20th Century America, Gay Rights Movement, Homosexuality, Jeremy Irvine, New York City, Stonewall
Roland Emmerich’s upcoming movie Stonewall, about the 1969 Stonewall Riots, released its first trailer last week and in doing so provoked a good deal of negative commentary and protest. Here’s the trailer:
Now it’s unfair to review a film before it comes out, and trailers can often be profoundly misrepresentative of the film itself. Rather than discuss the events of the riots themselves, I figured I’d provide a few thoughts about the controversy around the trailer so that people can have some context for when they see the film.
The Stonewall Riots, which started on Friday, June 27th, and recurred for several nights through the following Wednesday, were a spontaneous uprising of gay homeless youth, drag queens and what would today be called transwomen (for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to drag queens, transwomen, and effeminate gay men as ‘transvestites’, the general term used at the time of the riot; some of these people later identified as transwomen, but others did not), and other gays and lesbians. Ethnically it was a very mixed group. The Riots played a key role in sparking the Gay Liberation movement, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Craig Rodwell, who recognized the need for publicity for the infant Gay Liberation movement and so ran to call reporters and get his camera. It was Rodwell who had the idea to commemorate the Riots the following year, a commemoration that eventually turned into the tradition of gays celebrating June with Pride Festivals and Parades.
One major criticism of the Gay Rights movement (as Gay Liberation is more commonly called today) is that it has tended to focus on the needs, concerns, and interests of white gay men and women more than those of black or Latino gays and lesbians, transmen and transwomen, leathermen and other more marginal segments of the gay community. For example, the recent Obergefell ruling by the Supreme Court establishing the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, is part of a strategy that seeks to win support for gay rights by emphasizing how similar gays and lesbians are to straight people, even though many gays and lesbians are more interested in alternative relationship models that include open or polyamorous relationships. The needs of transmen and transwomen to have access to appropriate bathroom facilities has only just recently become a topic of serious concern for many gay rights activists, who have often tended to consider the needs of transpeople as a ‘harder sell’ because the straight community is less likely to sympathize with those needs. Many more inclusive activists worry that, having achieved a slate of rights such as marriage and the right to serve in the military, middle class white gays may decide they don’t need to work hard for those on the margins. Indeed, many gays are unsure why transpeople should be included in the Gay Rights movement at all. So after decades of fighting for the rights of the broader gay community, many transpeople and other more marginal groups worry that they may be thrown under the bus or abandoned by the people who used to be their allies. They worry about being ‘erased’ from the past, their lives and contributions swept to the margins of the past just as so many of them are today.
As a result, the role of transvestites, blacks and Latinos in the Stonewall Riots is of more than just academic interest. Much interest has focused on the question of who started the riot. A black lesbian has been reported as the first person to struggle with the police, a Latina transwoman claimed to have thrown the first punch and the first bottle, and a black drag queen has been cited as the first person to throw a brick. If these claims are true, if black and Latino transvestites were central to the riot, then these segments of the gay community have always been part of the movement and they are central to it, not just on the margins. If the first people to resist the police on that day in 1969 were blacks, Latinos, and transvestites, then the rights that I currently enjoy as a married white gay man are in considerable measure due to the struggles of those blacks, Latinos, and transvestites, and I owe them the benefit of my efforts to help them win their rights. (Whether these claims are actually true or not is an issue I’ll tackle when I post about the film after it comes out; as it turns out, the issue is more complex than many assume.)
The trailer suggests that the film tells the story of Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a handsome, young, straight-looking Midwesterner who comes to New York City, meets a Latino transvestite Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), and happens to be at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the police raid that triggered the riots. He seems to radicalize the crowd into violence (he appears to be shown throwing the first brick). Ray, on the other hand, develops a crush on Danny, who refuses his advances, and eventually breaks down in despair (“There is no home, there is no family, Danny.”).
If Stonewall is using Danny as a way to attract a broad audience to the film so that it can introduce that audience to the struggles of a racially diverse group of gays, lesbians, homeless youth, and transwomen struggling to find a safe space in the face of legal persecution and police violence and to teach that audience about how that persecution helped give birth to the legal and social rights that gays and lesbians enjoy today, then I think this could be an effective movie. And the trailer certainly suggests the movie acknowledges the presence of transwomen, drag queens, and effeminate gay men; Ray appears to be a central character, and the bar scenes show a number of men dressed very femininely.
The movie may also do some good by teaching a younger generation of gays and lesbians about the movement that brought them their legal rights and the social acceptance they currently enjoy. The Pride movement, which today has mainly become an excuse for over-commercialized parties, was in origin a demand to be allowed to exist peacefully and a struggle for basic social toleration in the face of the sort of casual bigotry and police violence that the film seems interested in focusing on.
Jeremy Irvine released a statement in response to the outcry against Stonewall. He reveals that his character is homeless, that Ray is a Puerto Rican transvestite, and that Marsha P Johnson (the black drag queen who claimed to have thrown the first brick) is an important character in the film, but that a fictional black transvestite grabs the first brick. So Irvine, at least, perceives the film to be a fair treatment that seeks to include and acknowledge these people. And at least one promotional poster emphasizes the ethnic diversity and transvestism of the cast.
If, however, the film is using Danny to usurp the role played by transvestites and ethnic minorities, to turn the Stonewall riot into a story of how a straight-looking white man helped a rag-tag bands of transvestites, blacks, and Latinos find their voice and their hope through his leadership, then the film is guilty of misrepresenting the riot and allowing whites to see themselves as the saviors of downtrodden blacks and Latinos and transvestites instead of the beneficiaries of those people’s self-originated struggle. Danny may be gay and homeless, but he’s white and straight-looking, and that puts him in a privileged position over gay homeless transvestite blacks and Latinos, who are pretty much the bottom of the social totem pole in American society by virtually all measures.
And the trailer certainly offers reasons to think that it’s erasing the contributions of various participants in the riot. There’s a brief shot of a butch-looking white women being pushed into a police car and shouting at the crowd; but the butch lesbian who first struggled with the police is usually said to be a black woman (although some reports credit a white woman). A fictional black transvestite might be the first person to grab a brick, but Danny gets to throw that brick, instead of the black drag queen who’s usually credited with that honor. Danny is the one giving hope to Ray, and inciting the crowd to fight back. So instead of a self-empowered group of minorities, the film appears to be offering us a straight-looking white savior.
As I said, Stonewall isn’t out yet (it has a September release date), and trailers can be wildly misleading of what’s actually in a film. So perhaps the trailer is more about marketing to middle class white sensibilities, to get that audience to go see a story that will push its boundaries and help it see that the Gay Rights movement is much more complex than they think it is. I certainly hope that’s what this film is trying to do. But at the moment, I am less than optimistic about what the final product will look like, and I understand the anger that the trailer has elicited. Indeed, I share it.
Want To Know More?
As I noted, the film isn’t out yet. But 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.