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Storifying Stonewall

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I’m not surprised that the director of the new movie “Stonewall” sidelined the butches and drag queens of color for a hero who was gay and white and male and so macho that nobody was gonna be checking his trousers to see if he had all the equipment promised by that pale chiseled face. After all, that’s what the LGBT movement did, tidying up its history almost as quickly as the broken glass and ashes were cleared from the West Village streets.

Only four years afterwards, Sylvia Rivera, one of the original Stonewall riot girls, had to claw her way onto the stage of the 1973 Pride celebration, wait out the jeers before she could speak about how trans women were getting beaten and raped in jail, and call on the community to look outside the inner circle of white middle class concerns.

Even now, national LGBT groups put forward only their whitest, most gender-conforming foot, and until recently would jettison the T any time trans issues seemed a stumbling block to pro-gay legislation. Questions of racism in our community are still barely acknowledged.

So why would we expect more from the earnest gay director Roland Emmerich, who told Buzzfeed he just wanted to make sure LGBT kids knew their history and, in particular, shed a little light on LGBT homelessness? I don’t even care that he said he wanted a “straight-acting” character that middle America could identify with, because isn’t that what most directors want, especially mainstream directors like Emmerich?

He’s best known for blockbuster action films that feature likeable, macho central figures, and narrative arcs that never diverge as they move toward their inevitably exciting but happy conclusions. While he deserves his props for casting actor Will Smith as the lead in “Independence Day,” when that seemed a daring choice, and centering an interracial couple in “The Day After Tomorrow,” these movies still warn us not to expect subtlety or any careful handling of what historians like to call facts.

In fact, it seems he treated “Stonewall” like any fiction film, imagining that if somebody had to pick up that brick and throw it, and if it would help get this important story told, why not a nice white boy from Indiana that the rest of America could identify with — and maybe even elicit a little sympathy for LGBT issues, especially queer kids that were the bulk of the original Stonewall crowd? At least he didn’t pretend to be doing a documentary, unlike some films about ACT UP that also give the impression that our most important activists have always been white and male.

For me, the problem of “Stonewall” and other films like it is as much the form as the usual content. Suppose Emmerich had been writing the film now, taking into account all the recent progress we’ve had in trans visibility, and deciding to give center stage, for instance, to Marsha P. Johnson. Would it have changed the film in any significant way? Or like Dan, would a Marsha-like character exist mostly to suffer for a while, overcome adversity, and develop into a heroine, just in time for a happy, happy ending, in this case conveniently taking place before the real Marsha’s violent death.

You’d get a black trans face in there, and maybe be closer to the facts, both of which are good, but not good enough, since what I want is a film about Stonewall and the queer experience that actually comes closer to the messy truth.

That’s the fundamental problem, after all, with all these kinds of heroic social change films. They homogenize experience, flatten it out, so that it is impossible, for me anyway, to recognize “history” onscreen where all the activists are heroes, even if they are flawed. And success is always inevitable. Even last year’s movie “Pride” had that kind of glow about it. No matter that the queer campaign in Britain to support striking miners eventually failed, we did get to see hearts and minds changed as some conservative miners relinquished their homophobia and supported the queers in a big fuzzy hug at their own Pride Parade. The death of one of the gay characters of AIDS just lent an additional poignancy to the whole thing.

I suppose it’s tempting, especially for embattled movements, to create these little mythologies in which we raise our fists at the right places, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and never fight with each other for more than a few minutes. But they aren’t real. Even if they are eventually made more representative, seemingly more accurate, these stories cannot be our stories until that traditional narrative is broken, twisted, queered. Until we learn to celebrate failure without sneering at success, and bust the story open to reveal how much we’ve accomplished, less by charging heroically ahead, than by simply persisting, sometimes in blind hope, sometimes in rage.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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