Later this year, a highly problematic film will hit cinemas around the world. It’s the newest film by the blockbuster director Roland Emmerich of The Patriot, Independence Day, and 2012 fame. Apparently, Emmerich is gay, and has taken it on himself to make a “fictionalized drama” about the Stonewall riots. Emmerich’s films are often picked up by huge production studios and millions of dollars are used in their casting, production, and distribution. (I mean, come on, have you seen Independence Day?)
This is very, very troubling.
To add insult to this Hollywood monstrosity of an injury, the story of Emmerich’s bio-pic centers around a fictional, cisgender, white gay male character from the Midwest. The trailer for the film makes it look like all of the film’s major characters are of the same persuasion as its Midwestern protagonist. This is fucked up on so many levels, I don’t know where to begin.
After some thought, it seems apparent that the historical context of the riots may be the best place to begin. Stonewall, as you all know by this point, is located in what is now New York City’s West Village. This part of the city was not, unlike today, considered a desirable neighborhood to leave, work, and hang out. It was a gay ghetto, and as such, the moral squads of the New York City Police Department targeted bars, clubs, and other gathering spots in that neighborhood with much higher frequency and intensity than other parts of New York City.
By the 1960s, same-sex behavior was no longer illegal. It was considered taboo by the larger society, and there were no legal rights whatsoever, but the act of engaging in same-gender sex was not a crime. There were, however, several other laws on the books meant to target the queer community, to force us out of public spaces, and to pretend that we weren’t there. Many of these rules focused on those of us who were transgender or gender non-conforming. A law was created, both in New York, and in many places around the world in which queers sought refuge, that would allow the police to arrest anyone who was not wearing three articles of clothing that “corresponded to one’s birth sex.” These types of laws, of course, had a disparate impact on trans people of all stripes, on drag queens and kings, and butch lesbians.
It was those who were gender non-conforming that bore the brunt of police brutality: beatings, sexual assault, deprivation, even murder. It was they who had the most to gain from a full scale uprising.
It was, in fact, a black trans woman by the name of Marsha P. Johnson that threw the brick that launched a revolution. She does not appear in the trailer of “Stonewall,” neither does Sylvia Rivera. Historical revisionism is not ethical filmmaking. People are often under-informed by nature. People will see a film like this and believe that it represents truth, a fallacy that will inevitably be used to further erase trans people of color from our history. This cannot be permitted.
It is mind boggling to me that any filmmaker who wanted to make a film as important as this one would be so lazy as to need a stereotypical, fictional protagonist for a very real event. There are any number of so-called “Stonewall Veterans” still alive. I have had the distinct and utmost honor of knowing a few of them. How many of them were consulted on the accuracy or relevance of such a contrived protagonist?
It should come as no surprise that there is a growing movement among the queer community and the racial justice community to boycott this film for its whitewashing, historical revisionism. I am inclined to agree with their position. It is possible that you’ve seen the rallying cry to boycott “Stonewall” on your social media feeds, I know it’s nearly hit critical mass over here.
The director, having presumably seen the outrage about the film he’s dedicated however long to creating, “responded” to the criticism about the film over the weekend in such a way that was obviously meant to minimize the anger. Emmerich said that all of the historical figures, people like Sylvia and Marsha, are given “reverence” in the film, even though their characters are minor by comparison. He responded to the criticism about his film by fundamentally misunderstanding what Stonewall was really about. He said that the protagonist of his film is not anachronistic or out of place because he had been kicked out of his Midwestern home by his parents. He saw a Stonewall film as an opportunity to discuss the homelessness and familial excommunication of the LGBTQ community; not to discuss homelessness that leads to many queer children living and engaging in sex work for survival on Christopher Piers, but the homelessness of a well-off cis, white guy who can afford to move to NYC after he’s kicked out. It’s noble that Emmerich wants to bring attention to the scourge of LGBTQ homelessness and the absolute tragedy of queer people being kicked out and disowned by their families, even at very early ages. It is. However, that’s not what Stonewall was about. Homelessness, financial and housing insecurity, and isolation from the mainstream may have been peripheral factors, but they were not why the riots happened. To say that this is the case is to say that the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore in recent months are about overwhelmingly European standards of beauty.
I think that the revision of history to imply that Stonewall was about people who have been disowned by their families is disgusting. It erases the very visceral, very ugly truth that queer people have been victims of violence at the hands of their fellow humans and by those who are supposed to protect and serve for a very long time.
I will probably see this movie, in all honesty, so that I can more thoroughly refute its points, and that, I believe is a responsibility we all have. We can boycott or we can refute, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility to tell the truth and to give credit where credit is due.