The lavender lens: two docs capture the sights and voices of American queer history.
Before Stonewall, directed by Greta Schiller, opens June 21, 2019,
Quad Cinema, 34 West Thirteenth Street, New York City
Gay USA, directed by Arthur J. Bressan Jr., screens June 26, 2019,
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Even this cranky lesbian has been delighted, if not moved, by the sheer number of cultural redoubts in New York City that are currently hosting, have already mounted, or will soon showcase programming, events, or exhibitions commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the insurrection at the Stonewall Inn. I am touched by the scope of these tributes, which range from the grand, gravid two-gallery-spanning show Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989 (beautifully assessed by Johanna Fateman in 4Columns last month) to the more idiosyncratic, solo salute, evidenced in the handbill I picked up at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts earlier this week announcing a free performance by Jacqueline Jonée, “the world’s premiere concert pianist drag diva,” part of the ongoing, NYPL-wide Stonewall celebration.
Film-wise, several of the city’s repertory and independent cinemas this month are presenting a vast assortment of LGBTQ movies, many (but not all) made after the intifada of June 28, 1969. These offerings encompass the canonical (Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, now at Film Forum through June 27) and the recherché (Brooklyn’s essential micro-cinema Light Industry hosts a program on June 25 of waggish shorts made in the early 1960s by a group of LA-based fag friends calling themselves the Gay Girls Riding Club). Among this fantastic array of lavender cinema are two newly restored documentaries playing at the Quad, neither of which I had seen before: Greta Schiller’s Before Stonewall (1984), a lively chronicle, commencing with the 1920s, of queer life in the decades prior to the pivotal Christopher Street rebellion; and Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Gay USA (1977), an effulgent portrait of the homo movement assembled from interviews all conducted on one day—June 26, 1977—during Pride parades in several different cities. Both films rouse with their first-person testimony, their pleasing polyvocality.
Narrated by Rita Mae Brown, author of the legendary lez opus Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), Before Stonewall begins with a declaration and a query, affecting in their didactic earnestness: “Today the lesbian and gay community is a highly visible aspect of American society. How did this come about?” To partly answer that question, Schiller’s documentary incorporates archival footage and clips from several pre-’69 Hollywood productions of varying levels of overtly queer content, such as the Clara Bow–starring vehicle Call Her Savage from 1932. (In its cine-selections, Before Stonewall recalls Vito Russo’s crucial compendium The Celluloid Closet, first published in 1981.)
But the most indelible history lessons in Before Stonewall are those articulated by the film’s thirty or so interlocutors, most of whom recapitulate their own autobiographies. A few of these interviewees are LGBTQ luminaries: Audre Lorde recounts the racism of Greenwich Village lesbian bars in the ’50s; Martin Duberman discusses his regimen of extreme self-abnegation—breaking up with a boyfriend, no sex for two years—to rid himself of his homosexuality (topics later discussed in his 1991 memoir, Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey). Just as mesmerizing are those on-camera speakers of more rarefied celebrity, such as the Harlem Renaissance personage Richard Bruce Nugent, charmingly recollecting the gay clubs and dyke entertainers of that uptown neighborhood—memories that overlap with those of Mabel Hampton, identified on-screen as “former domestic worker/dancer,” and resplendent in a red T-shirt with the logo for SAGE, the organization whose acronym then stood for Senior Action in a Gay Environment. Hampton belongs to the group of interviewees in Before Stonewall whose stories enthralled me the most: the everyday s/heroes, the glorious working-stiff butches and femmes of all genders—the printers, publishers, former secretaries, onetime government employees, World War II vets, bar owners and habitués, archivists, and bookstore owners vividly reminiscing about the indignities of the closet, courageous actions against hate, the risks and thrills of same-sex loving and lusting.
Culminating in a flurry of still and moving images from the Stonewall riots, Schiller’s documentary ends on a triumphant note, the final words going to Ted Rolfs, ID’d as a retired merchant marine and one of the film’s many gray-haired participants: “By joining and uniting, all of us, we have really gained power. . . . And from the time of Stonehenge to Stonewall, this has been the struggle. And we’re winning.” Audiences taking in that statement thirty-five years after it was first uttered may be especially struck, perhaps perplexed, by its buoyancy; Before Stonewall, made during Reagan’s first term, premiered three years after the first cases of AIDS were reported in the US. By the end of the ’80s, Rolfs’s jubilant cry would be replaced with “And we’re dying.”
This is one of the painful privileges of retrospective viewing: having knowledge of a past that, to the person you’re watching on-screen, is an unfathomable future. That destabilizing collision of temporalities is especially pronounced in Gay USA, which the Quad is copresenting with NewFest on June 26 as part of the semiregular series “Coming Out Again,” devoted to reviving underseen titles in the queer kino-corpus. This dense, exhilarating collage of sights (throngs of Pride revelers primarily in San Francisco but also New York and Chicago, among other metropolises) and sounds (so much spirited talk, both on-screen and off, and—trigger warning—some of the gooiest gay/lez folk love songs I’ve ever heard) reflects the liberationist fervor of the ’70s, utopian hopes not yet extinguished. Or, at the very least, not yet co-opted and marketed: no ghastly rainbow-hued merchandise, no corporate slogans soil these festivities. A typical gay-power banner in ’77 carries a message unlikely to be emblazoned on any Starbucks commemorative Pride tumbler in 2019: DOWN WITH THE NUCLEAR FAMILY—ROOT OF ALL SEXUAL OPPRESSION.
And yet, for all the furiously, ecstatically alive people in Gay USA, the film is invariably haunted by death. The great black lesbian poet Pat Parker appears here, reciting some puckish verse about the hypocrisy of squeamish heterosexuals; by 1989, she would die, at age forty-five, of breast cancer. Arthur J. Bressan Jr. perished, also in his mid-forties, from AIDS-related illness a decade after Gay USA was shot. Watching the documentary, I was consumed with morbid thoughts, wondering how many other young guys seen and/or interviewed (but never named) in Bressan’s documentary—the chevron-mustached clones, the nursery school teacher, the ballet-trained dancer, the twink who fled Kansas for the hedonistic promise of California—would also not live beyond early middle age.
Both Before Stonewall and Gay USA present vital chapters in a history still being made, revised, corrected. And they are being shown in a theater located less than a ten-minute walk from several long-standing, still-thriving landmarks: the indispensable LGBT Community Center, where ACT UP first met in 1987; Julius’, New York’s oldest gay bar; the Cubbyhole, a sapphic boîte open since 1994; the Stonewall Inn itself. See these films, go to one of these places: sites of a psychogeography more vibrant than any varicolored WorldPride tie-in trinket.
Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns.