Before Stonewall (Awst Press, June 2021) presents a world from another time, one in which nobody is who they claim to be. The collection of stories, set in the New York theater scene of the mid-twentieth century, comes from Edward M. Cohen, an acclaimed dramatist. The tales track a group of young people trying to navigate a world of assigned roles, rehearsed performances, stage names, and pretend romances. Gentle deception connects these stories, demonstrating just how dangerous it could be to reveal an authentic identity in the years before the liberation created by the Stonewall uprising at the end of June 1969. As Marlon Brando famously said: “Lying for a living. That’s what acting is. All I’ve done is just learned how to be aware of the process.”
In these stories, aspiring actors and actresses don’t just hope to lie for a living, some of them lie to stay alive—to avoid being shunned, arrested, or assaulted. The ones who do that are invariably gay. For them, every day is a performance into which they must disappear. They hide among euphemisms like “actor,” “artist,” “choreographer,” “singer,” or “talented.” All of these terms—and others—stand in for “gay,” or the meaner, low term hurled in the stories, “faggot.” In fact, it is the theater writ large that represents gay culture across these stories; the stage provides a safe space for homosexuals to perform heterosexuality.
Once off the stage and out of the footlights, Cohen’s gay characters are at risk, exposed in the light of day as they try simply to move through life. These stories can seem easy, but that, too, is gentle deception. The threat of angry fathers, campus bullies, and police vice squads always waits in the wings. Underneath the sweet storytelling, fear of discovery lurks, and it is pervasive to the point of paranoia. Letting down their guard for even a moment risks some accidental betrayal of the carefully constructed and controlled self, as in “Peroxide Blonde”:
Me, I was afraid of talking too much, laughing too loud, farting in public, undressing in locker rooms. I was afraid of being hit by a car, kissed by my mother, robbed in an elevator, labeled a fairy. I was afraid of being … the butt of the joke.
The details big and small across these stories ring true, though they are artifacts of an America prior to gay liberation, an America that was often artifice, a stage set.
As the stories progress, the urge to live freely, rising above fear, results in the early manifestations of modern gay life. The bright stage of the everyday still remains unwelcoming to its gay characters, though. The shadow existence of gay men pre-Stonewall shows the potential for life outside of the straight masquerade and also indicates the length of strides left to take to reach cultural acceptance. From “This Treacherous Life”:
There was a whole gay underworld with its special code of behavior. … Restaurants and bars and shops and beaches and particular benches in Central Park and special corners in Greenwich Village and doctors and drugstores and drag clubs and bathhouses and even entire foreign countries.
Though the locus of an inequitable subculture, these gay spaces provide the characters room to become themselves, to take off their masks. These spaces provide a safe off-stage retreat where “every now and then … some movie star symbol of American masculinity made an entrance because he so desperately needed to let down his hair and breathe a sigh of relief.” In these spaces, fear begins to melt, and truth replaces lies. The acting stops: “You could shake off a week, a month, a lifetime of lying. … with no fear of being beaten up.”
Perhaps most notably, the language across these stories also relaxes as fear begins its slow retreat. From the stilted parental greetings and overly polished manners of the opening tales, a new vernacular animates life in the collection’s later accounts. Hustlers, campy retorts, drag queens, dramatic spats, and the good old “You wanna fuck?” replace the scripted lines of life a decade earlier. “Then the cops flash their lights as they pass but the queens preen and murmur, ‘Another close-up, Mr. DeMille?’ and there is nothing more they can do. The queens know their rights …” The stage, the actors, and even the director have moved onto the streets of New York.
Gentle deception connects these stories, demonstrating just how dangerous it could be to reveal an authentic identity in the years before the liberation created by the Stonewall uprising at the end of June 1969.
The details, big and small, throughout this collection ring true, though they are artifacts of another time and place, an America prior to gay liberation, an America that was often artifice, a stage set. It is this sense of a recalled era that elevates these stories to cultural memory. The book opens with a narrator—perhaps the author—confessing:
I write out of memory and want to apologize for that—mainly because the facts are so vague they defy logic. The whole structure of this reminiscence could come tumbling down with the stroke of an inquisitive finger. … Most probably, I made the whole thing up.
If unreliable narrators appear throughout these stories, if the facts get vague, there is one thing that Cohen makes sure is accurate in crossing history’s stage, documenting what eventually happened to so many “real-life faggot[s]” from the before-Stonewall era: “Our graduating class had been hit by the first wave of the epidemic and the disease was so stigmatized and scary that there were no goodbyes, no obits. Sick boys went home to die in secret. Neighbors simply vanished.” It is this post-Stonewall moment, singular amidst all the other memories, that ensures readers know the rest is indeed true.
Understanding today, appreciating the reality of now, demands respect for what came before. The freedoms, even the struggles, of current LGBTQ+ life did not suddenly begin with the courageous, fed-up transgender people of color at the Stonewall Inn. They became our fearless warriors, yes. But the earliest need for that historic uprising began in the fearful hearts of the women and men—the actors and liars and pretenders, the drag queens and hustlers and rejected children—who somehow found a way to survive before Stonewall. Cohen’s stories honor them and every “talented” and “artistic” kid who is today just starting to rise up and find their place on stage. He reminds us that history is, ultimately, personal. Every queer life begins before Stonewall, even those coming after it.
Patrick Davis writes poetry, essays, and literary criticism, and is the publisher of Unbound Edition Press. His most recent work is featured or forthcoming in Great River Review, Loveland Quarterly, Provincetown Arts, and The Tunnel at 25. He can be followed or reached @PressUnbound or @PatrickDavisATL.