After Stonewall

After Stonewall

Suggested reading:

Becoming Visible: A Reader in Gay & Lesbian History for High School & College Students

(1994), Kevin Jennings (Editor)

Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America

(1998), Molly McGarry

Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America

(1998), Allen J. Frantzen

Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community

(1988), Andrea Weiss

Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories

(1997), Brett Beemyn (Editor)

Freedom to Differ: The Shaping of the Gay and Lesbian Struggle for Civil Rights

(1998), Diane Helene Miller

The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York – a confrontation that began between angry patrons of a drag bar in Greenwich Village and the oppressive New York Police Department – constitute the watershed moment in modern gay history, the event that catalyzed a budding political awareness into a blossoming mass movement.

In 1986 John Scagliotti, et.al., made an Emmy-award-winning documentary, Before Stonewall, which chronicled with skill the earlier political history of the gay/lesbian liberation movement. Since, before Stonewall, so little attention was paid in the media to that early political foundation building, Before Stonewall shared history that very few knew, even within the gay/lesbian community.

Now Scagliotti, with different colleagues, offers After Stonewall, a review of the history of the last three decades, right up to the tragic Matthew Shepherd murder. This is a job of monumental proportions, a very different challenge than that the filmmakers faced in Before Stonewall. Since Stonewall, there has been substantially more exposure of events affecting the community in the mainstream media as well as in the array of community newspapers that burgeoned with the movement. The result is that most of what is in the new film seems, perhaps, overly familiar, compared to the fresh and revelatory quality of the earlier film. The impact, at least for anyone who hasn’t had his/her head in the sand for the past few decades, is diluted. Of course, for a new generation, and, indeed, for generations yet to come, the film will be usefully instructional.

The nature of the movement since Stonewall changed from that of small groups, often at the radical left, to a broadly based mass movement gaining participation from the entire range of the political and socio-economic continuum. So there is a far greater quantity of history to cover here – thousands and thousands of people participating in the building of community in as many different ways.

Scagliotti makes a valiant attempt to cram as much of that material as he can into an hour and a half, but it seems an impossible task. The result is more a gloss, a sweeping picture, rather than one with particular depth or new insight. It is slickly produced, using well edited archival footage and talking heads, the latter of widely varying usefulness.

Perhaps the most interesting of the talkers is Jewelle Gomez, a writer and a lesbian of color who is sensitive, perceptive, and articulate. Dorothy Allison is always a pleasure to listen to, and Rita Mae Brown is a hoot. On the other hand, the filmmakers seemed to have had trouble getting usually articulate Congressman Barney Frank to say anything of significance here and the Larry Kramer footage seemed wasted. Army Maupin, for all the media exposure he has gotten, remains a thoughtful contributor to efforts like these and New York city councilman Phil Reed effectively brings into the picture the experience of a black, gay, HIV positive man. Conspicuously absent, even as the Names Project quilt is lauded, is its founder, Cleve Jones. Bill Clinton’s political missteps and key betrayals of promises are clearly documented in the film, which may explain the absence of one of the most charismatic speakers from the community in the past generation, Ginny Apuzzo, who holds a high ranking position in the Clinton administration.

AIDS is dealt with sensitively in the film and put into a useful historical context. There is just passing mention of the roll of gays in the unions, but there is no mention at all of the role of gay and lesbian newspapers, gay and lesbian businesses, or the proliferation of corporate employee organizations. The filmmakers have been ultra sensitive to the role of women and minorities, but even so, I would guess that transgenders and Hispanics will feel invisible. This is not meant as a criticism, so much as a suggestion that the history of the past three decades simply cannot be dealt with adequately in an hour and a half.

Still, there is a cumulative power to seeing once again on the screen images from a generation of activism. The power of the big events is visible – parades, marches on Washington, the display of the quilt, the Gay Games. No one who has participated in such community- and awareness-building events can fail to feel the emotion, the joy of a newly found or renewed sense of liberation that participation in these massive events engenders.

So this is a handsomely produced film that doesn’t explore new territory or forge ahead with new insight, but is useful, nonetheless, as a primer on the history of the period. Easy to watch, its cumulative effect is certainly moving. And who could not end up liking a movie that shares original footage of the Divine Miss M herself, doing her thing at the Continental Baths!

Arthur Lazere

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San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.