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Read the Riot Act to “Stonewall”?

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We’re at each other’s throats again. It happens, as John Wayne’s character says in my favorite western, “The Searchers,” “just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.” Trans folks are up in arms against gay men, white people are angry at people of color, and this time — absurdly — it’s all because of a movie trailer. Roland Emmerich, who directed the blockbuster action pictures “Independence Day” (1996) and “White House Down” (2013) and who is openly gay, has a new film coming out: “Stonewall,” a fictionalized account of the violent birth of the modern LGBT rights movement. With a screenplay by the supertalented out gay playwright Jon Robin Baitz (“Other Desert Cities” and many more), “Stonewall” centers on a young gay man from the heartland, Danny Winters (played by Jeremy Irvine), who gets kicked out by his parents, lands in New York City, and finds friendship with street people and an awakened political consciousness that culminates with him throwing a brick at the Stonewall Riots.

What’s wrong with that, you may be asking. Well, for starters, Emmerich, Baitz, and Irvine are all white. They’re also all men. And as we all (should) know, many of the brick-hurlers and cop-punchers at the Stonewall Riots were what we now call transgender and they were multiracial. Who threw the first brick? I don’t know and I don’t care.

At this writing, nearly 24,000 outraged people have signed a petition urging moviegoers to stay away from “Stonewall.” As the petition puts it, “It is time that black and brown transwomyn and drag queens are recognized for their efforts in the riots throughout the nation. From the preview alone, we know that will not be happening. Majority of characters casted are white actors, cis men play the role of transwomyn, and folks who began the riots do not seem to be credited with such revolutionary acts.”

Media Circus

For those of you who live under a rock, like I do, cis refers to people whose gender identity matches the sex they were born with. I had to look it up. But the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the locution. For those of us who aren’t trans, it’s time to stop categorizing ourselves as normal. No! We’re a variation, just like everybody else. We don’t think twice about categorizing trans people, so it only makes sense for us to have a category of our own, one defined along the same lines. I’m fine with being a cis, as long as the plural form is cissies.

Emmerich responded in a Facebook post: “When I first learned about the Stonewall Riots through my work with the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, I was struck that the circumstances that lead to LGBT youth homelessness today are pretty much the same as they were 45 years ago. The courageous actions of everyone who fought against injustice in 1969 inspired me to tell a compelling, fictionalized drama of those days centering on homeless LGBT youth, specifically a young Midwestern gay man who is kicked out of his home for his sexuality and comes to New York, befriending the people who are actively involved in the events leading up to the riots and the riots themselves. I understand that following the release of our trailer there have been initial concerns about how this character’s involvement is portrayed, but 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.”

Into this battle — it’s bigger and nastier than a kerfuffle — barged Larry Kramer. Never known for his tact, Kramer posted a mini-screed on the legendary Peter Staley’s Facebook page. Larry’s shift keys are apparently busted: “don't listen to the crazies. for some reason there is a group of ‘activists’ that insists on maintaining their prime importance and participation during this riot. unfortunately there seems no one left alive to say ‘it wasnt that way at all,’ or ‘who are or where the fuck were you.’ as with so much history there is no way to ‘prove’ a lot of stuff, which allows artists such as yourself (and me I might add) to take essences and attempt to find and convey meaning and truth. i sincerely hope this boycott your film shit peters out. we are not dealing with another ‘Cruising’ here. keeping your film from being seen is only hurting ourselves. good luck and thank you for your passion.”

By my reckoning, only one person really benefits from all of this fighting — me. Controversies like this are gifts to a media columnist.

Ahem. Calling the thousands of human beings who signed the petition “crazies” doesn’t help. It’s hardly crazy to demand that a film based on history get the history right. And claiming that “as with so much history there is no way to ‘prove’ a lot of stuff” willfully ignores (at least) two well-researched books on the subject of the Stonewall Riots: David Carter’s “Stonewall” and Martin Duberman’s “Stonewall,” neither to be confused with “Stonewall,” Emmerich’s movie. If there’s a problem here, it’s a lack of imagination as far as titles are concerned. There’s not a lot of dispute about the key roles Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, a black drag queen and a Latina drag queen, played in the riots. There’s a Marsha P. Johnson in the movie; Sylvia Rivera not so much.

(A little comedy relief: On one of the numerous occasions Marsha P. Johnson found herself in a court of law, the judge asked her what the “P” stood for, to which Marsha P. Johnson snapped, “Pay it no mind!”)

At the same time, it’s hardly fair to condemn a movie before seeing it. Basing a boycott on a trailer is dicey; the purpose of trailers is to get as many people as possible to buy tickets, so it’s no surprise that the “Stonewall” trailer features many shots of cute-as-a-button Jeremy Irvine, including one all too brief moment when he whips his shirt off. Gay white men appear to be this film’s biggest target market. Hollywood makes films to make money. Whether the product is artistically and politically honest is and has always been a question of the director’s and screenwriter’s intelligence and talent together with a big scoop of serendipity.

So at the risk of ticking off both sides of this war, I suggest that everybody cool down and wait till the film opens before denouncing or promoting it. I know, I know — you can’t boycott a movie you’ve already bought tickets for and seen. My advice to the boycotters is to send someone in as a spy, with a notebook and a penlight to take careful notes. It’s good to know what you’re talking about, even with movies.

Follow @EdSikov on Twitter.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

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Aug. 29, 2015, 3:58 am
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Aug. 29, 2015, 4:03 am
@tanyaasapansa says:
Marsha P. Johnson thew the first brick a black Transwoman/Queen! Don't try to erase our history in the stonewall Riots I met Marsha in person in the 1980s Christopher Street. #/blacktranslivesmatter #translivesmatter this movie hurts and it needs to changed. This is not a race event it's about the truth. I have witnesses and if you would like to know more then contact me, i will be glad to talk.
Sept. 7, 2015, 12:02 am
Monica Roberts says:
You may not care who threw the first brick or shot glass at Stonewall, but for the trans people who jumped this rebellion off, WE DO. And we're tired of white people cavalierly dismissing or erasing the contributions of people o color to American history and seminal events in that history
Sept. 7, 2015, 9:34 am
@ImperatorRed says:
Good points. Too bad the revisionists are breathing down your neck. No one knows who threw what first. Things were thrown. Shit went down. It was a riot, friends. All who were -really- there know it exploded in a few places all at once. Anyone claiming they "organized" it is a fame whore who doesn't know how a riot works. So many new faces in recent years trying to take credit, hoping everyone who remembers is dead and they can just make. shit. up. Hey, since they weren't there, they don't know who's still around ;) Maybe this film will be just another shitty revisionist piece of crap. Who knows till we see it? Try watching the documentaries and don't expect white guys who weren't there to get it right. Oh, and that film "Happy Birthday, Marsha?" that's riding the coattails of this outrage? Girlfriend coudn't even do the research to get Marsha's birthday right. You really think anything else in it will be accurate? Promos for that have been just as full of misinformation. But see it's trendy misinformation so there you go. I get it. We were all young once, and thought of our WWII predecessors the way you think of us now: old and out of touch. But we know our history. Those of us who somehow survived the AIDS war are still here. Sylvia and Marsha never identified as women. Sylvia hated the word "transgender" and only used it to mean "gender non conforming." Marsha never used it. We knew about transsexuals since the 1940s. Neither of them identified that way. To imply they would have if they "knew better" is insulting. These kids insult their intelligence with their claims that it would have been different "if". All this strange stuff calling them women. They didn't see themselves that way. They were proud queens. And all these straights trying to use them would have hated them if they'd hung out with us for real.
Sept. 14, 2015, 7:09 pm

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