Before Stonewall. Directed by Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg. New York: First Run Features, 1984. 87 minutes.
After Stonewall. Directed by John Scagliotti. New York: First Run Features, 1999. 88 minutes.
Paris Is Burning. Directed by Jennie Livingston. Los Angeles: Miramax, 1991. 78 minutes.
Before Stonewall, After Stonewall, and Paris Is Burning all work as introductions to different facets of the history of the LGBTQIA+ community. Before Stonewall gives a generalized history of the beginnings of lesbian and gay community formations, ranging from the early twentieth century to 1969. After Stonewall picks up the historical baton where Before Stonewall sets it down and runs into the early 1990s, with a slightly broader view of the gay community. Paris Is Burning addresses the subset of the gay community that plays with gender constructs through drag performance in the 1980s and 1990s.
Before Stonewall would work best in the feminist classroom as an introduction to the US gay community from the early 1900s through the 1969 protests against police violence and brutality directed at gay and lesbian people of color at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. It compiles interviews with members of the gay community, straight people who witnessed significant events that affected the lives of gay people, and a wide spectrum of people in between. The film begins with an important message: “Unless otherwise stated, the people who appear in this film should not be presumed to be homosexual… or heterosexual.” This reminder is fundamental to the purpose of the film, which is to promote inclusion and understanding. However, it must be noted that Before Stonewall only addresses lesbians and gay men. As stated in the film itself, this is partly because in the early twentieth century there was no vernacular term for “gay” or “lesbian,” so even these words had to be adopted and defined as the community built itself.
While Before Stonewall touches on lighthearted things like the intricacies of flirting in the 1920s and 1930s, the film can be heart-wrenching as well. The gay rights movement has not always been happy or pretty to look at, but to not acknowledge these parts of being in the LGBTQIA+ community would be to erase integral parts of its history, such as LGBTQIA+ military service, which could be particularly helpful to feminist classes addressing World War II. For further reading on this topic, I suggest Gay Rights, Military Wrongs: Political Perspectives on Lesbians and Gays in the Military edited by Craig A. Rimmerman.1 There is another segment on gay and lesbian novels that could be illuminating to feminist fiction teachers, particularly those who are teaching through the lens of Queer Theory. One of the more poignant discussions is about the historical legality of institutionalizing people for being gay, which might be useful to a feminist scholar discussing the effects of mental illness on the gay community, whether real or perceived. To explore this subject, I recommend A Recent History of Lesbian and Gay Psychology: From Homophobia to LGBT by Peter Hegarty.2 Above all, this film attempts to step toward normalization and away from stigmatization, which is evident, in part, in its tag line: “the making of a gay and lesbian community.”
After Stonewall continues the discussion Before Stonewall began. It touches on a wide variety of topics, from being gay and religious to being a woman of color in the early second wave of feminism. Primarily serving as an overview of the AIDS epidemic’s effect on the LGBTQIA+ community, it introduces students to important figures and moments in the struggle to be recognized as people worth saving from this health crisis.3 Viewers also see the vocal public pushback the community received after taking a collective step out of the closet.
After Stonewall builds on the opening quotation of its precursor: “Unless otherwise stated, the people who appear in this film should not be presumed to be homosexual… or heterosexual… or bisexual… or transgendered.” This denotes a change in the LGBTQIA+ community after the 1960s to actively include members who fall outside of “lesbian” and “gay” and exemplifies what After Stonewall as a whole is attempting to communicate: the community is growing and changing, mostly for the better. Both communities have a history of silencing members who are not considered palatable enough to the outside world, namely bisexuals, trans people, lesbians, people of color, and particularly any people who fit into more than one of those categories. That is not to say that the community was homogeneously exclusionary, but to avoid the truth of this history would be misrepresentative and further silence already marginalized people. As feminists, we need to acknowledge these practices.
Fundamentally, After Stonewall wants to recognize LGBTQIA+ activists in the 1980s and 1990s, as members were also members of the clergy, government officials, writers, protesters, athletes, etc. who actively participated in local government to gain their rights and recognition as citizens. It highlights politicians like Barney Frank, Sheila James Kuehl, Stewart McKinney, Harvey Milk, and Hilary Rosen, as well as activists like Dorothy Allison, Rita Mae Brown, Barbara Gittings, Jewelle Gomez, Harry Hay, and Larry Kramer.
Paris Is Burning can work in tandem with Before Stonewall and After Stonewall in the feminist classroom to further illuminate the lives of people who do not fit into the gender binary. It can also work alone to begin discussions about gender performance, today and in our collective past. Paris Is Burning explores the drag scene of the mid- and late 1980s by compiling interviews from young up-and-comers, experienced winners, and retired queens. It attempts to paint a cohesive picture of the drag scene before the 1980s, what it became during that decade, and where it seemed to be headed. Concerned ultimately with gender performance and gender roles, both public and private, it also addresses (the lack of) broader cultural acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community, physical violence toward people who do not gender conform, and the difficulties of coming out. Perhaps most importantly, Paris Is Burning highlights the confluence of sex work, violence, poverty, theft, and the drag community.4
The interviews with Dorian Corey are particularly helpful for beginning discussions about the morally and psychologically fraught nature of gender passing in a society in which being LGBTQIA+ is outside the norm and will often result in violence.5 Pepper LaBeija’s and Angie Xtravaganza’s interviews help to illuminate the drag community’s mixed opinions about family, namely the replacement of the nuclear family with a chosen family of fellow drag queens, some of whom take on the roles and titles of father and mother. Octavia St. Laurent and Angie Xtravaganza also highlight the overlap between drag (playful gender performance) and trans (actively seeking a gender transition) when some may have mixed or even very negative opinions about the latter. To help guide students through discussions about the difference between sexuality and gender, the nuance of gender performance, and the historical discourse thereof, I recommend the sections “Trans People’s Partners” in Trans and Sexuality, “Rupert Raj, Transmen, and Sexuality” by Nicholas Matte, as well as “Chicks with Dicks, Men in Dresses: What It Means to Be a Drag Queen” by Verta Taylor and Leila J. Rupp.6
While I agree with critics who have noted that the murder of Venus Xtravaganza was glossed over in the film, that it could have been addressed with more nuance, and that it deserved to be given more time, I believe that the shock of her death late in the film is useful in the feminist classroom because it communicates the threat of violence faced by members of this community very effectively. However, it would still be useful to provide context for this brutal act as an example of the punishment that might occur when one’s gender transgresses the discursive, material, and political status quo.7
1 Craig A. Rimmerman, ed., Gay Rights, Military Wrongs: Political Perspectives on Lesbians and Gays in the Military (New York: Garland, 1996).
2 Peter Hegarty, A Recent History of Lesbian and Gay Psychology: From Homophobia to LGBT (New York: Routledge, 2018).
3 Kane Race, The Gay Science: Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV (New York: Routledge, 2018).
4 Christina Richards, Trans and Sexuality: An Existentially-Informed Enquiry with Implications for Counselling Psychology (New York: Routledge, 2018).
5 LGBTQIA+ people have pushed back against this violence. See Patrizia Gentile, Gary Kinsman, and L. Pauline Rankin, eds., We Still Demand! Redefining Resistance in Sex and Gender Struggles (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017).
6 Christina Richards, “Trans People’s Partners,” in Trans and Sexuality, 21-23; Nicholas Matte, “Rupert Raj, Transmen, and Sexuality: The Politics of Transnormativity in Metamorphosis Magazine during the 1980s,” in We Still Demand!, 117-36; Verta Taylor and Leila J. Rupp, “Chicks with Dicks, Men in Dresses: What It Means to Be a Drag Queen,” in The Drag Queen Anthology: The Absolutely Fabulous but Flawlessly Customary World of Female Impersonators, ed. Steven P. Schacht and Lisa Underwood (New York: Routledge, 2009), 113-34.
7 Peggy Phelan, “The Golden Apple: Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning,” in her Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 93-111; Phillip Brian Harper, “‘The Subversive Edge’: Paris Is Burning, Social Critique, and the Limits of Subjective Agency,” Diacritics 24, no. 2-3 (1994): 90-103; Christian A. Gregory, “Performative Transformation of the Public Queer in Paris Is Burning,” Film Criticism 23, no. 1 (1998): 18-37.