I end every show with an editorial on one pressing and personal cultural topic. This week’s editorial discusses the new trailer for the film ‘Stonewall’ which is centered around the fight for LGBT rights in New York in 1969, plus the controversy around the whitewashing and cis-washing the filmmakers have been accused of by critics. Watch the clip and read the transcript below:
As some may have noticed, the show was been on hiatus for a couple of weeks, because of my two-week residency at Hedgebrook in Washington state. It was a beautiful gift to be able to begin work on my next book without distractions and of course, my beloved Internet. But while I was unplugged many stories happened that made me cheer upon my return, like the news that Amnesty International voted to adopt a policy that finally protects sex workers.
And other stories, of course, made me weep, like the reports that two more trans women of color, Amber Monroe and Shade Schuler, were killed. Their killings bring the death toll of trans women to at least 13 in the U.S. alone this year. So this week, I find it necessary to address the erasure of trans women that is not only happening in our streets but in our stories.
Last week, the trailer for Stonewall, a feature film about the 1969 riots that sparked the LGBT movement, was released and generated criticism for white-washing and cis-washing the historical uprisings. The trailer centers on a fictional protagonist played by English actor Jeremy Irvine. He’s a young white Midwestern guy who settles in gritty New York City at a time when merely showing affection to someone of the same sex or wearing clothes not associated with your assigned sex or gender at birth were considered disorderly and grounds for harassment by police.
The film is set at The Stonewall Inn, a bar in New York’s Greenwich village that gay activist and film historian Vito Russo described as “a bar for the people who were too young, too poor or just too much to get in anywhere else. The Stonewall was a street queen hangout in the heart of the ghetto.” One of the street queens who frequented Stonewall was Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who was arrested during the riots. In an interview with Autostraddle’s Mey Rude, Major said:
“This was a club the girls went to when we would do prostituting in the street… It was somewhere where we could sit with friends, talk about what had happened, celebrate the good things, work on the bad shit until we went home. It was the place where girls … would go and sit afterwards and have some peace of mind. To be around like-minded people….A sense of belonging. We had that there.”
The Stonewall Inn was a refuge for many LGBT people but it was also a target for police to harass queer and gender-nonconforming people, as was the case the last week of June 1969, when police officers raided that bar. They arrested customers and shut down the bar and were met with a crowd brewing with rage from years and years of being subject to policing, constant policing.
Some historians says Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman, threw the first brick in the confrontation with police while others say Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican trans woman, threw the first molotov cocktail that night. And the erasure of these women is glaring in the trailer which centers a telegenic and very palatable white guy. The image of the film’s white male protagonist throwing what appears to be the first brick during the riots is a blatant attempt at whitewashing this monumental moment in history.
That image alone upholds Hollywood’s longheld fascination with the white male savior, the guy who always gets to be the hero by hijacking the significance of people of color’s role in their own liberation.
This choice by the filmmakers goes against most eyewitness stories which recount the pivotal role played by the most disenfranchised within the LGBT community – we’re talking about trans people, folks of color, dykes and queers and drag queens, homeless youth, homeless people, and yes, trans women of color. These were the people most vulnerable, most policed because they stood at the intersections of class, race, gender expression and identity, and sexuality.
It is this erasure of trans people in the Stonewall movie trailer that has pushed more than 23 thousand people to sign a petition calling for a boycott of the film. The petition states:
“To all considering watching the newest whitewashed version of queer history, it is time that black and brown transwomyn and drag queens are recognized for their efforts in the riots throughout the nation.”
One of those women is my personal hero Miss Major, who refuted the trailer’s depiction of the riots, telling Autostraddle:
“My first thought is: how dare they attempt to do this again? … It’s absolutely absurd — you know, young people today aren’t stupid. They can read the history. They know that this is not the way it happened. These people can’t let it go! Everybody can’t be white! This is a country of different colors and people and thoughts and attitudes and feelings, and they try to make all of those the same for some reason.”
Defending his film, director Roland Emmerich wrote on Facebook that Stonewall “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.” He ends his statement by saying, “We are all the same in our struggle for acceptance.”
Actually, we are not all the same – that’s why the trailer for Stonewall doesn’t center Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson or anyone who falls outside the lines of what American culture frames as “heroic.”
What I’ve learned in history and through archives and conversations with elders is that trans people were at the forefront of this movement, fighting police, protesting officials and checking cisgender white gay folk for sidelining their agendas because they were so radical, so different, so poor, so trans, so black, so brown.
My hope is that the reaction to the trailer pushes the filmmakers to reconsider their shaping of this narrative, and check the ways in which the trailer and film contributes to the historical erasure of folks who are not white or male or cis. I call on the filmmakers to write these wrongs and place trans people, gender non-conforming people and people of color at the center of our history and our stories, not at the margins.
This is why it is vital that we support films created by trans women and for trans communities, like:
Reina Gossett’s “Happy Birthday Marsha” a short film about trans artist and activist, Marsha P Johnson and her life in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall riots. OR…
Jen Richards’ “Her Story” series, and she’ll be with us next week, which is a look into the lives of trans & queer women as they navigate the intersections of desire & identity. And of course,
Major!, a documentary about Miss Major’s life and work as a trans revolutionary.
These projects don’t only show the depth of our resistance as trans people, but they also show that we didn’t need a white man to save us. We were and have always been the heroes we’ve been looking for.
Watch all clips, conversations and interviews from “So POPular!” anytime at MSNBC.com/sopopular. New episodes every Friday at 11am ET!