Not for nothing are John Scagliotti, Greta Schiller, and others’ comprehensive 1985 and 1999 documentary looks at gay life in America throughout the 20th century called Before Stonewall and After Stonewall. The 1969 riots against cops working the morals beat at the Stonewall Inn—an unofficial, shadowy gay bar during what was an unofficial, shadowy era for gays—are now regarded as much a defining moment in the creation of a new reality as Rosa Parks’s refusal to sit at the back of that bus, if not the firing upon Fort Sumter. And just like those other revolutionary moments in American history, the riots now have a well-meaning, efficacious, but inoffensively classroom-ready set of talking heads to call their own.
Okay, maybe that’s a little unfair. Given the almost total lack of footage from the actual riots, talking heads and soft-focus recreations were really the filmmakers’ only options. That directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner can spin something dramatic from a few dozen still photographs and personal testimony is admirable. But like many historic events, the context tends to yield to the historical gravitas of the moment that was only waiting to arrive. From the outset, Stonewall Uprising diverges quite a bit from Before Stonewall in the sense that, for its narrative to fully work, it has to begin by depicting gay life at rock bottom. Which it does, so much so that it posits there actually was no such thing as “gay life” before Stonewall, that the concept was simply unthinkable. Before Stonewall delved back far enough into America’s past to come up with the debatable alternative thesis that, though recorded history may have been redacted or (more likely) ignored, there always were homosexuals in American culture, and they weren’t always stoned to death. Stonewall Uprising sets its scene in the most repressive of repressive environments, that Eisenhower-era America in which gay people could be sent to insane asylums and electrocuted, lobotomized, sterilized, or even castrated at Atascadero State Hospital (deemed “the Dachau for queers”). It was an era where self-actualization was absurd, where the only resistance options were through sheer dissociation. (One participant remembers that his inability to fight for his own rights was what led him to participate in the Civil Rights movement. “It was a way to vent my anger at being repressed.”)
Stonewall Uprising deploys familiar PSA-cum-hate-crimes like the infamous “Boys Beware” with very little restraint in order to truly establish Stonewall’s prehistory as a No M2M’s Land. But for all the hair-raising clips that Stonewall Uprising includes from the straight enemy’s propaganda campaign against gays, nothing chills quite so thoroughly as the then-president of the Mattachine Society (Florida chapter) serving up cagey soundbites to Mike Wallace about how gay people do not seek the social reward of marriage or the option to adopt children or anything that would indicate a desire to impinge on straight society’s chokehold monopoly on normalcy, that the only people who would seriously advocate for equality in matters of marriage and family are a few outlier fringe lunatic types.
Now, granted, there are today perfectly valid and reasonable radical arguments against, I’m told, the quest to steer homosexuality into the same narrow social constructs that apparently define heterosexuality. (I’m of the opinion that straights probably get their freak on and refuse to get married and wind up in hedonistic, orgy-prone communes with approximately the same frequency as do gays and lesbians, but I digress.) However, the swiftness by which Richard the Mattachine Auntie Tom answers Wallace’s question as to whether he is a homosexual by countering, with a notable grimace, that he gave it up years ago (“It’s just not my cup of tea”) goes about as far as any of the documentary’s other vintage footage toward revealing just how high those psychological walls separating gays from happiness and fulfillment had been built in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
But it also points up one of the most prominent things to this day holding the gay community back: gay persons’ propensity for defining their own homosexuality as being “not as gay” as that mincing queen over there. (A regrettable attitude I’m not proud to say some detected in my review of Christina Aguilera’s latest album.) Which is why the coda to Stonewall Uprising, otherwise confined to its specific moment in the timeline of gay American history, is so compelling and, frankly, overpowers the riot itself. For as much as the movie suggests the modern gay movement in this country began with an act of violent rebellion, many of the talking-head participants are of the opinion that it wasn’t until the next year, when a small anniversary march commemorating the event suddenly and shockingly turned into an epic “out of the closets, into the streets” parade, that they truly felt the community had come into its own. It was acceptance on a mass scale that represented the true revolution.