A life in the closet, a life before Stonewall, was an act of performativity—a daily exercise in trying to simultaneously resist, and exist within, heteronormative expectations. Edward M. Cohen’s Before Stonewall is a collection of vignettes from a world before the gay liberation movement and the fourteen stories within his book, all brought together through the shared backdrop of theater, acting, and storytelling, explore the boundaries between honesty and performance. Though his stories are all reflections on and of homosexual men, the book isn’t alienating to other members of the LGBTQ community but invites us to share in a collective experience of shame, determination, repression, and want. In doing so Cohen creates space to revisit the pains of our past and to revel in how much has changed, and how little, as we experience these stories of actors, artists, and creators searching for the truth onstage that evades them in their lives.
The pieces, ranging between 1946 and the early seventies, aren’t told in chronological order. Instead, Cohen intersperses these snapshots of gay life in New York City across three decades, creating a collage of themes and emotions. Some are playful and delicate, like “A Story of Early Love” which brings us into the love triangle of three ten-year-olds, Nunzio, Lilianna and our nameless narrator. Others venture into darker territory, though Cohen never stoops to gratuitous tragedy or the shock value of violence and homophobia. Some stories highlight America in the grips of McCarthyism, a time when non-conformity wasn’t just isolating but dangerous. Reminding of the persecution that homosexuals faced during the Lavender Scare, “Peroxide Blonde,” “Golden Boys and Girls” and “Birth of the Revolution,” are seen from the eyes of performing arts students who are navigating their youths aware of the risks of being branded a “fairy” or being pulled away by the House Un-American Activities Committee, as the adults around them have faced: “after a Red purge during which favorite professors had mysteriously vanished. Nobody knew the details, but gossip—and fear—permeated the cafeteria.” “Cream of Mushroom Soup” is an intimate portrait of lovers Lenny and Don who quarrel over their families, their secrets, and their future while their radio cries of communism and danger to American ideals.
Despite the undercurrent of lurking disaster within the book, desire drips from every page. The desire to be known, to be seen, to live out loud, to be understood, to make love and to be loved, all weave through the novel. Cohen’s stories are laced with jealous lovers, secret crushes, and the allure of older, more powerful men. The teachers and acting coaches who will guide, tempt, and confuse the younger men between these pages pair with the jealous, obsessive Harold of “This Treacherous Life” or the handsome Mr. Feinstein in “The Wonders of Art,” with his “thighs that ooz[ed] power,” and his voice that “rumbled.” Cohen wields sexual tension like a weapon, leaving us as entangled in these nuanced relationships as the men trying to navigate them.
Just as prevalent as the sexually charged feelings of these silenced men is the desire to be approved of and accepted. Some of Cohen’s most emotionally evocative pieces deal with family, and his tender depictions of fathers and sons take up several stories. “Chez Doodles,” and “Shiva,” both deal with losing a parent in the literal sense, while the long familiar LGBTQ anxiety of familial rejection and fury are embodied in characters like Morris of “The Surprise Hit of 1948,” whose fragile ego is so ensconced in his status as the big man in his barbershop that even the insinuation of this son’s queerness causes him to fly into a violent rage. Within Before Stonewall there are even fragments of acceptance, poignant and understated; such as in “Choreographer” when a father delivers his gruff and circulative acknowledgment of his son’s sexuality by criticizing the choreographer’s suggestion of going to law school and implying he should remain in the theater instead. In another passage that allows Cohen’s beautifully expressive and simple language to shine, the choreographer comes to accept what his father’s grousing had meant; “I had tried to tell him how much he meant to me. I had offered to be the son he wanted. And he had answered by saying, ‘Be who you are.’ We announce that we are gay with a flourish. Our parents accept it in quieter ways.”
Ultimately Cohen’s book doesn’t seek to answer the questions it raises. The stories invite us simply to observe, ourselves an audience to these actors constantly being pushed for truth while unable to live their own. The collection holds up a mirror and it’s one that, despite the time that divides us, almost all queer Americans can see ourselves within. The juxtapositions of self-actualization and self-preservation, suppressed desires, anxiety, confusion, loss, fits of bravado, and crippling self-doubt all come at last to the painful precipice not of finding the truth, but accepting it.
Before Stonewall, by Edward M. Cohen. Austin, Texas: Awst Press, June 2021. 219 pages. $18.00, paper.
Stephanie Bohland is an LGBTQ writer from Florida. After traveling the world she came to live in South Carolina with her sister and is currently finishing her BA in English from Winthrop University.