Andrea Weiss

Before Stonewall

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Before Stonewall Summary

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Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community (1988), a non-fiction book by American filmmakers Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss, is a companion to Schiller’s documentary of the same name, which chronicles key figures and events in LGBTQ+ communities prior to the 1969 Stonewall riots, a watershed moment that galvanized the gay liberation movement. In 2019, the film on which Before Stonewall is based was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” work.

For a brief moment in the 1920s, gays and lesbians enjoyed a period of relatively high social acceptance that they would not experience again until the 1970s. At the time, it wasn’t uncommon for gay clubs to be operated out in the open, and some of the biggest movie stars of the era engaged in openly gay relationships. These included William Haines—for a time the number-one box office draw in America–who made no attempt to hide the fact that he lived with his lover, Jimmie Shields.

However, with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the LGBTQ+ community found itself the victim of a cultural backlash. According to the LGBTQ+ scholar George Chauncey, this came as “part of a wider Depression-era condemnation of the cultural experimentation of the ’20s, which many blamed for the economic collapse.” The end of Prohibition also played a significant role. With the return of legal alcohol sales, bars and restaurants that once operated according to their own rules now faced laws and regulations prohibiting the hiring of gay employees and, in some cases, the serving of gay patrons.

Although LGBTQ+ communities would remain largely underground throughout the 1940s, the World War II era challenged prevailing mainstream ideas about gender and sexuality in significant ways. In 1941, the United States enlisted almost 250,000 women in the Armed Forces, recruited in part by propaganda material featuring muscular women with short hair. Recruitment offices rarely rejected women on the grounds of lesbianism, and much of the work required of recruits was well-suited to women with traditionally masculine characteristics, like muscles and short-cropped hair. Feeling little pressure to conform to traditional gender roles in a time of war, some lesbians arrived at their induction ceremonies wearing men’s clothing and slicked-back hair, a popular style for out women at the time. Meanwhile, same-sex quarters afforded gay men and gay women alike more opportunities to find like-minded sexual partners.

After the war ended, many gays and lesbians declined to return to traditional gender roles or identities. At the same time, America underwent a cultural shift that tilted in a more conservative direction, toward suburban domesticity, earlier marriage, and nuclear families. Amid this new post-war paradigm came Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-communist demagoguery and fear-mongering explicitly associated communism with homosexuality. As part of the “Lavender Scare”—so named because it coincided with McCarthy’s anti-communist “Red Scare” movement—government workers suspected of being gay were identified and dismissed en masse from federal agencies. In 1950, 91 State Department employees were dismissed or forced to resign in an effort to purge the federal government of gay workers. With the help of attorney Roy Cohn—an alleged gay man himself who would later die of AIDS—McCarthy worked tirelessly to identify and fire government employees they suspected were gay. The two argued that homosexuals were also likely to be communists, and even those who weren’t communists could easily be blackmailed into working against American interests. In many instances, McCarthy and Cohn sought to intimidate opponents into silence by threatening to invent and spread rumors questioning the opponent’s sexuality, even if they believed the person to be straight. By 1953, the State Department alone had purged 425 employees under suspicion of homosexuality.

That same year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 prohibiting gays and lesbians from holding positions in the federal government. Historians estimate that around 5,000 government workers lost their jobs as a result of the Executive Order, including military personnel and private contractors. Before long, state and local governments instituted similar bans on gay employees. Approximately 12 million workers in state and municipal governments were forced to sign moral purity oaths in order to keep their jobs.

As the 1950s drew to a close, some of the hysteria and panic surrounding LGBTQ+ communities subsided. The emergence of LGBTQ+ activist groups like the Mattachine Society coincided with the growth of the Civil Rights Movement, all of which was helped along by broader cultural shifts leftward and increased levels of social consciousness, particularly among young people. That said, gays and lesbians were still largely relegated in status to urban subcultures, deprived of many of the privileges enjoyed by straight Americans. In New York City, for example, authorities could shut down bars for serving LGBTQ+ customers, who under liquor laws were considered “disorderly” when they gathered. In response, the Mattachine Society organized a series of “sip-ins” in 1966 in which gay patrons would enter a bar, declare their sexual orientation, and threaten to sue for discrimination upon being turned away. These and other protests eventually resulted in the repeal of a number of anti-gay liquor laws. Even still, tensions between authorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community remained high, eventually boiling over in 1969 during the Stonewall riots.

Before Stonewall is a fascinating history of LGBTQ+ communities during the first half of the 20th century.