A comprehensive history of homosexuality in America, 1930’s through the 1960’s. Day Six of LGBT Week.
Dir. Greta Schiller, 1985, 87 min
You can think of Before Stonewall as Word is Out‘s shyer, bookish cousin. It also deals with what it was like to live gay in America, but it’s a more conventional, not as emotionally intense film. And there’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about that, although it does make for a less involving, less memorable experience.
In the film, a cadre of entertainers and thinkers recall the shifting cultural dispositions towards homosexuality during World War II and beyond, leading up to the Stonewall riots of 1969. Allen Ginsberg, Harry Hay, and others all lend their voices (and Rita Mae Brown narrates). It’s interesting to see how much of a non-issue the subject was before the end of WWII. It’s not as if LGBT people were accepted (because boy howdy they weren’t), but they were hardly seen as the #1 enemy of good pure America they way the right does today. The War was possibly the greatest single mass segregation of gender in US history, and same-sex romance was not uncommon in both the military and the all-woman workforce on the home front.
That all changed with the Cold War and the Red Scare, as McCarthy went after “deviants” as one of the groups posing some nebulous risk to the state. This was the beginning of the culture war, as conservative forces moved to enforce a narrow, singular vision of American life in spite of hundreds of artistic and philosophical ideas tearing against that worldview. This was a dangerous era, when police would raid known gay hotspots and ruin lives on a nightly basis.
Stonewall was the drastic pivot point in the gay rights movement, when gay people first began to take part in major activism to advocate for their lifestyles. But this movie is about everything that went down before the movement took off, when “homosexual” was a taboo idea, one of the many things people tried to bury for the sake of appearances in the postwar years. What you see in this documentary is how a movement forms. It germinates in the tiniest idea of self-affirmation, foments under repression, and finally blossoms when it can be held back no longer (and yes I know that I’m mixing metaphors but be quiet).
Even though the movie is technically only half a story (there is a companion film which I’ll be watching tomorrow), it feels pretty complete on its own. There is a full arc to these characters, as they move from confusion to being closeted to being out to being loud and proud about what and who they are. Once a paradigm shift is initiated, what matters most is that you started it, not necessarily how it turns out. But there is a movie about how it turned out, and I’ll visit it tomorrow.