Yes, kids, there was a time when gay bars didn't have windows, trannies weren't a staple of daytime TV, and leather queens didn't shop the local Lucky in full squeaky regalia. Director Greta Schiller, aided by archivist Andrea Weiss and producer John Scagliotti, resurrects this queer prehistory (from about the 1920s to 1969), in Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community. This 1986 documentary, a co-presentation of Yerba Buena Center for the arts and Frameline, is still the best resource of its kind, covering vast cultural acreage in its attempt to mine a history that remains to some extent underground. The cast of characters includes the known -- activists like Allen Ginsberg and Harry Hay -- and, more appropriate perhaps to the closeted time it covers, the unknown -- anonymous queer soldiers, lesbian bookkeepers, swaggering bull-dagger bikers, and drag queen bar divas whose anecdotes show that history is made by individuals. In tantalizing archival footage, brave queers dance furtively in early enclaves like Harlem and San Francisco's Barbary Coast, and the armed forces in World War II emerge as a hitherto unsuspected gay breeding ground. The closet as coffin is a major subtext here, but there are surprisingly gutsy moments, as when dyke Johnnie Phelps stands up to Eisenhower's demand that lesbians be "expunged" from the WACs, and convinces him to reverse himself. A few curmudgeonly commentators like Daniel Harris have lately lamented the loss of this "exciting" period of repression when camp flourished in the midst of chaos, but even a truckload of tiaras couldn't convince some of us to go back.
Before Stonewall serves as a prelude to another sort of co-presentation, an art exhibit exchange between Yerba Buena and the M.H. de Young Museum. The swap began with talks about insurance and segued into a discussion about pooling resources to present work more effectively: It's the same discussion that museums are having internationally, and that participants in the recent National Performance Network conference had about performing arts. As part of the exchange Yerba Buena will show "Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige," a collection of winter landscape paintings by artists including Renoir and Gauguin.
In return, the de Young will host Yerba Buena's winter/spring show "Out of Bounds," which includes "Contemporary Art From Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island"; Fred Wilson's installation "The Greeting Gallery"; Alexandr Sokurov's film testament to the toll war takes on mind and body, Spiritual Voices: The Diaries of War; and Hagop Sandaldjian's microminiature sculptures, on loan from L.A.'s Museum of Jurassic Technology. The opening-night party celebrating the exchange begins at 8 p.m. Friday at the M.H. de Young Museum, 75 Tea Garden Dr., Golden Gate Park, S.F. Admission is free-$10; call 978-ARTS. Before Stonewall screens Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Yerba Buena, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is $6-7; call 978-ARTS.