Registering the Registry 2019: Before Stonewall (1984)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This time, we reflect back from the vantage point of 1984, watching as Andrea Weiss, Greta Schiller, and Robert Rosenberg collect and present an audio-visual history of queer people in the United States of America with Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community. Join in, won’t you?
(Originally published December 20th, 2020)
History is only in what we make of it. Absent the imposition of a narrative, past events exist much as those in the present, an unsorted jumble of happenings and lives with a definite but far too complex relationship to the wider world, approaching incomprehensible chaos — just much, much further away. Someone needs to sort through it all, decide what’s important, put it in terms we commonly understand for it to mean or teach us anything. Such sorting, unhappily, comes with a high yet obvious price: only the stories we think worth telling are actually told. If the historians at professional and casual levels do not deem events of any import, if societal forces dictate certain persons are not worth documenting, if the taste for uncomfortable truths goes out the window, we run the risk of losing something that really matters, something instructive and alive. Thankfully, when it comes to categories of people — say, queer folks in the United States — total erasure proves a near impossibility, for those of nonbinary romantic, sexual, and gendered tendencies exist and have existed across every level of American society since its inception, and so standard journalistic/archival documentation of everyday life captures plenty representations of queerness. But for specific events, you still need someone on the lookout for what’s important, and to find the thread amidst the tangle, someone has to discern and tell the story. Otherwise it’s all so much noise in the background of a gigantic portrait.
Take the Stonewall riots for instance. Flashpoint moment in the gay rights movement, a routine police raid of the Stonewall Inn on June 28th, 1969, consistent with many such raids meant to flush out and expose gay people, crossdressers, and transgender individuals, suddenly turned revolutionary as patrons refused to be profiled and fought back. Years of oppression and widespread, systemic homophobia finally spark into protests and rioting that spill across Greenwich Village for the next two nights, and in their aftermath the modern gay rights movement is born. Literature is distributed on the new philosophy, trends towards repression and appearing “normal” are replaced by rallying cries to be out and proud, new activist organizations and alliances are forged in the name of the rioters, damned near everything changes for the now-named LGBTQ+ community… and there is practically no coverage. The local papers barely issue quotes from the police in little columns tucked away in the corner, while local and national television news outlets alike don’t think a gay riot in the Village at all worth reporting on, much less sending in photographers and news cameras to actually capture. In a pre-disseminated control of information world, you can imagine how such media silence might effectively smother the moment. It falls to the Village Voice’s staff (situated just down the street from the Inn) to properly photograph and report on the riot. Without Fred McDarrah’s camera, we might not have any visual proof the match that lit the last 50 years of queer rights activism happened at all.
And if arguably the most important event in queer 20th century American history was almost lost to indifference, what of all that came before? Left to idle indifference and deeply engrained bigotry, any proof of the fight before The Fight, the lives before it all went public, the people who got by thinking they had no people like them run the risk of vanishing entirely. It is with the question of how to preserve proof of a community before the world recognized there WAS a community that we find this week’s film, Before Stonewall. On the dime of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, director Greta Schiller and lead researcher Andrea Weiss endeavor towards one simple goal: provide visual and oral proof the gay community within the United States was present, robust, and thriving in the years before Stonewall, regardless the violent discrimination and financial disincentives which kept so many in the closet for so long. I’d highly recommend Weiss’ article for The Atlantic from last year, detailing the process of combing through film libraries and personal collections in search of the images and clips presented in the film, as well as the process of seeking out a diverse set of interviewees to represent more than a white male experience. On its own, the research from Weiss and her team stands as testament to how you can find the story in the jumble of history if you know where to look and who to talk to, and adopt the right perspective. Presented as an archival collection on its own, a work in a museum or a book available for free perusal in any order, the sheer number of still and moving images capturing gay American life in the military, in clubs, in government employment, in ordinary living, would be a triumph, especially in a pre-digital age when such data was so widely dispersed and improperly catalogued.
Under the eyes of Schiller and Robert Rosenberg, with assistance from editor Bill Daughton and informative narration by novelist Rita Mae Brown, however, Before Stonewall becomes something more. As a film, with the ability to present its enormous body of visual evidence in immediate tandem with the faces and voices of those who were there, it becomes a living, breathing document. You are taken through a brisk overview of a roughly 50 year period, from the early days of cruising and coded signals, to the surprising openness fostered by the need for all hands on deck during WWII, to the sudden cultural backslide under McCarthyism, to the early pushes for equality under the Mattachine Society, to the cultural pressure cooker of civil rights activism that eventually brought about the Stonewall riots, all from the mouths of those who were there on the ground. I’m aware it sounds like blowing up a minor thing into a major moment, but I contend such breathless awe at the simple act of finding these people and letting them tell their stories is a necessity when discussing any historical document of underserviced events — you wait a little too long, put the work off til tomorrow, and suddenly folks have died and you’ve lost a key window into times long past. Even as many of the participants survived for decades past these interviews, with some surviving to the present day (Ivy Bottini’s wrung 94 years out of this sinful earth, and honestly, good for her), others like Bruce Nugent and Mabel Hampton weren’t long for the world. Nobody could possibly know when any of these leaders and organizers and witnesses to lives unconsidered and untold would vanish, so to have their living images and voices preserved and presented alongside the archival evidence they were here is equally worth celebrating, no matter how many times thousands of other documentaries do the same.
It is good to hear and bear witness. It is good to listen to them speak of meetings held in nervous secret, of minor challenges to conventional norms straight to General Eisenhower’s face, of defiance against State Department policy discriminating against homosexuality, of encounters with gay singers and gay movie stars and gay everyday people you’d only ever see once and then never again. It is good to see crowded streets, clips of old movies, army training camps, parties, pairs walking hand in hand, and to be reminded odds are somewhere in these images, you’ll find someone who’s queer. It is a definite, defiant statement that history is not so readily erased, that so long as the livers and the speakers are still amongst us and there exist those who care enough to hear and distribute their stories, you cannot eradicate their meaning or impact. To know and be known is good, to revel in the simple act of seeing and hearing and sharing is good, and it is good for Before Stonewall to collect and collaborate and cobble and convince you of the need for solidarity and open eyes by way of little more than archival photos coupled with voices remembering way back when.
It is, however, also an hour-and-a-half overview of a sprawling subject matter, produced at a time when formal scholarly work covering the queer community was in short supply. Limitations are to be expected, for it was produced in the moment by filmmakers and researchers with limited resources and perspectives, as are all things. As one will find noted many times over in the film’s letterboxd reviews there is absolutely no mention of trans people in the film, despite its touching on crossdressing and drag culture and the blending between genders necessitated in order to appear in public without attracting violent attention, nor is there much mention of bisexuality, pansexuality, aro/ace persons, or any other variety of queerness we now group under the LGBTQ+ banner. Without the gains of later decades, erasure can and does exist alongside celebration of visibility. The choice in structure too reveals shortcomings, understandable shortcomings, but shortcomings all the same. We follow a basic three-act overview of early days encompassing roughly the 20s, 30s, and 40s with heavy emphasis on the latter, especially WWII, then a period of persecution and withdrawal under the conservative 50s, and finally the rise of liberation and activism in the 60s leading into the riots. One will note, however, the first two decades are afforded very little time in a film about 20th century queer American history prior to Stonewall, and the two before them none at all, entirely because the project’s position in the early 1980s left very few individuals cognizant or alive enough to participate in the interviews. Had such a film gone into production immediately after Stonewall (whatever the circumstances), I am sure we could stretch back further, get better insight into the pre-war times — but alas, time and social opportunities are cruel twin mistresses.
And then we’ve the matter of the AIDS crisis. I would not expect Schiller and Weiss to cover it directly in Before Stonewall — as the title indicates, a viral outbreak amongst the gay community in the 1980s is well outside their purview. This is, however, a film initially released at TIFF in 1984, with a wide release roughly a year later. Before the president first publicly acknowledged HIV/AIDS, before any major public figures announced their illness or died from it, before WHO first convened to discuss the outbreak, before the death toll rose to the gross heights of the late 80s and early 90s. The queer community knew about the virus and its potential impact, and took as substantial measures to combat its spread on their own terms as was possible, but I do not believe anyone at time of release had any way of knowing just how much of a roadblock it would impose over the entirety of the next two decades. In ending on a note of hope, of looking forward to constant, unimpeded progress born from the 1970s having gone so well for rising queer visibility and acceptance, Before Stonewall reminds me of a previous Registry entry, I Am Somebody, with its optimistic outlook for a future of union growth and influence that would never come. I thank all powers that might be the AIDS epidemic was not a world wrecker, that the numerous queer rights movements were capable of moving past it and making substantial gains these last twenty years regardless how far we’ve left to go… yet I cannot help but wonder how Before Stonewall might be constructed if it came into being a few scant years later. Would the final movements still look forward to the future, or would they take a firmer argument to brace for the challenges ahead?
Ah, we cannot know, though, and we cannot change it. Instructive as it is to consider the limitations, they ultimately matter most for the same reason the simple wonderment at what the film accomplishes is so wonderful. Successes and shortcomings alike exist because Schiller and Weiss cared enough and were sufficiently financially supported to make this project possible at this exact moment in time — they built as strong and impactful an argument for the existence and importance of queer Americans across the country’s then-recent history as possible, digging up so much that was forgotten or nearly forgotten in the process, yet fall short in representing the larger community and looking both further back and towards their future. No matter, no matter. Thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands have come forward in the intervening 36-year period, built upon their work, picked up their slack to the point where the shortcomings are little more than expected blindspots for 1984 production. They helped start the conversation and the conservation effort all the same, and it is best to take what good we can find in the film over whatever weakness there is in its form. To see and hear and know is vital, and in the majority this is what Before Stonewall accomplishes, and helped so many others to accomplish in the years since.
Oh, and since he pulls an appearance at one point, let me say, in the proud tradition: Fuck Ronald Reagan.
I know I apologize an awful lot, but apologies all the same if the writing’s on shakier grounds this week. There were personal troubles which prevented me from getting down the version I had planned out in my head, and I had to wing it a bit to get us over the line. Regardless, any thoughts on the documentary or subject matter from the queer community on the-avocado? Discuss in the comments below, and look forward to next week! Still in 1984, film editor Albert Magnoli takes the director’s chair for the cinematic side of Prince’s multimedia megahit blitz, Purple Rain. Usual venues oughta do you — Roku’s got it up with ads, while the Amazon Vudu YouTube Redbox Fandango etc. circuit all have it up for rental or purchase.
Oh, and a programming note! This past Monday, the Library of Congress announced their 2020 picks for the National Film Registry. I do not intend to say anything about these until I finish the 2019 batch and write my combination wrap-up post for the year/anticipation post for the next class, but take this as official announcement Registering the Registry will continue with another 25 films come February, and opportunity to make your Shrek jokes while the iron’s hot. Either way, see y’all next week!