Before Stonewall (Schiller, 1985)

Before Stonewall is being restored and reissued. Viewers in North Carolina may have to wait until August to see it in theaters, or they can get a rental from First Fun Features.

As the title suggests, Before Stonewall attempts to present a comprehensive picture of life for gays and lesbians prior to the the police raid at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. That date is often cited as the birth of the gay-rights movement and its cultural and historical significance is well documented.

Given that films like Stonewall Uprising often present the riots as a response not just to the raids themselves but to decades of oppression, I expected Before Stonewall to be a bleak, unhappy affair. As is often the case with oral histories, the story the people tell is a bit more complex.

To cite one example, the situation for gays throughout the twentieth century is presented as fluctuating rather than static. Before Stonewall presents the 1920s and early 30s as having a thriving subculture that was not as actively pursued or persecuted until the rise of Nazism in Germany and McCarthyism in America in the 50s. The military during the 1940s is represented as more pragmatic (especially to lesbians) than homophobic.

The interview subjects will speak of fear, but time seems to have softened those memories for some, and the painful parts of the experience are more often represented as emotional rather than political or physical. I suspect part of the reason for that is push back — even in 1985 — to the notion that Stonewall created gay consciousness ex nihilo. Perhaps there is a concentrated effort on Schiller’s part to find and interview well-adjusted survivors who need to remind themselves and others that they did something, even if they never fought the police outside a gay bar.

There is a claim made in the film that gays and lesbians were active participants in the American Civil Rights movement and in the first waves of feminism. The implication is that the sufferings of LGBTQ people make (or made) them more sympathetic to the sufferings of others. I kept waiting for that assertion to be examined retrospectively, leading to criticism of those whose caused were aided by LGBTQ activists but did not reciprocate. It never was. I wonder if I am conditioned by the current moment to expect indictments of anyone and everyone who is not a full-throated ally.

In fact, there is surprisingly little anger in Before Stonewall. It feels odd stating that as a criticism, but the emotional monotone strangely depersonalizes the documentary. I subscribe to the notion voiced in the Harvey Milk biopic that the number one predictor of empathy for LGBTQ people is actually knowing one, so it’s natural enough that I see an important element of these documentaries being their ability to personalize the issues. Before Stonewall has an impressive array of interviewees, but its scope necessarily dilutes some of its emotional impact.

Nevertheless, I do recommend the film, especially for straight viewers. I don’t think I could have imagined in 1985 (as a university freshman who had never heard of Stonewall) how many strides we would have made towards LGBTQ equality by 2019, but neither could I have imagined how easily such gains are lost in the face of privileged backlash. Go onto Twitter any day of the week and you can see threads from historians talking about how media and political personalities distort our past with cherry-picked quotes or selective memory lost. The film’s re-release allows us to hear from people who are no longer with us and presents us with the observations and interpretations of those who lived in and through times that still inform our assumptions about how things were and how they should be.

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