Forty years ago, early in the morning of June 28, 1969, the gay liberation movement came out of the closet after the police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York City. “These riots are widely credited with being the motivating force in the transformation of the gay political movement,” writes David Carter in his groundbreaking book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution. Yet what had it had been like to be gay before then? What did it actually mean to live in the closet in an era when homosexuality was deemed at best a mental illness and at worse a criminal act?
Greta Schiller’s documentary Before Stonewall was first shown twenty-five years ago, in 1984. At a time when there was a renewed backlash against gay rights in America and Europe, this documentary talked to people who hitherto lived a secret history, a history that was in the closet. It is an entertaining, heart-warming and heart-breaking film that is as significant today as it was twenty-five years ago.
How do you feel about the film coming out on DVD in Britain to mark its 25th anniversary?
I’m extremely excited. The original British release was really important to the film as well as my career. It was the place that the film was launched in the international market, after Berlin. 1984 was a very different time. It was an anti-gay era, with Thatcher and Reagan, and it seems like a long time ago, although not as long ago as we would like it to be.
Do you think that documentaries that deal with social history are important at times such as this, in which there is a backlash over gay marriage and equality laws in America?
I think that, certainly in Western cultures – and in America it’s even worse than Europe – history is forgotten too quickly. If we’re not on our toes it can be lost really quickly. It could be like the situation in 1930s Weimar Germany where there were across-the-board gay rights, and then the right wing got in and it was all over.
Do you think any good can come of such historical events as the battle over Proposition 8, and can remind people of the political battles that are still out there to be fought?
That people go to the polls and vote against the civil rights of another group does rally the troops. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but the important thing is that when a documentary such as Before Stonewall is screened in the context of today people get a longer view of history. History ebbs and flows and is not a linear path toward progress.
How did you decide where to start the documentary, historically?
The idea that there was such a thing as a gay identity, and that it was not just a sexual act, began to emerge at the beginning of the 20th century. Interestingly, this coincided with the beginning of the motion picture industry, and so we started to have some form of documentation, although most of it making fun of or against gay lifestyle. So we started there.
I was impressed by the equal coverage of both men and women. Do you think that there would have been such a balance if a man had made the film?
I know there wouldn’t have been. We had a couple male producers on the project. The researcher and the production manager were women. When we put out the call for interviewees more men came forward than women, and at a point we said ‘no, we have enough men, we need more women. If this is going to be a gay and lesbian history it has to be equal’.
We encountered some resistance from our co-producers. There was also, at the time, a fairly well know gay male theatre director who was interested in investing in the film. We screened it for him when it was almost finished, and he said it was too much about women, that it was ninety percent about women in fact. If you went frame by frame you’d find it was exactly half. We struggled to give it that kind of balance.
When I started to go to gay bars in the late ’70s everything was mixed. You didn’t have the luxury of men’s bars, women’s bars. That came much later.
How deliberate was it to have a clip from an old Reagan movie at the start?
Totally deliberate. When we found that gem it was phenomenal. There was this guy who was the lead homophobe in the government and we found this material that showed his position, or his lack of understanding, went far back. He appears twice, as the stage manager of the drag queen show, and again at a press conference saying he subscribed to the belief that it was a mental illness. And that was a time when the American Psychiatric Association was debating whether or not to take the idea that homosexuality was an illness off of the register.
Looking back, how important does Stonewall seem as an historical event now compared to twenty-five years ago when Before Stonewall was first released?
My perspective has shifted enormously. One of the reasons is that I was much younger, it was a heady time of activism, and the movement had gained such a strength that the right wing was forming in opposition. The sense that the riots had galvanized the movement, that disparate groups were brought together by Stonewall, is stronger now than the time when I made film.
The fact that the movement came above ground only forty years ago and has made as much social progress as it has is pretty remarkable in the history of social change movements. At the same time you find a lot of backlash, because the more people become visible the more hate for them becomes visible.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a look back from a very personal perspective on the changes that have happened in the forty years since Stonewall. Over the years I have had TV stations and researchers calling and wanting to look at my research, because I have made a lot of films about gay history around the world. I decided I would use the material to make my own film on the subject.
I am also working on a documentary about Creationists in America who are trying to subvert the teachings of science education. It’s a tough one because they’re really nasty people. They are the same people who try to organise against things like Proposition 8. You could say it is related because it is another front in the culture wars. It’s all about the culture wars.
All talk of the backlash aside, what does America feel like after the election of Obama?
It is the first time in a long time that people have that American sense of optimism, and hope, and that people can make change. And that is a fantastic feeling.