By Gregg Shapiro
Photo: First Run Features, Shutterstock
Just because June and all of the Stonewall 50 commemorations have come and gone doesn’t mean that you have to stop celebrating or feeling proud to be a part of the LGBTQ community.
The Stonewall riots, which began on June 28, 1969 at the Greenwich Village gay bar Stonewall Inn, are considered historically significant in terms of the birth of the gay liberation movement. With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots still on the minds of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as our straight allies (and several corporate entities), it’s a great time to take a look at the newly restored 1984 doc “Before Stonewall”(First Run Features), recently rereleased on DVD, which provides a visual history lesson about queer life pre-1969.
Director Greta Schiller and co-director Robert Rosenberg created an essential historical document with their film. Opening with news footage of the “routine” police raids gay bar patrons had to endure pre-Stonewall and featuring narration by lesbian writer Rita Mae Brown, “Before Stonewall” focuses “on the unconventional behavior and often lonely rebellion” of who lived and loved in the time before Stonewall, offering viewers perspective on the ways in which the community evolved. Some interview subjects use the familiar story of “feeling like the only one” and hiding who they were while living in small towns and rural settings, denying their feelings or risk getting caught.
“Before Stonewall” zeroes in on the 1920s and 1930s, a period in which the populations in cities such as San Francisco, New Orleans and New York were increasing. It was there that a homosexual underground, a “twilight world of gay people”, began to take root. Gay parties, clubs and bars flourished. Famous faces including Tennessee Williams, Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, Margaret Anderson, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter and Natalie Barney were part of the scene.
However, the Great Depression and World War II also had impacts, both negative and positive. Radical social changes were taking place in the booming metro areas and port cities of post-war America. The civil rights movement was beginning. But the McCarthy era and social pressures were setbacks. Regardless, the 1950s saw the founding of the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, the birth of publications such as “Mattachine Review”, “One” and “The Ladder”.
The persistence of bar raids and arrests followed by the publication in newspapers of the names of those arrested in the raids had a devastating effect. But strides were being including the precedent-setting 1956 “Howl” trial involving Allen Ginsberg’s book. Gay people found safe haven in Greenwich Village and at the Black Cat bar in San Francisco. Groundwork was being laid. The examples set by the Black Power Movement, the hippies and anti-war protesters of the 1960s set the stage for the Stonewall Riots and gay liberation.
Schiller and Rosenberg wisely utilized an array of interview subjects including familiar folks such as artist/writer Richard Bruce Nugent, Mattachine Society and Radical Fairies co-founder Harry Hay, psychologist Dr. Evelyn Hooker, poet Allen Ginsberg, bookstore owner and activist Craig Rodwell, publisher Barbara Grier, activist Barbara Gittings, bar owner and activist Marge Summit, activist Frank Kameny, writer and historian Martin Duberman, poet Audre Lorde, writer and singer Lisa Ben, author Ann Bannon, and activist Ivy Bottini.
One particularly fascinating revelation is that at the time the doc was being made in the early 1980s, the Stonewall Inn was actually a restaurant known as Bagel. Watching “Before Stonewall” is a fitting coda to all of the celebrations.
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