Why I Won’t Be Seeing ‘Stonewall’

In 1969, homosexuality was prohibited in public. The raiding and targeting of private businesses and gay establishments by New York police was a common occurrence. These raids were disrespectful and dehumanising, as customers were lined up while their identification was examined. Those without identification, or dressed in clothing the police didn’t deem appropriate to their gender, were arrested. Typically, the employees and management of the bars were also arrested. As a result, most safe-spaces for the LGBT+ community had completely disappeared, which made the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village, all the more important.

Stonewall Inn - HeadStuff.org
The Stonewall Inn in 1969

On June 28th 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn. They did so for ‘legitimate’ reasons – the bar didn’t have a liquor licence – but in reality this was just one more event in the long stream of constant, demeaning, city sanctioned harassment towards the LGBT+ community. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the patrons of the Stonewall Inn decided to show that they wouldn’t take it lying down. They rioted back against the police, sparking a series of protests that spread all across America. Many cite the Stonewall Riots as the single most important event that led to the LGBT+ liberation movement in America, and the foundation upon which all modern LGBT+ rights are founded.

Right around now, I’m sure you’re thinking “Wow, what a great story! It’s such a pity that we don’t know who led the Stonewall Riots!” Ah, but we do know. The two people most credited with sparking the riots and paving the way for modern LGBT+ rights were Marsha P. Johnson – a black artist, drag queen and gay liberation activist – and Silvia Rivera – a Puerto Rican drag queen and gay liberation and transgender activist. These incredible women were tireless activists in their community, and are reported to have been the ones who started the Stonewall Riots, with Johnson throwing the first brick, and Rivera throwing the first bottle.

Now, let’s carefully examine the new trailer for the upcoming movie Stonewall. Directed by Roland Emmerich, and set to be released on September 25th, the film claims to focus on the lead up to the riots, and the event itself. Now ask yourself – does this trailer demonstrate that one of the most seminal events in LGBT+ history was started by two trans women? Does it reflect the fact that this movement not only featured but was instigated by gender non-conforming women of colour? No, it does not. As a matter of fact, the whole film revolves around… this guy.

stonewall - HeadStuff.org
Jeremy Irvine as ‘Danny Winters’

Who is this guy? No really, who is he? It’s very important to remember that this movie is not fiction – it’s a true story about a historical event. Instead of making this a film about say, Martha P. Johnson (who instigated the Stonewall Riots, became a tireless activist and died under mysterious circumstances at age 48; what part of that wouldn’t make a good movie?!), Emmerich has decided to give the leading role to a fictional white cisgendered man called Danny.

Sylvia Rivera - HeadStuff.org
Sylvia Rivera

That’s right, a fictional character. They literally made someone up, instead of giving the leading role to a non-white trans woman. It gets worse from there, I’m afraid. Not only does the film revolve around Danny, but he’s shown to be the one who threw that first famous brick which instigated the riots. There’s no sign of Johnson or Rivera; and the character of ‘Marsha P. Johnson’ (whose 25th birthday was the reason that most of the participants in the riots were in the club that night) is actually credited at the bottom of the film’s IMDB page. It seems that Johnson is nothing more than a glorified extra, with Hollywood continuing its lazy and insulting trend of having trans women characters played by cis male actors. [pullquote]It seems that Johnson is nothing more than a glorified extra, with Hollywood continuing its lazy and insulting trend of having trans women characters played by cis male actors.[/pullquote]

Thankfully, this hasn’t gone unnoticed, with the LGBT+ community expressing outrage at the fact that a seminal part of its history is being rewritten and whitewashed. The tag #NotMyStonewall trended on twitter, and The Gay-Straight Alliance Network has launched a petition to boycott the film, which has garnered more than 20,000 signatures. “Do not support a film that erases our history,” it states, “Do not watch Stonewall.” A second petition organised by MoveOn, argues that a “historically accurate film about the Stonewall Riots would centre the stories of queer and gender-nonconforming people of colour like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, not relegate them to background characters in the service of a white cisgender male fictional protagonist.”

Twitter itself has become delightfully sassy over the ordeal, with many tongue-in-cheek comments about the re-casting of history.

At this point, you’re probably thinking “wouldn’t it be better to go see the film; to show there’s is a market for LGBT+ films?” I can absolutely see your reasoning, but there’s no need to step on one oppressed group to benefit another. If you want to celebrate LGBT+ art and to see a historically accurate film about Stonewall, I recommend the independent film “Happy Birthday, Marsha!” Unfortunately, it won’t have the same marketing push as a film from the director of Independence Day and Godzilla, but it will centre on Marsha P. Johnson in the lead-up to the riots, and feature Sylvia Rivera as a key player.

Openly gay director Roland Emmerich has since issued a statement on Facebook against the backlash to the Stonewall trailer, saying:

…when this film — which is truly a labor of love for me — finally comes to theaters, audiences will see that it deeply honors the real-life activists who were there — including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Ray Castro — and all the brave people who sparked the civil rights movement which continues to this day. We are all the same in our struggle for acceptance.

Marsha P. Johnson - HeadStuff.org
Marsha P. Johnson

We’re not all the same in our struggle for acceptance though, are we? White gay men have been held up as the faces of the LGBT+  movement for too long. As well as this, it is senseless to ignore the fact that a conventionally attractive white gay man has much less of a struggle for acceptance in society than a black trans woman.

In the interest of supporting LGBT+ films and raising awareness of the history of the LGBT movement, I am open to giving this film a chance. However I certainly won’t be going to see it until I’ve heard that the real heroes of the Stonewall Riots have been treated with the recognition and respect they deserve.

Remember their names. Put the bricks back into their hands.


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