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Before Stonewall (1984)

This month’s 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot and the launch of the modern gay rights movement marks a perfect time to bring back Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg’s groundbreaking 1984 documentary, which details the LGBT experience in the decades prior to the game-changing pushback that occurred at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 1969.

The film offers a fascinating mix of rarely-seen photographs and film footage that detail how American gay men and women existed during the first part of the 20th century. Major urban centers such as New York, San Francisco and New Orleans enabled the existence of underground but vibrant social settings for the gay community in the 1920s, and films and literature openly acknowledged this demographic. The conservatism of the Depression-era 1930s put a damper on much of this scene, but during World War II many gays and lesbians discovered each other in the U.S. military – often to the exasperation of military hierarchy. (The film has a priceless anecdote of Eisenhower’s confrontation with lesbian servicemembers.) The postwar years were marked with the McCarthyist “lavender scare” that forced many federal workers from their jobs, as well as the slow but steady effort to force a consideration that gay rights equaled civil rights.

This film includes interviews with prominent cultural and political activists including Allen Ginsburg, Harry Hay, Audre Lorde and Richard Bruce Nugent; Rita Mae Brown offers the narration. To its credit, the film also acknowledges the racial separations between black and white LGBT Americans during this period – the fight for equality, it seems, was separated by color. The most poignant segment of the film is a reunion of the performers and clientele of San Francisco’s Black Cat Café, once the under-the-radar epicenter of the city’s gay scene.

“Before Stonewall” is a timely reminder of where the struggle for LGBT rights came from and an important lesson of how a disenfranchised community found its strength and voice.