Fifty years ago, at a grungy, Mafia-owned bar in Greenwich Village, a group of gay, lesbian, and transgender patrons who had long endured the harassment of random police raids reached a breaking point. Spontaneously and collectively, they refused to be herded into a paddy wagon for their umpteenth arrest. Their resistance spilled out of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street and into the neighboring blocks, not only sparking six days of rioting but also inadvertently launching a worldwide movement for LGBTQ equality.
In 1969, these drag queens, male sex workers, butch lesbians, and androgynous youths—many of them people of color—lived so far outside of the cultural zeitgeist that they barely registered on the broader American public’s radar. The riots were deemed so insignificant that neither Time magazine nor Life magazine covered them; not even the three main TV channels that existed back then bothered to send a cameraman.
If zero newsreel or TV coverage and scant photographs were taken during the riots—the most public display of queer life thus far in U.S. history—then how excluded from the cultural record were LGBTQ people on an ordinary, non-newsworthy day? This shroud of invisibility hanging over queer Americans before Stonewall made finding even faint visual traces of this subculture’s existence a challenge. Yet that’s exactly what I set out to do back in 1982, when I embarked on two years of intensive research in film and photo archives for Before Stonewall, a groundbreaking documentary about queer life in America before 1969. Nearly 35 years after its premiere, the film is being rereleased in theaters nationwide this summer, compelling me to look back on the many systemic difficulties I encountered while making it and how the project indelibly shaped my path forward as a documentarian.