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Creating the First Visual History of Queer Life Before Stonewall

Fifty years ago, at a grungy, Mafia-owned bar in Greenwich Village, a group of gay, lesbian, and transgender patrons who had long endured the harassment of random police raids reached a breaking point. Spontaneously and collectively, they refused to be herded into a paddy wagon for their umpteenth arrest. Their resistance spilled out of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street and into the neighboring blocks, not only sparking six days of rioting but also inadvertently launching a worldwide movement for LGBTQ equality.  

In 1969, these drag queens, male sex workers, butch lesbians, and androgynous youths—many of them people of color—lived so far outside of the cultural zeitgeist that they barely registered on the broader American public’s radar. The riots were deemed so insignificant that neither Timemagazine nor Life magazine covered them; not even the three main TV channels that existed back then bothered to send a cameraman.

If zero newsreel or TV coverage and scant photographs were taken during the riots—the most public display of queer life thus far in U.S. history—then how excluded from the cultural record were LGBTQ people on an ordinary, non-newsworthy day? This shroud of invisibility hanging over queer Americans before Stonewall made finding even faint visual traces of this subculture’s existence a challenge. Yet that’s exactly what I set out to do back in 1982, when I embarked on two years of intensive research in film and photo archives for Before Stonewall, a groundbreaking documentary about queer life in America before 1969. Nearly 35 years after its premiere, the film is being rereleased in theaters nationwide this summer, compelling me to look back on the many systemic difficulties I encountered while making it and how the project indelibly shaped my path forward as a documentarian.

In 1982, I was 25 years old with no career plan. I hadn’t worked on a movie before or stepped foot in an archive. While I had a passion for film and history, my main qualification for the job of archival-research director for Before Stonewall was that I was having an affair with the director, Greta Schiller. I can still hear the sage advice the production manager, Amy Chen, gave me on my first day: “Any self-doubt you have about your ability to do this, keep to yourself.”

Before Stonewall sought to trace the development of the queer subculture in the United States, weaving together interviews, archival footage, music, and some minimal narration by the lesbian author Rita Mae Brown to provide historical context. My work, which involved locating just about all of the film’s imagery apart from the interviews, was carried out well before the internet existed. Gay and lesbian images were not yet identified or categorized as such in the card catalogs of libraries. While the word lesbian hardly surfaced in mainstream conversation at all and gay was still a slang word, even the more proper and well-known term homosexual was nowhere to be found. Whenever I told an archivist the topic of my research, I received this reaction: an uncomfortable pause, then closer scrutiny of my persona for signs of deviance, then a response like, “Uh, we don’t, um, I’m sure we don’t have anything like that.”

Old-fashioned homophobia may have provoked this answer, but there was a new reason why many people feared and despised gay people: The year 1982 marked the beginning of the AIDS crisis in New York, although it wasn’t known yet as the AIDS crisis. The New York Times first reported that May on the existence of something called GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, which became known colloquially as “the gay plague.” For many, the liberating post-Stonewall decade of the 1970s came to a halt and was replaced by a more somber mood. No one knew how HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was transmitted, so you’d frequently find yourself asking such questions as, “Do I dare to dip my tortilla chip into a shared bowl of guacamole, or is that a life-threatening mistake?” My father, to whom I hadn’t yet come out, told me to be vigilant about physical contact with my co-workers on the film; no one would want to watch a film about “those people” anyway, he said. It was against this backdrop of anonymity and hostility that I worked to find visual evidence of a subculture that had largely colluded in its own invisibility in order to survive.

One asset I did have was a friend who lived nearby, Vito Russo, who was working on a book he jokingly referred to as Spot the Homo. Later published as The Celluloid Closet, it’s now considered the bedrock resource on gay and lesbian scenes in Hollywood films. (Vito was one of several friends and colleagues who helped with the documentary and who fell victim to AIDS; he died in 1990.) He’d call me up with suggestions for movies to see, and clips from several of these titles made it into Before Stonewall. But Hollywood films mostly offered up a litany of lesbian and gay stereotypes—perhaps useful for illustrating the contempt with which mainstream society viewed homosexuality, but not exactly how we hoped to present the lived experiences of real people.

Turning my attention to newsreel films—the precursor to TV news—I took the train to Washington, D.C., and ensconced myself in the National Archives’ motion-picture division. Each day, I roamed the card catalogs, unsure of which drawers to open. Direct search terms (homosexuality, for instance) yielded nothing, so I got inventive. I looked under such vague headings as “Street Scenes,” “Vice Crimes,” or my favorite, “Oddities”—a catchall label for random, socially unexpected events. It was here I might find, for example, a group of women playing sports or engaged in other activities considered the domain of men. The titles I pulled were delivered to me the next day on a cart: big, bulky, and sometimes brittle 35-mm film reels I’d handle with white gloves and watch on an old Steenbeck editing machine.

Read entire article at The Atlantic