saying, `Why is my relationship totally unacceptable?'"

Stonewall is on BBC2 at 10pm tonight