When Hollywood gets it wrong, it gets it very wrong indeed, and as reactions to the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall movie begin to circulate, it looks as though this may be one of those occasions.
The film, according to IMDB, represents ‘a young man’s political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots’. That is not, on its own, an entirely bad premise for a film: but according to the trailer, Stonewall is inspired by the ‘incredible true story’ of the riots and tells the tale of the ‘unsung heroes’ who created the Pride movement: gay white men.
The action is filtered through the eyes of Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine), who dovetails neatly with the conservatism in mainstream film funding by being young, cis, gay, white and male. And cute.
But Winters is not just fictional bystander: apparently, he also throws the first brick that launched the riots on the night of June 28, 1969.
As narrative turn, that is somewhere between bold and crass in the extreme.
For it has long been documented that the first bricks – and bottles, and pretty much anything that was not nailed down – were thrown by genuine unsung heroes: drag queens, crossdressers, trans people, and butch lesbians; and many, if not most of these were decidedly not white.
They included 17-year-old Puerto Rican drag queen and trans activist Sylvia Rivera; black trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major, black butch icon Stormé De Larverie, who legendarily was the first person to punch a cop, and bisexual feminist Brenda Howard, who organized the first pride parade after the riots and is known as the ‘Mother of Pride’.
Yet just one of these – Marsha Johnson, played by a cis guy (Otoja Abit) – makes it into the bottom half of the cast list, some way below ‘Woman with poodle’. Otherwise, the focus of the movie is on the guys.
Of course gay men were involved in the events of that night, but as Stonewall veteran, Roy McCarthy, later explained: ‘when I talk about gay community, the transgenders were a part of it. We never ever considered them not! Bisexuals, crossdressers, were never ever not considered a part of it! We were all gay!’
Emmerich’s subsequent attempts to deflect criticism have not helped. In an interview with the Big Gay Picture Show, he says: ‘I think we represented it very well[…] We have drag queens, lesbians, we have everything in the film because we wanted to portray a broader image of what “gay” means.’
The problem is that Stonewall remains an exceedingly touchy topic for the trans community. No-one has ever claimed that trans were ‘doing it for ourselves’ back in 1969. However, with the mainstreaming of gay culture, Stonewall remains potent symbol not simply of LGBTI activism, but of a simmering resentment that sometimes gay activism places some LGBT rights, tactically, over others.
The moderate view, advanced by the Big Gay Picture Show is that hopefully, ‘the critics will wait until they’ve seen the movie before writing it off’.
On the other hand, if it as outright a piece of whitewashing and ciswashing as early reviewers are suggesting, then with trans activists already starting to mobilize for the film’s release later this year, ‘I predict a riot’.