February 20, 2002
Sylvia Rivera died today.
I heard that on NPR radio today, but the name didn't ring a bell. But the announcer went on to mention that Sylvia Rivera was a Puerto Rican drag queen, credited with throwing the first Molotov cocktail that started the Stonewall riot on June 27, 1969—a landmark event that sparked the Gay Rights Movement, much like Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus did for the Civil Rights Movement in 1955.
NPR may not have got their facts entirely correct, just as no one knows exactly who fired the first shots for American independence at Lexington in 1775. In a 1998 interview with Leslie Feinberg, Rivera declares,
"I'm glad I was in the Stonewall riot. I remember when someone threw a Molotov cocktail, I thought: 'My god, the revolution is here. The revolution is finally here!'
Certainly, gays and lesbians have made great strides towards equality in the U.S. over the past thirty years—politicians in New York City and San Francisco recognize their influence and make a point to march in Gay Pride parades annually, a number of legal battles have been won in court, and wider acceptance recognized by the media and by society in general. History records highlights at best, so many believe that not much happened in this area before the Stonewall riot—thinking that would be as accurate as stating that the American Revolution suddenly erupted on April 19, 1775. For background leading up to the riot, Robert Rosenberg, John Scagliotti, and Gretta Schiller have fashioned a documentary called Before Stonewall.
I always believed that we would have a fight back. I just knew that we would fight back. I just didn't know it would be that night.
I am proud of myself as being there that night. If I had lost that moment, I would have been kind of hurt because that's when I saw the world change for me and my people.
Of course, we still got a long way ahead of us."
The 1984 documentary weaves interviews, archive footage, and topical songs to give a historical overview of gay and lesbian life in the United States from the 1920s through 1969. The film plays across gender and sexual preference although narrow minded bigots won't want to watch this. Some of the archive footage is unnecessary since footage chronicling Civil Rights struggles in Birmingham and Martin Luther King's March on Washington are so well known, and the film relies too heavily on narration and talking heads, but a great deal of new insights make the film worthwhile.
After a fairly brief period in the 1920s where a few pockets of relatively openness towards gays and lesbians existed in urban areas (like San Francisco's Barbary Coast, New Orleans' French Quarter, and New York City's Harlem and Village area), the basic theme that dominates homosexuals from the Great Depression to WWII is denial and isolation. This was for self-preservation, for to openly admit homosexuality at that time meant: ruined lives, imprisonment, admission to a mental institution, or suicide.
In 1935, the Motion Picture Industry adopted a code that banned homosexuality from even being mentioned in film—rather ironic, since so many in the industry were gay or lesbian. Of course, the world's greatest homophobes were operating under Nazi swastikas at the time. That may have inspired more gays and lesbians to enlist when the call for volunteers went out during WWII, but most were living in isolation at the time and were keeping their sexuality secret.
The film points out that the military experience significantly showed gay men and women that they weren't the only ones with their sexual preference. One veteran quips that, "Groups of guys went out on the town to look for women, and found each other instead." A lady veteran states that she was a member of a large battalion of WACs that was 97% lesbian and tells a story of how General Eisenhower recanted an order to ferret out the lesbians in her highly decorated unit when he discovered how many were lesbian—they didn't have to worry about pregnancy, never went AWOL, and worked hard.
Before Stonewall does a credible job chronicling general trends, and finding a few key people to tell anecdotes. For the 1950s they show archival footage of McCarthy and the Beats because both bring up themes for the era—the extreme paranoia, where the government kicks out all known homosexuals from the civil service. McCarthyism did NOT just affect suspected Communists, but basically equated people considered "different" and "deviant." Besides, the government reasoned—a spy is most likely to be seduced by sex. And for some reason the government believed that homosexuals would be more susceptible to sexual temptation than heterosexuals. The fifties were pretty crazy—thank goodness for the Beats, who realized that the politicians had no clue what was really going on!
The film also points out other landmarks in Gay and Lesbian history, like the Mattachine Society, founded in Los Angeles in 1950. It is said that members at that initial meeting to discuss gay issues locked the apartment door, drew the blinds, and had a lookout posted for fear that the police would bust them. They also cite the first lesbian organization, Daughters of BILITIS, founded in 1955, the Kinsey Report that demonstrated that homosexuality was far more common than previously believed, and reference the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg's "HOWL." Ginsberg appears all too briefly in the documentary—more footage of him would have been welcome.
Of course the 1960s tie in the Civil Rights Movement, and how the flower children and hippies made it possible for gays and lesbians to get out of the more respectable business clothes they had worn in the previous decade when fighting legal battles and picketing the government over discriminatory dismissals. Interesting to note that gays at that time were actually discussing among themselves whether or not they were mentally ill. One classic clip, shows an all too certain Ronald Reagan proclaiming his opinion on that—I shouldn't need to reveal what the old Gipper says!
Before Stonewall stands as a competent documentary, straight-forward without any great cinematic techniques that stand out. Its mission is to deliver a rarely cited niche history, and it covers the territory adequately over the 87 minutes.
We may not remember people like Sylvia Rivera, but people like her who finally said "No more," and flung the Molotov cocktails that fateful June night in 1969 did so after a long history of others who prepared the way for Gay Rights.