Originally – and impressively – released in 1984, Before Stonewall has been restored and re-released and is screened on the penultimate night of this year’s SQIFF. The documentary begins as an exploration of the representation of LGBTQ people in early film and therefore the place and treatment of queer people in American society in general. As it moves forward, it then charts the rise of the gay liberation movement, culminating in the infamous Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969.
Early on, the film uses interviews, stills, and news footage to look at the origin of the idea of ‘community’ amongst LGBTQ people in America. Much of this is focused on San Francisco and New York’s Harlem and Greenwich Village areas. We then move on to a brief section on the US Depression of the 1930s (and subsequent shutdown on gay and feminist movements), before a lengthier chapter on the military takes over. Several interviewees detail their experiences in the armed forces, discussing the discrimination they faced and their determination to still serve their country in the face of that mistreatment. This portion of the film also explores how World War Two oddly brought gay people together – either congregating during mass army training or, for women, coming together on the home front.
What the film most effectively conveys is the push and pull of progress. As gay people were finding one another in communities in the 30s and 40s, the military tried its hardest to tear them apart. As gay rights began gaining notice via writers and artists like Allen Ginsberg, McCarthyism re-oppressed them. The pendulum of acceptance always seems to swing backwards before it can move forwards again, and the film focuses on those individuals who remained firm in their commitments amidst this constant fluctuation.
As the title suggests, the documentary culminates in a brief account of the Stonewall Inn and the insistent police raids that plagued it and other gay bars throughout New York in the 1960s. And while this is often cited as the ‘key’ moment in the history of the LGBTQ rights movements, Before Stonewall elucidates the lives and actions of those who made those riots come to fruition in the first place.