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Review: After Stonewall

The film is a blizzard of personal reminisces and internal epiphanies amid obvious touchstones.

After Stonewall
Photo: First Run Features

Earlier this month, the ELCA released its latest revision regarding its policies on the so-called “Christian response” to homosexuality. Nothing much has changed in their wording since the mid-‘90s version of their stance (which, incidentally, was voted down by the ELCA constituency at large), but one would have to be blindly optimistic if they didn’t recognize how much it is against the whims of this moment for an organized religion to be willing to issue a policy that, though staunchly unwilling to go to the mat in favor of sanctifying gay marriage or ordaining practicing homosexuals, still stresses that the most important Christian response is to embrace open-mindedness and accept dissent. Tell that to the millions who may very well spend the next four years grousing about how the gay agenda derailed the “most important” election of our lifetime…or, for that matter, the throngs of bloodthirsty DeMint-esque congressmen who carefully engineered the election by judiciously slapping gay marriage amendment initiatives on ballots in key swing states like Ohio.

After Stonewall, “In the Life” creator John Scagliotti’s follow-up to Before Stonewall (the extremely canonical PBS documentary on the birth of the gay movement as we know it today), was produced and televised in 1999, on the very tail end of the Clinton years. Though the documentary was undoubtedly created to coincide with the 30-year anniversary of the historic 1969 riots, it could just as easily have been a response to the gay community’s navel-gazing in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shepard (perhaps the first major wake-up call in the community since the ‘80s). Amid the renewed focus on hate crimes and the backlash against gay visibility, After Stonewall essentially works from the thesis “look how far we’ve managed to come in such a short time.” This is an understatement. You could hardly find a stopwatch swift enough to measure how quickly time elapsed between the Fort Sumpter represented by the Stonewall rioting to the Emancipation Proclamation that was the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 removal of homosexuality from the DSM’s list of psychological disorders. (Not that everything had changed wholesale—the gay psychiatrist who testified on a panel on behalf of the cause refused to appear unless he could wear a mask over his face. It’s hilarious to think that he assumed he would come off less threatening looking like Leatherface.)

Compared to Before Stonewall, which covered a lot of territory but still was able to organize everything into a clear, smooth trajectory in which each minor event played its part in a much more important crescendo of awakening consciousness, After Stonewall turns a span of history less than half as long in duration as in Before Stonewall into a blizzard of personal reminisces and internal epiphanies amid obvious touchstones (i.e. disco, San Francisco, Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk, AIDS, Rock Hudson, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”). “It was a period in history in which each and every one of us felt as if we held history in our hands,” exclaims the self-described “bad lesbian poet” Dorothy Allison, “as if everything we did had the possibility of changing the world.” This could just be because there are far more living interview subjects to offer personal reflections than there were in Before Stonewall, but it seems telling that more than once in After Stonewall, everyone seems to have a specific, unique “moment” in which they claim to have “realized” that their role in the gay movement has come to its fruition. And, almost as often, someone will lament that “you just don’t see that kind of commitment these days.” When After Stonewall was originally produced, one could almost be forgiven for taking the gay rights movement for granted, at least as far as media coverage was concerned. Nearly six years later, the pendulum has inevitably swung a different direction and political indifference is once again out of fashion.

Admittedly, After Stonewall is fairly workmanlike in execution. And though the final analysis reveals a documentary that basically boils the last thirty years of the gay rights movement down to fragmented, singular individual acts (which would seem tantamount to the “historical overview” format), it would be unfair to hold each isolated epiphany in skepticism. (With expressive, colloquial interviewees like Allison, Larry Kramer, Barbara Gittings, and Charles Ching providing commentary, isolated moments of enlightenment come out sounding like the nectar of life.) Nor is it to After Stonewall’s detriment to suggest that it pretty much organized itself, and all Scagliotti had to do was keep the pace up in the editing room. Toward the end of the documentary, the Rev. Troy Perry (to bring things full circle, one of the chief architects in the bid to rescue organized religion from the Jerry Falwells of the world) declares “the most important thing I believe that gays and lesbians have done to change the world is come out of the closet.” In other words, forget all the pride parades, the political lobby efforts, the letters to congressmen, the increasing commercialization of the gay dollar…the last piece of the puzzle, both he and the patchwork After Stonewall (alright, and me) seem to be saying, in staving off what could easily turn out to be an extremely lean period in social history for gay rights is to ensure that as many people as possible can put the face of a close individual on the complex, volatile, and nebulous identity of what is so often viciously attacked as “The Gay Agenda.” Or, as the blunt chant from a group of parade carousers claimed: “Lesbians! We’re everywhere! Lesbiana! Yo soy lesbiana!”

Cast: Dorothy Allison, Michael Bronski, Rita Mae Brown, Barney Frank, Barbara Gittings, Jewelle Gomez, Arnie Kantrowitz, Larry Kramer, Craig Lucas, Armistead Maupin, Leslea Newman, Barbara Smith Director: John Scagliotti Screenwriter: John Scagliotti Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Buy: Video

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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