This past June – the 28 to be more specific – I had the exciting experience of attending my first NYC gay pride parade. My friend Sarah and I had made arrangements to meet up with two of her friends, Shannon and Jet, at a little park across the street from the Stonewall Inn and stake out a front row spot to view the festivities. I had been wanting to pay a visit to the Stonewall Inn for years – the place “where pride began,” as a bright rainbow banner proudly proclaimed across the front of the building – and couldn’t have imagined a better day for such a journey. After all, the riots that occurred there on June 28, 1969 (exactly 46 years prior to the date of my attendance of the parade) were the spark that ignited the modern gay rights movement.
I watched with glee as Governor Cuomo married a gay couple in front of Stonewall, proudly celebrating the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage in all 50 states, which had passed the previous week. I was surrounded by more rainbow memorabilia than I thought even existed. By all accounts, it seemed like an all-inclusive love fest, until I noticed that Shannon and Jet had disappeared. They had brought a transgender pride flag to wave at the parade and had gone to a corner to stencil the phrase “Don’t forget the ‘T’ in LGBT” across it before the parade began. The flag has pink, blue and white stripes, and was noticeably absent from the main set up of the parade. I was more than happy to stand behind the flag, and Sarah, Shannon and Jet (two trans women and a trans man respectively) became the inadvertent faces of trans representation at our section of the parade.
Reactions were mixed. One young man, wearing the trans pride flag like a cape, ran over to us and hugged us all. One young man told us all we were beautiful and hugged Sarah and Shannon. One woman came up and hugged and kissed me, proclaiming my beauty and bravery, and then ignored my three friends – prompting Jet to joke, “She must think you’re passing really well!” Sadly, however, many people either ignored us or showed outright disdain. There was little trans representation at the parade, and it seemed that those who wanted to be heard had to scream in order to be acknowledged within their own community.
It was ironic to stand across from the Stonewall Inn, the site of the riots that were started by trans women and drag queens, and watch their stories get erased from the celebration. A group walked by holding signs with Marsha P. Johnson’s picture on it, the woman who infamously resisted the police on the night of June 28, 1969. But in the five hours I was at pride, I saw only one reference to this incredibly important historical figure. It seemed like an egregious error, but not an uncommon one, as evidenced by the recent trailer for the movie Stonewall.
If you know nothing about the history of Stonewall, this movie seems BAD ASS! Look at this midwestern boy embracing the multi-ethnic, gender queer mix of NYC as he helps to lead the fight for gay rights and equality! He fights the police! He throws a brick through a window! What a revolutionary! Do you feel the fire of activism in your belly? If you have no previous knowledge of the Stonewall Riots, I bet you’re feeling pretty riled up and ready to fight right about now. If you’re fairly informed regarding the history of the gay rights movement, I bet you’re feeling similar things, but for very different reasons.
Perhaps that’s because the Stonewall Riots, and the beginnings of the gay rights movement, were led by transgender individuals, transvestites, lesbians and street queens. That’s not to say that cisgender gay men didn’t play a role or haven’t played a major role in the years since. But to make a historical docu-drama about the Stonewall Riots that centers around a young, white gay man instead of featuring Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Storme DeLarverie or Miss Major Griffin-Gracy as the lead protagonist (or at least a major character) is a bit disappointing.
The film only profiles one of those major players: Marsha “pay it no mind” Johnson, the woman who by many accounts ignited the Stonewall Riots. When the police raided the bar on June 28, 1969, Johnson was there celebrating her 25 birthday. At one point, after transvestites and trans women were ordered to go to the bathroom to have their “sex verified” by police, Marsha P. Johnson infamously threw her shot glass into a mirror and screamed, “I’ve got my civil rights!” It’s been referred to as the shot glass heard round the world, and she has been widely acknowledged as one of the first individuals to resist the police. She helped to co-found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with Sylvia Rivera.
She seems to only be a supporting character in the film, and her presence in the trailer is to simply tell the main character that life on Christopher Street is hard. It’s not exactly a stellar sell of such an incredible life.
Then there are the women who seem to have been completely erased from the film. Sylvia Rivera, a 17-year-old Puerto Rican trans woman, was one of the first people to throw a bottle in the crowd. She spent the majority of her life fighting against racism, sexism and transphobia.
Storme DeLarverie is widely credited as the woman who threw the first punch at the riots. Described as a “typical New York butch,” Storme had struggled with police for several minutes after complaining about how tight her handcuffs were. Eyewitness accounts claim that she had been dragged through the crowd by police and escaped repeatedly before being hit on the head with a baton and left bleeding heavily. Then she infamously yelled to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?!” at which point, by all accounts, the crowd went crazy. Storme devoted the rest of her life to gay and lesbian causes, as well as services for battered women and children.
Then there’s living legend Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. She was taken into police custody after being struck on the head and allegedly had her jaw broken by a corrections officer while in custody. But her legacy is unbelievable: She is a trans woman who fights for the rights of transgender individuals, specifically trans women of color. She focuses on issues relating to the prison-industrial complex. She has also continuously criticized the LGBT movement for excluding transgender individuals.
These four women have been credited as major players in the Stonewall Riots and the beginnings of the gay rights movement. Only one of them makes it into the Stonewall movie. And the director chose to follow the journey of a fictional white gay man, a class that by and large played second fiddle to trans women, transvestites and POC in the early stages of the movement. It’s not exactly hard to see why some people are upset about the movie. I’m not going so far as to say boycotting the film is the way to go, but I understand where the anger comes from. If you’re going to tell the history of a people, you have an obligation to tell it right.
Look, I get it. It’s just a trailer. I’m not “reaching for things to get offended about,” as someone on Facebook tried to say when I posted about it. There’s certainly hope that this is just a poorly-cut trailer that doesn’t highlight the true diversity and historical accuracy of the film, as both the director Roland Emmerich and its star Jeremy Irvine have said. I genuinely hope so and am sincerely rooting for the film.
But do yourselves a favor and read up on the real history of Stonewall. The truth is so much more interesting than any movie about some corn-fed cutie who discovers gay rights with the help of a gaggle of fabulous transvestites can ever give us.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.