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Whitewashing Stonewall

Written by Brenda Ortiz, Staff Writer

There’s nothing wrong about writing historical fiction. There are many films that center fictional characters during real, world-changing events that are by all means good films. But there’s a difference between writing historical fiction and being absolutely intellectually dishonest about the time period and events you’re attempting to portray. There’s probably no film that has done this so egregiously in recent memory as Roland Emmerich’s embarrassment, Stonewall.

This film has garnered controversy since before it even premiered–and for good reason. It attempts to depict the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots, a series of intense protests against police brutality primarily lead by Black and Latina transgender women, gays and lesbians. What is glaringly absent from this film?
The Black and Latina transgender women, gays and lesbians are either nowhere to be found or have taken a back seat to our main character, a bland, fictional white boy played by Jeremy Irvine. The problem with this isn’t that Emmerich, primarily known for his natural disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow, simply wanted to write a historical drama about the events that lead to gay rights as we know them today, but that he erased the efforts of transgender women of color, drag queens, and other gay people who lead the event. Women like Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman almost universally credited with having thrown the first brick at the cops and starting the riots, have had their roles diminished and credited to the fictional bland white boy. The trailer makes no mention of Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, or Storme DeLaverie, the real heroes and leaders of the protest, much to the distress of the living veterans of Stonewall who claimed it was “at least 70% people of color”.
The film did incredibly poorly to absolutely nobody’s surprise. Making less than $200,000, it flopped both commercially and critically, resulting in being Emmerich’s biggest disaster film to date. LGBT audiences boycotted the film, and while Emmerich intended to make it as much for straight people as it was for LGBT people, he failed to realize that no one is as invested in LGBT history as those whose identities fall under the umbrella themselves. However, the disrespect and dishonesty of this film are not unique, and in a generation where LGBT rights have become a pressing topic. It’s about time to we look back at those who made such landmark legal victories such as gay marriage even possible.
Blatantly offensive and inexcusable as it may be, there is still a lesson to learn from Emmerich’s abject failure.
What the LGBT community has today, they owe to the Black and Latina trans women, to the sex workers, the drag queens, the lesbian and bi women. As a movement, it’s important not to become complacent after the legalization of marriage, because for many, they simply will not live long enough to even think about marriage. It is time to care about the most vulnerable people in our society and instead of giving in to Hollywood and the corporations waiting and willing to profit off these experiences like vultures, to support each other and tell the stories of people who were there, of people who actually existed. It is easy for businesses and politicians to attempt to buy support without trying to make the world a kinder place. The commercialization of LGBT experienced has lead to gay culture being packaged and sold, without all the ugly, difficult history and without the names of those who fought tooth and nail for their survival in a violently homophobic and transphobic society.
Now that banks and chip companies are so ready to profit off their supposed support of the LGBT community, we have to remember the failure of Emmerich’s Stonewall, of letting money come before the stories of the oppressed.
During the real life Stonewall riots, there was dissent and there was action coming from those who are still swept under the rug by the mainstream that changed the very fabric of American society forever. Even today, we must remember what these women did for civil rights and continue their struggle, even if it won’t make for a big Hollywood movie someday.


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