Please don’t ask me to applaud mighty whitey
If you aren’t familiar with the controversy: the trailer for the new movie focuses on a white, cisgendered young man as the viewpoint character, and more specifically, causes some people to infer that he is the one who threw the first brick and starts the Stonewall Riot on that June night in 1969. The Stonewall Riots being the event usually credited with starting the modern gay rights movement. This is a problem because, while no one knows for certain who threw the first beer bottle, we do know is that the first person seriously fighting back that night was a butch lesbian who got away from the cops (and was chased down, beaten, and dragged back) while resisting being put in the paddy wagon (it was probably Stormé DeLarverie, though some witnesses claim that it was someone else). A transwoman of color, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, also fought back, was clubbed unconscious, and was one of the few actually taken to jail that night. And no one disputes that it was Marsha P. Johnson (who was at the bar that night with friends to celebrate her birthday) who smashed one of the police cars with a brick…In other words, the heroes of the night were a bull dyke (how she described herself), a transwoman, and a drag queen/street queen. There were cisgendered young light-skinned men in the crowd (you can see them in the few pictures taken that first night), but no one at the time reported any of them as the instigators of the insurrection. And it really was the beginning of a revolution, not merely a riot. The police, as they usually did, were concentrating the worst of their brutality at the people who, to them, appeared least “normal”—the drag queens, drag kings, trans, and people of color. So they were the ones who fought back. Over the next several nights of rioting the crowds were larger, in no small part because of all the homeless gay and lesbian teen-agers who joined the fight. Back to my confession: in the early moments of the trailer, after a montage of civil rights images with a sound clip from Barack Obama citing Stonewall as one of the civil rights milestones, we see a young man (portrayed by 25-year-old English actor, Jeremy Irvine) in a montage of arriving at Greenwich Village in New York City in the sixties, inter-cut with images of him being confronted by the word “faggot” scratched into his high school locker, then subsequently being thrown out of what looks like the archetypical midwestern house by his parents. And my qualm at that moment was, “Oh, they’re going that route again.” Because of course, they can’t tell the story of Stonewall to mainstream America without doing it through the eyes of a white, cis-gendered, corn-fed boy from middle America. Which has already been done. But I’ll come back to that. We see glimpses of supporting characters who aren’t white, and even a couple who are gender non-conforming. There is even one person with a speaking role in the trailer who I think is supposed to be taken as trans (it’s hard to tell in a trailer). We see a lot of other snippets that establish the atmosphere at the time: the tension between the radical queers and the more buttoned-down people of the Mattachine Society who had been more quietly asking for gay rights, the hostility of the cops, and strange fact that one of the few places it is safe to be queer is a bar owned by the Mafia. Eventually we get to the moment when one of those button-down guys tells the hero that violent action isn’t the way, and the hero throws a brick while proclaiming “it’s the only way!”
Interspersed throughout are images of Irvine’s character in various defiant and potentially triumphant situations. Since he’s the protagonist, that’s to be expected. Again, I had more qualms, though they still weren’t exactly the some problems most people are talking about. To someone not well-versed in the history of the events, it seems to imply that the riot was a planned event, as opposed to a spontaneous uprising against a more-brutal-than-usual police raid. And there weren’t many women visible in the riot scenes, whereas we knew that lesbians made up a large fraction of the crowd.
So there are several misgivings I had about the movie based on the trailer; and among my concerns are the apparent erasure of the trans, lesbian, and people of color who were the actual heroes of that night. If the movie does the things many people are inferring it does from this trailer, I’m going to be extremely disappointed.
I disagree with those who say that the trailer implies that Irvine’s character threw the brick that starts the riot. I think it is clear that the scene with the brick is days, maybe even months, after the night of the raid and riot. There are no riot police visible in the scene where the brick is thrown, for instance. During the dialog of that scene, our protagonist argues with the guy from the Mattachine Society interspersed with what are clearly meant to be flashbacks to the riots.
I can see how some people who aren’t paying close attention might infer that the brick depicted in the trailer is meant to be the start of the Stonewall Riot. And I suppose you could argue that because most of America is woefully ignorant of queer history they are more likely to infer it. But I think the brick is a lot less important than some people are making it out to be.
Do I wish that the protagonist was someone who looks more like Marsha P. Johnson, or Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, or Stormé DeLarverie? Yes, I do.
In 1995 another movie named Stonewall was released. It was explicitly based on a novel by openly-gay historian, Martin Duberman. In Duberman’s novel and the 1995 movie, the viewpoint character is a young, white, cisgendered gay man who fled to New York City after being rejected by his parents. Contemporary accounts indicate that there were a lot of cisgendered gay homeless teens who participated in the riots. So it is not unreasonable to include such characters in the story. In Duberman’s book, however, the white gay boy is not the hero. He is rescued from the streets by a trans woman, and is taken under the wings of several drag queens and trans people of color. While he experiences and participates in the events leading up to Stonewall and the riots themselves, his role in the story is to witness the events of history unfolding around him.
Duberman’s novel, and his related non-fiction, is where I learned about such leaders of the Gay Liberation movement that sprang up from Stonewall as Silvia Rivera, Miss Griffin-Gracy, Marsha P, Stormé, and so on. While the 1995 movie wasn’t perfect, it did not white-wash the people of color, nor did it sweep the trans and drag people under the rug. So it is possible to do justice to the story of Stonewall from the point of view of a white, cisgendered gay boy. I hope that this movie does that.
Unfortunately, western culture has a long history of the “mighty whitey.” TV tropes describes it well: “Mighty Whitey is usually a displaced white European, of noble descent, who ends up living with native tribespeople and not only learns their ways but also becomes their greatest warrior/leader/representative.”
Certainly the trailer for this movie looks an awful lot like that trope: white boy driven from uber-wholseome middle America, lives among the primitive queer natives of Greenwich Village, learns the gay ways, and then becomes their great warrior, explaining to the gay man urging caution that this is the only way before he throws that brick. I hope that isn’t what the movie does. I hope this is a case of a trailer, like so many movie trailers before, being edited to distort the film in order to lure an audience that the studio thinks would otherwise avoid the film.
I hope that the actual film isn’t going to ask me to applaud mighty whitey.
And let me make it clear: I’m a white, cisgendered fat old gay guy. I am not a person of color. I’m not trans. I’m not a lesbian. And while just last week I was making the case for why gay people shouldn’t be erased from mainstream culture, I think it’s just as wrong to co-opt the stories of lesbians, trans people, genderqueer people, and people of color. It obscures an important part of the history of gay rights. In 1969, most of the gay guys that look like me were living closeted lives. The few that were involved in fighting for gay rights at all were picketing in front of national monuments on Independence Day dressed in suits and ties, timidly asking the powers that be to maybe please stop criminalizing our love while promising to assimilate and act just like respectable heterosexuals. It was the people who couldn’t or wouldn’t hide who they were—people who couldn’t blend in—who were pushed, and vilified, and beaten, and backed into a corner who finally decided to stop taking it and fight back.
Based on the director’s first attempt to diffuse the controversy on his Facebook page (which came across not unlike an “all lives matter” response to critics of racist police activity), my hope is wearing awfully thin.
I don’t want to applaud mighty whitey. I want to cheer for Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Griffin-Gracy, and Stormé DeLarverie, and all the others who actually did fight back that night. I may have to wait for another, less well-financed movie for that: Happy Birthday, Marsha.