Newly restored and re-released to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Greta Schiller’s Before Stonewall chronicles the making of a gay and lesbian community.
The legendary Stonewall Inn was a mafia-owned gay hangout (not because they were friends of the community, but because everyone’s money is green) located at the intersection of Christopher and Gay Streets, one of many Greenwich Village bars where lesbians, gay men, artists, bohemians and hangers-on could drink, dance and flirt relatively freely… though never free from the fear of being harassed, roughed up or arrested. Precipitated by a 1969 police raid—part shakedown, part ‘remember your place,’ the pushback was led by drag queens and ultimately proved the spark that lit the fire of the gay liberation movement. It was a turning point, the moment at which LGBTQ (a term that, of course, yet to be coined) people stood up and made it clear that they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it any more, though it’s worth remembering that rights can be lost more easily than they were won.
But Greta Schiller’s 1984 Before Stonewall tells another story, that of the long run-up, through the recollections of gay men and women who paved the road to Stonewall by simply living their lives and loving the people they loved, despite draconian laws that ensured that they could be refused employment or fired from their jobs, denied the right to rent apartments and thrown in jail simply for being who they were.
Narrated by Rita Mae Brown—an acclaimed writer whose 1973 novel Rubyfruit Jungle is a seminal lesbian text, but who is possessed of a painfully grating voice—Before Stonewall includes vintage news footage that makes it clear that gay men and women lived full, if often difficult, lives long before their personal ambitions (however modest) intersected with the feminist and civil rights movements, alongside clips from Hollywood movies like Frank Borzage’s Stage Door Canteen (1943).
And make no mistake, Stage Door Canteen and its ilk make it clear that “sissies” and comic drag performances, no matter how elaborate, suggestive and widely accepted by straight audiences operated in a cultural grey space that was somehow unthreatening—because a big, clumsy dude in a dress and make-up is funny—but in no way meant the average straight American was open to working and living alongside people s/he knew or even suspected were homosexual. As Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (1981) asserted, gay people were always with us, hiding in plain sight and protected by a shared cultural pact not to notice them as long as they didn’t overstep their bounds.
Before Stonewall’s core is its then-contemporary interviews with men and women who lived and loved in dangerous times and survived to tell the tale. They range from renowned beat poet Alan Ginsburg— whose groundbreaking 1957 Howl included references to both gay and straight sex and prompted a PR-wet dream of an obscenity trial (“the censors acted as publicists,” Ginsburg smirks)—to retired bookkeeper Donna Smith, whose mother had her committed to an insane asylum because she had a girlfriend named Val.
Their shared refrain is “I felt like I was the only one,” until they discovered gay publications like early gay-oriented magazines like Mattachine Review and One, or heard that “all the queers” lived in Greenwich village in NYC and decided, like gay publisher Craig Rodwell (who opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop on Mercer Street in 1967), that was where they wanted to live. Unless they opted for San Francisco, home to the Black Cat Café, “the most famous bohemian café in the world” and equally well known as a place homosexual men and women could meet and greet.
Their migration from small towns and family farms —often via WWII military service, which showed young men and women who might otherwise have lived lives like those of their parents and grandparents and repressed wayward impulses (some with more success than others) that there was a whole other world in major cities—fed a wide variety of communities loosely connected by the fact that they weren’t shaped by tradition. They were men and women who couldn’t go back to the farm once they’d seen San Francisco or New York, teeming metropolises where you could imagine and forge a life on your own terms.
Before Stonewall captures an impressive array of voices and is especially noteworthy for the number of men and women of color with whom Schiller spoke. Though white men became the face of the gay pride movement in the ‘70s, these interviewees make it clear that the roots of revolution included black and latin men and women who faced a perfect storm of prejudice and oppression—race plus gender plus sexual orientation, frequently exacerbated by poverty. Being any combination of poor, queer, non-white and female was not a resume booster in the 1960s and ‘70s, talk of converging social revolutions notwithstanding.
The documentary also credits the influence of gay and lesbian literature—largely, though not entirely pulp paperbacks that, though often lurid (and from 1968 forward frequently pornographic, not a topic this film explores), nonetheless depicted gay lives neither as jokes nor as tragedies. That said, it’s amusing to see the pseudonymous “Edgar Box”’s Death in the Fifth Position in a stack of lesbian novels… the mere fact that the author’s surname is rude slang for vagina is bad enough, but Edgar Box was Gore Vidal (knocking off some mildly naughty pulps after The City and the Pillar put a damper on his fledgling career) and it’s all about gay and bisexual men, plus a straight guy who has to protect his virtue while investigating a series of murders at a prestigious ballet company.
It’s easy to suggest that Before Stonewall is dated (save us, please, from those who laugh at the mere sight of ‘70s fashions), or that those very personal battles that formed the foundation of a revolution are interesting but no longer relevant since the battle has been won. Rights fought and paid for can be taken away, a fact well worth remembering in our parlous times.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Maitland McDonagh‘s 120 Days Books–founded in 2012 to republish vintage gay adult novels of the 1970s and now an imprint of Riverdale Avenue Books–is dedicated to preserving forgotten gay pulp fiction that explored the lives, aspirations and fantasies of gay men at a time when few mainstream publishers were willing to engage with such material. She recently commissioned and edited original stories for RAB’s 2018 Holiday Gay: Tales of Love, Lust, Romance and Other Seasonal Gifts. Maitland is a founding member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.