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'Before Stonewall' returns

by David-Elijah Nahmod

Two shirtless guys on the beach, circa 1960s. Photo: Courtesy of First Run Features
Two shirtless guys on the beach, circa 1960s. Photo: Courtesy of First Run Features  

When "Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community" was first released in 1985, the Stonewall Riots were fewer than 20 years in the past and still fresh in many people's minds. This gave the film a special resonance. Now, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the riots, "Before Stonewall" has been re-released to theaters. A powerful piece of moviemaking, the film screens at the Roxie Cinema on July 18, 19 & 22.

Narrated by acclaimed lesbian author Rita Mae Brown, "Before Stonewall" is a documentary about what LGBT life was like during the decades that preceded the riots. It's a powerful testimony to how difficult and dangerous life was for queer people during the 1920s, 30s, 40s & 50s, when people were forced to live in secret, when being out or "discovered" could mean arrest, loss of jobs, or even jail time.


Co-directors Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg do an impressive job of finding people who recall those bygone years with great clarity. Participants who were around during the 1920s and 30s were quite old by the time the film was made. These interviews were the last chance the filmmakers had to speak to people who were alive during that time. The film is therefore an important historic document.

Interviewees speak of the secretive lives they were forced to live, and the coded language they used to find each other. There was enormous societal pressure to marry. What little community there was existed underground. Yet a few dared to live quasi-open lives, such as Gladys Bentley, an African American lesbian who performed in clubs in Harlem. Bentley dressed like a man, and ran off to Atlantic City to marry her girlfriend. Harlem and the Barbary Coast of San Francisco were among the few places where LGBT people could gather and create community.

The film takes viewers through the WWII era, when many LGBT people heeded the call to fight for their country. But they also had to fight for their right to remain in the military. One woman who during the war worked for future president Dwight D. Eisenhower remembers being ordered to weed out all the lesbians who were serving in his unit.

"My name will be first on the list," she told the general.

The chilling witch-hunts of the McCarthy era are recounted, as is the first emergence of a visible gay movement. During the 1950s the Mattachine Society, a gay men's organization, and the Daughters of Bilitis, a San Francisco-based lesbian activist group, were formed. At a time when gay materials were viewed as obscene, both organizations had the courage to publish magazines, the first regular gay publications in US history. Interviews with Mattachine co-founders Harry Hay and Chuck Rowland are included, as is an interview with a woman who recalls going to her first Daughters of Bilitis meeting around 1955. She speaks excitedly of how it felt to be in a room full of lesbians for the first time. "Oh, what a thrill that was!"


Audre Lorde (right) and friend, New York City, circa 1950s. Photo: Courtesy of Audre Lorde  

In the 60s, many LGBT people involved themselves with the civil rights movement, and this inspired some to take a stand for gay rights for the first time. In 1965, a small but hearty group of gay men and lesbians marched in front of the State Department building in Washington, DC, and demanded employment rights. They still had a long way to go: inside the building, people were laughing at them.

It was no walk in the park to be queer in the decades that preceded Stonewall, and the film does an amazing job of recreating that history. Besides interviews with dozens of "old timers," the film includes a gold mine of archival footage. We see actual footage of Dean Rusk, who served as Secretary of State under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, assuring his colleagues that the department does not knowingly employ "homosexuals," and that when "homosexuals" are discovered in the department they are dismissed.

Jose Sarria, who might have been San Francisco's earliest out gay activist, is also remembered. Sarria was a drag performer at The Black Cat, a popular gay hangout on Montgomery Street that operated from 1933-63. In 1961, Sarria ran for Board of Supervisors, and though he didn't win, he garnered over 5,000 votes, far more than anyone thought he would. The film includes footage of a 1980s reunion among Black Cat patrons, over which Sarria presided.

The scope and depth of the research that went into creating "Before Stonewall" are breathtaking. This nearly 50-year history of the LGBT community makes it easy to understand why patrons at the Stonewall Inn exploded that night in June 1969. Their resentment at how they'd been treated went far beyond the police raids they'd been enduring at the Stonewall. People were tired of being treated like second-class citizens, of hiding who they were, of the harassment and bigotry they'd been forced to live with.

"Before Stonewall" holds special resonance today, with the Trump administration's attempts to roll back LGBT rights. The community's hold on the rights that have been gained is tenuous at best. This film reminds us what was fought for, and that the battle is far from over.


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