Before Stonewall is a 1984 documentary about life for LGBT people before the infamous 1967 riots that began the gay liberation movement.
In this fascinating and eye-opening documentary we see the way gay people were treated from the 1920s, including the role they played in World War Two, up to the riots in the 1960s.While discrimination against the LGBT community is far from unheard of nowadays, and a huge amount of prejudice still exists, what’s so remarkable about this documentary is how incredibly far it shows things to have come.
At the outset it’s not just that being gay is illegal and considered evil in one form or another, it’s that people had no conception of gay people at all. In fact, the concept of different sexual identities in general was alien to most. In the early 1900s it simply wasn’t talked about, so a conception of sexual orientation was non-existent.
The gay people interviewed didn’t think of themselves as gay in their youth. They didn’t think of themselves as anything. There were no gay bars, gay magazines or gay organisations. It was, strangely, Word War Two that played a large part in creating these things, as people from all over the country were brought together like never before, allowing like-minded people to meet. At the end of the war they could re-locate to the big cities where they were far more free to live as they chose.
Even as late as the 1960s, gay rights groups were debating whether or not homosexuality was a mental illness. While prejudice against gay people is well known, this documentary shows how the very conception of homosexuality developed.
It includes historical footage and interviews with veteran gay rights campaigners, some of whom have remarkable stories. One woman, for example, was serving in World War Two with a battalion comprised almost entirely of lesbians. When instructed by then-General Dwight D Eisenhower to compile a list of the lesbians in the unit, she responded that her name would be at the top of the list, with her second in command echoing her statement. They told Eisenhower that the unit was comprised almost entirely of lesbians who had frequently been praised for their service. This resulted in a change of heart from the commander. A truly incredible tale.
Made in 1984, this documentary is somewhat dated, particularly with its presentation and downbeat voice over. But its strength is in its interviewees who give an honest retrospective in their senior years. It’s also remarkably un-self pitying, considering what most of the people involved have been through. There’s no crying and no sob stories, and no drawn out focus on hate crime and animosity. It’s a look at the issues and tackles them head on, but doesn’t feel self important or overly sentimental.
Overall it’s impressive how secure and well-adjusted all the interviewees seem. One might expect that a gay person who began life never having heard of homosexuality, who had to fight for every single right and build a movement from scratch, against wide-ranging and harsh opposition, might be downtrodden or shaken up by it in some way. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth.
This fascinating documentary is a piece of history in its own right.