Cast: Audre Lorde, Harry Hay, Barbara Gittings and Allen Ginsberg
Directed by: Greta Schiller
Studio: First Run Features
Running Time: 87 min
MPAA Rating: NR
As anyone with an inkling of knowledge in gay history knows, life before the Stonewall Riots for queers like me in the United States wasn't the most pleasant thing to experience. This documentary traces the various trials and tribulations of the gay rights movement and gay culture from the early 1900s up to 1969, the year of the riots themselves. The film itself is mostly composed of archival clips and interviews and is narrated by Rita Mae Brown. Overall, the ideas and people are intriguing, but they probably could have done a better job restoring and transferring the old footage and film itself to DVD.
The documentary starts out in the early 20th century, where the majority of gays were both socially and intellectually isolated. In families and in pop culture, there were little references to homosexual concepts, which inhibited self discovery and discouraged communication. Recognition occurred within a small active community by gestures like having a matching necktie and hankie. Things got slightly better with Bohemianism as gays moved into Bohemian neighborhoods, where they found themselves at peace with their nonjudgmental neighbors. Refuge was also later found in Harlem with the downtrodden black population. As the gay movement began to pick up speed in the 20s, there was a glut of gay and lesbian published works, most notably books like The Well of Loneliness. Several relevant Broadway plays were also in production at the time, but these were eventually censored by being declared indecent.
Ironically with the controversy over gays in the military nowadays, World War II ended feelings of isolation by bringing many queers together and fostered feelings of toleration by bringing people against a common enemy. As World War II ended, many queers settled in the port cities where they could get away from their judgmental parents and join the burgeoning urban gay culture. Unfortunately, things went downhill after this with sweeping conservatism in the 1950s and the advent of McCarthyism. Queers were actively suppressed and denied employment in the federal government because McCarthy created a link in everyone's mind with communists and homosexuals. At this time though the seeds of the modern gay rights movement were being planted with the formation of the Mattachine Society and the publication of ONE Magazine.
The 60s brought with us many splendiferous things, notably the civil rights movement. This film connects the movement for equality for blacks and women with the gay rights movement. Many frustrated queers weren't ready to fight for their own rights, but were more than willing to fight for other people's rights. Lesbians were at the forefront with NOW and one woman interviewed speculates that finding a mate was one of the conscious or unconscious reasons why she and many lesbians got involved. Regardless, things picked up greatly as queers acquired experience with nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. Eventually this fermented into the discontent that led up to the Stonewall Riots, which is where this film ends and the newly released 1999 film, After Stonewall, begins.