As the LGBT community continues to celebrate the 50thanniversary of the Stonewall riots, a 1984 documentary screening in local theaters reminds audiences that gay and lesbian community and culture didn’t spring up overnight.
The film, “Before Stonewall,” co-directed by Miami director, producer and film distributor Robert Rosenberg, traces LGBT visibility and identity as well as homophobia in America in the decades leading up to the landmark riots.
Rosenberg, a New York native, was a young gay filmmaker living in the city in the early 1980s. He had become acquainted with John D’Emilio, a doctoral student at Columbia University who was completing his doctoral dissertation on LGBT history, and thought the subject was perfect for a documentary.
“I was curious and thought it could be a great movie,” recalled Rosenberg, who enlisted friends director Greta Schiller and producer John Scagliotti to join the project, which took nearly four years to fundraise, research, film and edit. “Of course, we didn’t have the internet and LGBT studies were just beginning to become a ‘thing’ in colleges.”
Rosenberg and his colleagues placed ads in gay newspapers seeking photos, home movies and people with stories to tell. They networked at gay and lesbian community centers and sought commentary from the leading activists, journalists and artists of the day. The film includes interviews with Ann Bannon, Martin Duberman, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Gittings, Harry Hay, Mabel Hampton, Dr. Evelyn Hooker, Frank Kameny, Audre Lorde, Richard Bruce Nugent and Jose Sarria.
More than three decades ago, a documentary about gay history only screened in large, cosmopolitan cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“The reviews were very positive. When the New York Times review came out, we were so relieved,” he said, but regardless of the reviews, audiences responded enthusiastically to the landmark film. “I still remember people standing up during Q&As and crying. Older people said they never thought they’d ever see the story of their younger days on a movie screen.”
Rosenberg, who went on to found the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (now OUTshine) and direct the Coral Gables Art Cinema, still feels “straight America” is surprised to learn that there was a thriving LGBT community in many cities before the summer uprising in 1969.
“It’s still big news. You can’t say that we didn’t come from nowhere. The opponents to gay rights will always argue [homosexuality] is abnormal, but we show that at least through the 20th century, LGBT community and cultural activity was bubbling up,” he said.
In conjunction with the Stonewall observances this year, the film was digitally remastered and re-released nationwide, including in theaters in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties. This week, the film begins a week-long run at the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale.
“Even though there have been many, many books and films since, [ours] is still extremely relevant and we need to preserve these voices,” Rosenberg added, noting that more than two dozen of the people interviewed for the film have since passed away. “These are important stories that still deserve to be told.”
“Before Stonewall” is screening on July 26 at the Movies at Delray, 7521 W. Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach; July 26 – Aug. 2 at the Classic Gateway, 1820 E. Sunrise Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale; and July 28 at Tower Theater, 1508 S.W. 8thSt. in Miami. Rosenberg will conduct Q&A sessions following the Delray Beach and Miami screenings and on July 27 in Fort Lauderdale. For more information, go to FirstRunFeatures.com.