Before Stonewall is the landmark documentary by lesbian director Greta SchillerTWITTER/VULPINES

Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community is one of the first visual representations of queer identity in American history. Directed by Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg, the documentary film was produced in 1984 to draw on the personal, little-known chapters of the LGBTQ+ community prior to the 1969 riots. Archival film clips and authentic photography, alongside candid interviews, period music and the narration of Rita Mae Brown allow the film to balance historical and political perspective, while simultaneously redefining queer narratives. Like most things however, this film is a product of its time. Marking the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, the film was rereleased in 2019. This revival, this resurfacing, does — undoubtedly — speak to LGBTQ+ history. But it also screams to the wider struggle we still need for an inclusive future.

“Stonewall was the spark that ignited an already burning ember of LGBTQ+ liberation. This was a daring moment in an age of violence.”

Stonewall was the spark that ignited an already burning ember of LGBTQ+ liberation. The first ‘gay riots’ took place at the Stonewall Inn — one of the few establishments that freely welcomed LGBTQ+ people in the 50s and 60s — in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Manhattan. Julie Bowen, a trans pioneer and activist called the bar “heaven, because [she] was with people like [herself].” People were not afraid there because they were in numbers. The early morning hours of June 28th saw the beginning of the rebellion, after a police raid of the bar. After the police entered, a crowd formed outside. The police became violent; the people fought back: the riot was on. This was a daring moment in an age of violence. As Martin Boyce, a participant in the riot said: “what started as a question [mark] downtown soon became an exclamation point.” The start of the LGBTQ+ Liberation Movement had begun.

A still from the documentaryTWITTER/UCLAFTVARCHIVE

The film charts the moments that came before the uprising, focusing particularly on the queer communities in San Francisco and New York’s Harlem and Greenwich Village. “The people who appear in this film should not be presumed to be homosexual.” Pause. “Or heterosexual.” Bold at the time of its declaration, the opening line of the film champions the normalisation of queer identity in a society that still thought homosexuality to be an illness. The film intimately studies the lives of the gay and lesbian community through the 30s, 40s and 50s, bringing determination and resilience in the face of mistreatment to the fore. Through the voices of her interviewees, Schiller excavates a history of queer identity, elucidating the actions of some of the key figures who made the Stonewall riots come to fruition. It is authentic, truthful, blatant. But — half of the story is missing.

“Trans narratives, intrinsic to the movement towards liberation, are left out by Schiller, and as a result there is a hole in this tangible piece of queer history that needs to be filled.”

While Schiller carves a space for gay and lesbian representation, there is little said for the trans community, who played a key role in creating the Pride that we recognise today. Marsha P. Johnson, a Black, self-identified drag queen, and Sylvia Rivera, a transgender woman of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan origin, were amongst the crowds at Stonewall that night. They too were fighting for their identity; one that has existed alongside the gay and lesbian community through history. Fundamentally, an identity that Schiller fails to give voice to, and fails to celebrate. The events leading up to Stonewall and the rebellion itself marked a monumental change in the progression of LGBTQ+ rights in the United States and the world at large. The Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day in 1970 is one example, the first Pride march in our history, headed by Johnson and Rivera. These narratives, intrinsic to the movement towards liberation, are left out by Schiller, and as a result there is a hole in this tangible piece of queer history that needs to be filled. If the community had not come together as a whole on that night, there would be no Before Stonewall and there would certainly be no “after Stonewall.”

Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera circa 1970TWITTER/TIMESUPNOW

Schiller’s film certainly sheds light on gay and lesbian identity. It is testament to a long and complex queer history. But the film does not extend itself beyond this. Undeniably, it was a powerful and impressive film release of its time, but to a viewer in 2021 it is clear that there is a lot left unsaid. Achebe Powell, a founding member of the Salsa Soul Sisters reflects on the riots, in the short documentary Stonewall Forever. She says: “There has to be a commitment to issues that are clearly beyond the ones that are on the table.” This is perhaps what Before Stonewall is missing. It lacks a connection with other struggles for justice; gender, race and class, to name but a few. In fairness, we must look at the film in this context; a film of 1984 in the early days of queer media. It is a celebration of queer history, and a part of LGBTQ+ past, present and future. It is a look to the changes made, and the changes we must make. Ultimately, it shows us that it is our responsibility as members of the LGBTQ+ community and as allies to educate ourselves on the crucial bits of history that have been buried, lest we forget the struggles from which our ancestors were liberated to provide us with the freedoms we have today.


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The following are available to watch on YouTube:

Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Identity

Stonewall Forever: A Documentary About the Past, Present and Future of Pride

The Stonewall You Know is a Myth. And That’s Not OK. (NYT Celebrating Pride)