Before Stonewall Was a Trip Down Memory Lane (No, Not Like That, I’m Not That Old!)

“There was a man at the door, and you didn’t get in unless you looked gay.” Hi, quick question. Can I get that for my apartment building and workplace? Thanks in advance.

I realized as I was watching this that it was an accidental rewatch. I had, in fact, seen it in one of my college courses–“Sexual Orientation and Public Policy.” But we all had a much simpler name for it: “Gay 101.” Our professor was president of the Campus Senate, and along with her wife sort of an unofficial leader of the queer community at my university. Someone we all looked up to. And yeah, like Harvey Milk, she was there to recruit us.

In a way, I’m really glad this mistake happened, because it gave me an unexpected trip down memory lane. I would not be the same person I am today if it weren’t for her class, or the many I took afterwards that were taught by her wife. If it weren’t for them and those classes, I might’ve walked across the aisle and collected my meaningless diploma without the tools to eventually understand my own feelings of dysphoria, or to reexamine basically everything I believed about the world.

There’s a reason reactionaries have always been so terrified of us associating with each other, a reason why they consider our ideas about gender and sexuality “dangerous.” Because they are. But it’s a good, necessary kind of dangerous. It didn’t stop at understanding more about gender and sexuality. I walked into those first few classes as a “reasonable,” “moderate” “liberal.” I learned so much about global politics (a subject I had considered myself fairly well versed in prior to being challenged on it, and now consider myself just barely on the right side of clueless about, but that is so much better than where I was when I was more confident about it). And things like racial liberation, Marxism, and any number of other subjects I hadn’t anticipated learning about in classes about gender and feminism. It didn’t all “click” into place right away, but it laid the groundwork.

In case you weren’t sure whether or not you should be pissed off, the first words you hear in this movie are the audio of a news report about the Stonewall Riots, and they include the phrase “after a routine police raid on a gay bar.” Routine. Like thirty seconds into the movie I’m already in “fuck off” mode. Not long after this, you get one of the most heartbreaking stories of the film pretty early on. A man tells a story about hearing from a German civil rights activist in the 1930s how proud and excited he was to have won the right for people assigned male at birth to dress in women’s clothing under legal protection, so long as they just register with the government. I probably don’t have to tell you what those lists ended up being used for.

Everything is connected. You hear a woman tell a story about her general in World War II order her to “ferret out” all the lesbians in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. That officer informs him that she’ll be glad to conduct the investigations he asks for, but he should know that her name will be the first one on that list. Her C.O., who is in the room with her, informs him that actually that isn’t correct. That her subordinate may be the second name on the list, but hers would be first. Her general–guy by the name of Eisenhower–dismisses both women, and abandons the idea of the investigation. Lesson learned? Not a fucking chance. We later hear that, as President of the United States, Eisenhower barred gay women and men from serving in the United State government. We don’t hear from the WAAC officer again here, but you can’t help but hear the echo of the way she started her segment: there was “tolerance for lesbians if they needed you.”

Another woman talks about how white lesbians wouldn’t even stand up for black lesbians if they saw them being harassed. A very upset gay man complains that, “One of the worst stereotypes, and it was really a lie, was that all homosexuals are effeminate. You’re not really a man, you’re more like a girl.” His voice drips with venom here, and it’s impossible not to feel the misogyny behind his words. I struggle not to judge him. His own self-evident misogyny notwithstanding, I don’t know what this man has been through. Clearly he has been harassed for not fulfilling other people’s definition of “manhood.” He is himself a victim of patriarchy. He is not my enemy. But he sure sounds like them, in his own way.

You notice throughout the documentary the toxic effects of cishet white patriarchy’s divide and conquer strategy. Not only are groups that would be natural allies are driven apart, but individuals within those groups are made to feel completely isolated because no one is willing to be out. You could be riding on the train next to a fellow gay person and you would never know it. You would honestly feel like you might be the only one in the world. How do you organize, how do you mobilize, when no one else is doing it. In an environment where people are being not only bullied and harassed but fired and arrested, who could possibly want to be first? Who can honestly say they would stand up and say, “Hey, over here! I’m gay as fuck! Everyone else come hang out with me and tell straight people how much they suck!” Who wants their name to go on a list?

Before Stonewall takes on a very large subject, and one can’t really say it covers it comprehensively. But how could any one film, especially one that’s less than 90 minutes, realistically hope to do so? This is a pretty reasonable attempt to cover as much ground as possible without really digging into one particular aspect of life or one particular moment in time. It’s an overview.

In other words, it makes total sense we watched it in Gay 101. And it might provide any number of jumping off points to dig into any of the subjects it touches on more deeply.


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