A couple weeks ago I looked at the trailer for Stonewall (2015, dir. Roland Emmerich), a new film looking at the 1969 Stonewall Riots that triggered the Gay Rights movement. Well, it came out this week and I figured since it’s in the theaters right now, I ought to post my thoughts about it, even though I haven’t finished my review of The Physician. So if you’ve been waiting to find out about the Isfahan sequence in that film you’re gonna have to wait a while longer. And this post is also a bit longer than usual, because the material is fairly complex and controversial.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning on seeing this film in the theater, you may wish to put off reading this until after you’ve done so, because I discuss a variety of major plot points.
The history of the Stonewall riots, especially the all-important first night (Friday, June 27th), is an extremely confused one. It’s the nature of riots to be chaotic and confusing events, and the existence of so many first-person accounts of the events has created a great deal of disagreement about who did what and when. Many participants were drunk, high, or both. Additionally, like flower children and Woodstock, many gays, lesbians, and transwomen have made a habit of inserting themselves into the narrative and claiming to have played one key role or another (see note at bottom for a discussion of the gender terminology I’ve opted to use here). Because Stonewall was a foundational moment for the gay community, there’s a lot of social prestige to be had by claiming to have been there.
For example, the black lesbian performer Stormé Delarverie, claimed to be the butch lesbian whose 10-minute struggle with the police riled the crowd into intervening, but police arrest records seem to suggest it may have been Marilyn Fowler, a white lesbian. Sylvia Rivera, a Latina transwoman, claimed to have thrown the first punch and the first beer can, but Marsha P. Johnson, a black drag queen claims that Rivera was not actually present the first night, because she was sleeping off heroin in a nearby park, and Rivera told numerous conflicting stories about her role in the riot. Most people agree that Johnson was present the first night of the riot, but Johnson’s account of her actions, which involved throwing a shot glass inside the bar, seems to have been transformed by urban legend into throwing the first brick outside (I haven’t been able to find any source that has Johnson claiming to have thrown a brick, just lots of websites saying “many claim” she did). Eliot Tiber, a gay white man, insists that Judy Garland’s death helped spur him and other patrons of the Stonewall into rioting, even though the Garland claim has been debunked; Tiber also claims to have ‘rescued’ Woodstock a few weeks later. Miss Major Griffin Gracy, a black transwoman activist, claims to have been present, but has denied that Johnson was present and has also denied that there were many gay men involved, both claims that are refuted by numerous other participants, which makes her testimony appear unreliable. The list goes on.
So in my look at the film, I’ve decided to rely heavily on what is, in my opinion, the best piece of scholarship on the Stonewall Riots, David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution (New York, 2010). Carter’s book is a meticulously pieced-together work of history. In addition to interviewing numerous eyewitnesses (and being careful to not mention what other eyewitnesses had told him), he backs up his analysis with a wide range of published sources, as well as many he unearthed for the first time, and does an excellent job of weaving the various accounts of the riots together into a timeline of events, although he admits to one or two places where he is uncertain exactly what happened.
Stonewall centers on Danny Winter, a wholesome-looking white boy from small town Indiana who gets thrown out of his house just before graduating high school when he’s caught having sex with the quarterback of the football team. He inexplicably goes to Christopher St in New York City, then a center of barely tolerated gay culture, and meets a group of effeminate homeless gay youth, including the Latino Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), who starts teaching him how to survive on the streets. Ray takes him to the Stonewall Inn and within three months Danny has become a fixture of the community.
Unfortunately, the villainous Ed ‘the Skull’ Murphy (Ron Perlman) decides that Danny is just right for his ring of hustlers, kidnaps Danny, and basically rents him out to a pair of men at a hotel. Ray intervenes to rescue him and they hatch an idiotic plan to threaten Ed with exposure to the police. It’s at this moment, when Ed is choking the consciousness out of Ray, that Detective Seymour Pine (Matt Craven) launches his second police raid of the week on the Stonewall Inn, unintentionally saving Ray and Danny from Ed but pissing off the patrons of the bar enough that a riot breaks out during which the police are trapped in the bar under siege by a mob of angry gays.
When the riot, which Danny and the street kids participate in aggressively, winds down, the film jumps forward a year, to Danny’s tearful reunion with his mother and his younger sister Phoebe (Joey King), who come to New York to watch him march in the first Gay Pride parade.
Cinematically, the major problem with the film is that Danny’s story is, frankly, boring. As a hero, he’s remarkably bland, indecisive, and in need of rescuing, and he has generic Hollywood good looks. It’s a major problem when the hero’s young sister, who only appears in a handful of scenes, is a more interesting character than he is. I wanted to know more about this precocious young teen who reads J.D. Salinger and wants Andy Warhol’s autograph, and less about our white-bread hero who still pines for his high school crush after living through a transformative moment of gay liberation.
Additionally, the film has serious issues with its treatment of its more effeminate characters. The first gay person Danny encounters is Queen Tooey, a creepy older queen that Danny is clearly repulsed by. Later, when Danny is forced into turning a trick with the men in the hotel, one of them turns out to be a rather loathsome transvestite. And although Danny likes Ray, he’s not attracted to the effeminate Ray but to the more traditionally masculine Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Danny’s function, as Emmerich has acknowledged, is to make the film accessible to straight audiences, but it’s highly unfortunate that the audience identification character is positioned to re-affirm traditional ideas about masculine desirability; the film never questions why Danny is uncomfortable with effeminate men, and his lack of sexual interest in them is presented as ‘normal’.
That has nothing directly to do with the historicity of the film, which is the subject of my blog, but it has a lot to do with the hostility the film has aroused in the gay and trans community. Many trans people have claimed that the film fundamentally misrepresents the riot by downplaying the role of drag queens and transwomen in favor of a traditionally handsome white male. And that gets us into the question of who the rioters at Stonewall actually were.
The Participants in the Stonewall Riot
The question of who really rioted that night in 1969 has, in the past decades, become a rather controversial one. Black and Latino gays and transwomen have staked a claim to being the instigators of the whole riot. If you review my third paragraph you’ll see what I mean. A black lesbian claimed to be the first person to actually fight the police, a Latina transwoman claimed to have through the first punch and the first beer can, a black drag queen claimed to have been the first person to resist, and a black transwoman claimed that most of the rioters were drag queens and transwomen. All of these claims are open to challenge, but it’s clear that a lot of people find it very important that their segment of the LGBT community played a role in starting the resistance out of which the Gay Rights movement grew. (Just last month, two trans activists defaced George Segal’s famous statues of a lesbian couple in Christopher Park to demonstrate their claim that “black + Latina trans women led the riots” and Miss Major approves of their action.)
The first question is who the patrons of the Stonewall Inn were. Some people have depicted the Stonewall Inn as hosting a cross-section of the entire gay community as it existed in the late 1960s: white, black, Latino, masculine, effeminate, drag queen, transvestite, middle class, lower class, and so on. The Stonewall was an illegal, Mafia-run bar that lacked running water, fire exits, a liquor license, or an occupancy certificate, but it was able to attract its clientele because the State Liquor Authority refused to issue liquor licenses to bars that catered to gays and lesbians. (Contrary to the movie’s prologue text, it was not illegal in 1969 to serve alcohol to gays; that practice was overturned in 1967 by a lawsuit brought by the early gay rights organization the Mattachine Society.) The Stonewall was not the only bar in New York City with a homosexual clientele, but it was centrally located within Greenwich Village, the heart of the New York gay community, and close to bus routes and the subway system, which made it a popular and accessible destination.
1960s gay male society tended to bifurcate into two broad camps: the ‘Butches’ (who preferred to be called ‘homosexuals’) and the ‘Queens’, derisively also called the Sissies, Swishes, Nellies, and Fairies. The Butches were men who presented a traditionally masculine gender identity and were therefore able to pass as heterosexuals. They tended to be fairly conservative in clothing style and lifestyle, and were deeply in the closet, painfully aware of how easily they could lose their jobs, families, relationships, and respectability if they were exposed as being homosexual, so they tended to adopt a very cautious attitude toward the legal problems they faced, and they favored an incremental, assimilationist strategy. Their preferred organization, the Mattachine Society (virtually the only pre-Stonewall organization for gay men), was pushing for gradual change, but had brought lawsuits that successfully ended police entrapment of homosexuals and exclusion of gays at bars. Beginning in 1965, they began to annually picket Independence Hall in Philadelphia, but insisted that they do so ‘respectably’, meaning single-file, without touching each other, and wearing suits and dresses.
The Queens, on the other hand, were basically everyone who couldn’t easily achieve gender conformity in their mannerisms and presentation. Contrary to its usage these days, Queens were not generally those who dressed in women’s clothing, but simply effeminate men. Danny Garvin, a regular of the scene at the time, described what was called a ‘scare queen’ or a ‘flame queen’; “they were supereffeminate, hair would be teased, they would wear eye makeup, Tom-Jones type shirts, maybe hiphuggers, bright colors.” (Carter, Stonewall, p. 76)
Separate from them were the ‘Drags’: transvestite men who dressed in women’s clothing and who included both modern drag queens and transwomen, as well as men who dressed in women’s clothing for sexual pleasure. As Carter points out, some of the confusion about the rioters may stem from the fact that references to ‘queens’ in the riot have been assumed to refer to drag queens, when in fact they refer to effeminate men more broadly. But Drags were quite rare in public because in 1969 it was illegal for men to dress as women or vice versa; the legal rule was that a person had to wear three items of ‘appropriate’ clothing to be legal, so Drags risked arrest the moment they left the privacy of their own homes.
The Stonewall Inn was attractive to Queens because their non-conformance to 1960s male gender standards meant they were likely to be asked to leave other bars that were willing to serve a more discrete Butch clientele, such as Danny’s, a Village bar that was popular with the Butch crowd. And unlike many other bars, the Stonewall had two dance floors where same-sex dancing was permitted, something that was not countenanced elsewhere.
A third key segment of the gay community in the Village were the Street Queens, effeminate gay youth who were homeless because their inability to conform to standards of masculinity tended to get them thrown out of their homes at a young age and made them less employable. These young men lived on the streets or in cheap hotel rooms and survived by hustling, shoplifting, dealing drugs, and a range of other illegal activities. They tended to congregate around Christopher Park, not even a block from the Stonewall, and they liked the Stonewall because it was willing to allow them entrance, if they had the money for the cover fee. They were known for their quick wit and senses of humor, one of the few forms of social capital they possessed. Carter seems to feel that most of these Street Queens were white, although he mentions a few black and Latino ones (however he doesn’t justify this assertion). The street youth were not Drags, since few of them had the resources to seriously indulge crossdressing at anything other than the most basic level, and as homeless people, they would have run an incredible risk of arrest, simply for crossdressing.
Most sources seem to agree that there were a modest number of lesbians who frequented the bar, and a small number of straight women, although Tina Crosby, who wrote the first history of the Stonewall Riots, says that the people she interviewed all insisted it was a virtually woman-free zone. Men in women’s clothing were few in number inside the Inn. Chuck Shaheen, who helped run the bar, recalled only four who ever attended (three of whom got in because they were big spenders). One of the bartenders, Maggie Jiggs, was a drag queen. Carter argues that the doormen were reluctant to admit more than a small number of men in women’s clothing, presumably because this would have brought further police attention to the illegal bar. Even Sylvia Rivera, a transwoman who was fixture of the drag scene, told an historian that “The Stonewall wasn’t a bar for drag queens. Everybody keeps saying it was. … If you were a drag queen, you could get into the Stonewall if they knew you. And only a certain number of drag queens were allowed into the Stonewall at that time.”
So while there were many men in the bar who were did not conform to 1960s gender standards by doing things like wearing make-up, calling each other ‘she’ and ‘girl’ and ‘Miss Thing’, and dressing in an effeminate style, it is unlikely that the bar hosted large numbers of Drags. Unless Carter failed to locate key participants, or else allowed his own white male identity to skew his understanding of the event, it seems that claims that most of the rioters were drag queens or transwoman of color are substantially incorrect.
The Stonewall Riot
Stonewall follows David Carter’s depiction of the scene at the Stonewall. Marsha P. Johnson (Otoja Abit) is the only full-out Drag in the film, but Queen Tooey is depicted as a scare queen, and several members of the street youth are fairly effeminate, including Ray, Orphan Annie (Caleb Landry Jones), and Queen Cong (Vladimir Alexis), who seems to be a combination of Cross-Eyed Sylvia and Zazu Nova Queen of Sex, both street youth mentioned by Carter.
The early stages of the bar raid deviate from Carter’s reconstruction of events because of the fabricated sub-plot involving Ray’s confrontation with Ed Murphy, who gets arrested quickly and handcuffed to Johnson and dragged into a paddy wagon from which they quickly escape; in reality, Murphy was handcuffed to Blonde Frankie, the Butch doorman, and both were able to escape from the paddy wagon as the riot began to develop. Johnson’s claim of throwing a shot glass at a mirror is not depicted.
Those inside the bar were allowed to leave if they could show ID and were ‘appropriately’ dressed. 5 Drags (presumably Johnson among them) were taken into the women’s bathroom to be inspected by two undercover female police and the three who were found to be men were escorted to the paddy wagon; the other two were found to be post-operative transwomen and were allowed to leave. Likewise, a butch lesbian, who was wearing a man’s suit, was handcuffed. Those who exited the bar made a comic scene out of it. In the film Ray initiates an impromptu runway walk for the Street Queens; while not exactly true, it’s certainly in the spirit of what did happen.
But when the butch lesbian begins wrestling with the cops, she shouts “why aren’t you doing anything?” to the crowd of bar patrons and street youth who have congregated outside the bar, and that’s when things start to get ugly. (Most accounts agree that this was the turning point that triggered the violence.) The street youth run to her rescue and fighting breaks out. The shocked police officers, who never expected the ‘fags’ to resist like that, are caught off-guard and badly outnumbered (historically, after the first paddy wagon had departed, Pine had only 8 officers with him, including two undercover women, and only one of them was uniformed, whereas the crowd at this point was probably between 2 and 300 people). The police retreat into the bar and slam the door, barricading it with tables (or, in the film, a jukebox).
Locked out, the cinematic crowd begins throwing things. Queen Cong hands Danny a brick and he throws it through a second floor window. (Although not explained in the film there was a nearby construction site where some rioters found cobblestones to throw.) In Carter’s reconstruction, the first cobblestone is thrown by a Puerto Rican named Gino, not by Johnson.
One of the kids cuts the bar’s phone line (which didn’t happen), and several others including Danny rip up a loose parking meter and use it as a battering ram against the door (which did happen). Another kid finds some lighter fluid, sprays it on the boarded-up windows and through cracks in the door, and lights it on fire. That too happened. Eventually one of the police women crawls through a rear window (in reality an air vent to the roof) and calls the Tactical Police Force (the riot police).
In this whole scene, the rioters are depicted as being mostly street youth, primarily white but with some blacks and Latinos mixed in. Johnson, after leaving to find someone to let her out of her handcuffs, comes back and helps rescue Ray when he’s grabbed by a TPF officer. While there may have been a few other men in women’s clothing in the riot scene, they’re only in the background and not focused on. A famous moment when Johnson smashed the windshield of a cop car using her handbag is omitted from the film.
But overall, the film’s depiction broadly fits Carter’s reconstruction of the riot, and in fact it fits the only known photograph of the first night of the riot. In the photo we see four police officers (one plainclothes) trying to corral a group of more than a dozen street youth. In that group, one is clearly black, three appear to have dark skin, and the rest appear to be mostly white or at least fair-skinned. One man, all the way in back, is wearing what might be a woman’s white blouse, but two others are wearing male clothing, and we cannot see what the rest are wearing. Photos from the other nights of the rioting have roughly the same mix. Only one of the photos that I have seen has a clear image of a Drag (Miss New Orleans, second from left in the first row in the photo from the second night posted a few paragraphs above.) However, it’s documented that on later nights, the crowd became much more mixed, including a sizable contingent of militant blacks.
Carter emphasizes that the street youth played a major role in the riot because there were a lot of them in the area (since their preferred haunt, Christopher Park, was less than a block away), they had nothing to lose by being arrested (since they were poor, homeless social outcasts), and their lifestyle included frequent bursts of violence. Most of the figures he interviewed agreed that the street youth dominated the action.
Butchness and the Lack Thereof
But there is one group who played relatively little role in the first night of the rioting, namely the Butches. They were less likely to be on-hand, since the Stonewall was less attractive to them given the effeminate patrons that the Butches tended to despise. More importantly though, the Butches saw themselves as having a lot to lose if they were arrested, whereas the street youth didn’t. One of the participants reported seeing that someone had written “where are the butches when we need you?” on the sidewalk at some point during the riot. So it’s clear that the Gay Rights movement owes a very substantial debt to the effeminate gay men, the ones who couldn’t hide in the closet and so for whom gay rights were almost literally a matter of life and death. It was the nellies and the swishes and the fairies who risked their health and life fighting the police that night, not their more deeply-closeted brothers.
Stonewall is at its best when it focuses on the effeminate street youth. The struggle of these young men to survive is effectively demonstrated through Danny’s plight and Ray’s gradual induction of him into their ranks. The film shows us their poverty, their camp humor, their willingness to resort to violence, and their various survival strategies, many of them criminal. Danny, as a previously middle class white youth, gets a lesson in the harshness of homeless life when Ray explains that he literally has no options other than prostitution because he has no family to turn to, no education to use, and no other resources available. Emmerich clearly cares about this dimension of the story.
Emmerich wanted to bring the story of the Stonewall Riot to a straight audience, and concluded (perhaps not unreasonably) that using straight-looking handsome white man as his lead would do that. But gay and lesbian stories are becoming more acceptable to straight audiences, and it’s a shame that he didn’t take this opportunity to push his straight audience further, by offering a hero who was less masculine or less white or less Hollywood-leading-man in some other way. And, as I noted, Danny’s reaction to some of the more effeminate men in the film borders on transphobia. If Danny is meant to be the audience identification character and to help educate the audience, then Emmerich had an opportunity and a duty to educate the audience about the more effeminate element of the gay community.
While Stonewall has come in for a lot of criticism even before it came out, I don’t think all of that criticism is warranted. It appears to be drawing much of its narrative from Carter’s book, which has been widely praised and certainly impressed me with the quality of the research. Its general depiction of the demographics of the crowd is solidly supported by historical evidence (although one can argue that Carter may not have interviewed enough people of color). But the film’s choice of a conventionally masculine hero is problematic. For me, it’s not his ethnicity that’s the real problem, since a majority of the rioters seem to have been white. Nor is it the fact that he’s not a transwoman; they didn’t participate on the first night in large numbers either, if Carter is correct. The problem is that Danny is for the most part a Butch, even if he’s homeless, and as I said, the Butches weren’t there in any numbers that first night. The issue isn’t his white male privilege, but rather his Butch privilege.
What shocked the police about the riot is that the rioters were men who were perceived to be deficient in masculinity and who were therefore never expected to fight back. By making Danny conventionally masculine, the film is, on a basic level, betraying the events and encoding a different kind of masculine privilege on the narrative. It may be this fact that truly rankles some of the film’s opponents. Had Danny been a Queen, even if he wasn’t a drag queen, I don’t think the film would have been quite so offensive to the trans community because it would at least have been challenging the Butch privilege and transphobia that is still a major issue in the gay community today. (If you don’t believe me, just browse some gay personals and see how many of them use the phrase ‘straight-acting’, which is the new term for Butches, or that say ‘no fems’.) Or even if Danny had finally paired off with Ray at the end, the film might still have avoided the pattern of transphobia that it offers.
As Carter sees it, one of the most powerful tools employed by the rioters was their ridicule of the police and their challenging of the dominance of conventional masculinity. Repeatedly during the riots, the street youth formed a Rockettes-style chorus line and taunted the approaching police with a song:
We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We don’t wear underwear
We show our pubic hairs
We wear our dungarees
Around our nelly knees
They did this as a wave of riot police were bearing down on them; at the last moment, they would break and run around the block to get behind the police and then repeat the taunting, demonstrating how incapable the heavily-armed police were of stopping a group of mostly unarmed teenagers from making fun of them. The rioters also frequently offered to have sex with the police, and at least one rioter escaped from a police beating simply by propositioning the officer until he dropped his baton and let the rioter go. This flaunting of gender rules is another reason that the Butches stayed out of the fray for the most part.
The film includes the chorus line, which is a very famous detail of the riot, but doesn’t explore its deeper meaning as a strategy of ridicule, because in this film, traditional masculinity retains its value. Danny does not subvert masculinity, but rather embodies it and seeks it out romantically.
Part of the reason I think this matters is that in civil rights clashes of this period, the riot police always won; they always battered down their opponents. But at Stonewall, the riot police lost, or at least were force into an impotent draw. And they lost to a group of people notoriously imagined to lack all masculinity and agency, who defeated them in substantial measure by undermining the masculinity of the riot police. It was the heavily armed police who were revealed to be insufficiently masculine that night. The ability of gays, lesbians, drag queens, and transwomen to manipulate and transgress gender boundaries was revealed to be a source of remarkable strength, not a fatal weakness, and this ability has frequently been used to great effect in public protests. Emmerich’s film completely fails to see this.
The story of Stonewall is a complex one, and in Carter’s reconstruction, it has a couple startling twists that I’ll look at in my next post or two.
A Note about Gender Terminology: As I wrote this post, I was conscious of the challenge of employing appropriate gender terminology. My chief concerns were 1) to be respectful to people who identify as trans today and not simply write them out of the past and 2) to be respectful to those people in 1969 and how they understood their gender identity. The chief problem for me is that two of the widely used terms in 1969, transvestite and crossdresser, are ones that many trans people today find offensive. How to refer to a range of people back then while writing today and seeking to be respectful to both past subjects and contemporary audience?
I strongly sympathize with the rights of transmen and women to be referred to with terminology they themselves choose and are comfortable with. But I feel obliged to extend that principle back into the past, and employ a vocabulary that these people in 1969 used to refer to themselves. To apply contemporary terminology to people in the past who used a different set of terms for themselves seems just as rude to me as refusing to speak of modern trans people with their chosen pronouns or applying the labels of the past to them.
So the practice that I finally settled on was, as much as possible, to use terminology that I could find evidence of the subjects themselves using. For those who lived long enough to adopt the term ‘transwoman’, such as Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major Griffin Gracy, that is how I refer to them, even if they would not have used that term in 1969. However, Marsha P. Johnson does not appear to have seen herself as what we would call a transwoman; she used both the terms ‘drag queen’ and ‘transvestite’ (such as when she and Rivera founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries organization in 1970). When dressed as a woman, she was comfortable using pronouns of both genders, but when dressed as a man, Johnson could get very upset if referred to as a woman. Consequently, I refer to Johnson as a drag queen. In the film, Ray, Queen Tooey, and Orphan Annie do not dress as women, although they employ some women’s accessories, and Queen Cong dresses both as a man and a woman in different scenes, although more frequently as a woman. So I have used the term ‘street queen’ for these characters, which was in common usage at the time. For men whose gender identity is unknown, such as the majority of the Drags, I have used ‘crossdresser’ and ‘transvestite’ as roughly interchangeable.
This is not a perfect solution, but in historical writing, one frequently encounters these sorts of terminological challenges and it is usually necessary to adopt some form of imperfect compromise. If I have offended any of my trans readers with this compromise, I apologize and hope my reasons for the decision are at least clear.
Want to Know More?
The movie is not available yet, since it’s still in theaters.
If you want to read more about Stonewall, a good place to start is David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. It’s an excellent piece of scholarship and highly readable.