When director Roland Emmerich set out to create his upcoming film “Stonewall,” he was engaging in a labor of love. He desired to tell the very American story of standing up to power and demanding equal rights. What he could not have expected is that angry backlash and threats of boycotts would come, not from right-wing, religious zealots, but from the LGBT community itself. Now Emmerich stands accused of whitewashing and cis-washing the seminal event in gay-rights history.
The allegation is that Emmerich, by choosing a white protagonist from middle America (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to tell his story, is trying to deny others, specifically trans persons of color, their rightful place as the true heroes of Stonewall. This is all based on a relatively recent myth that it was the transvestites (as they were then known) who were at the vanguard of the riot, leading the pasty, limp-wristed, white, gay crowd to courage they could never have summoned on their own. “Stonewall” stands accused of perpetuating a racist and anti-trans version of the past.
The accusation is absurd on its face. But the widespread willingness of many on the Left and in the gay community to embrace the very flawed narrative used to attack Emmerich is telling. It speaks not only to the rewriting of gay history, but to a broader effort to ensure that our historical record is purged of references to the heroic actions of overly privileged people. Not only must the privileged of today confess their advantages, the privileged of the past must be stripped of their laurels.
What Really Happened?
In the history of the gay-rights movement, Stonewall stands out as the opening act of the dramatic struggle, one that brought us to the wide acceptance of homosexuality in society today. The riot at the Stonewall Inn is rightfully regarded as the first angry demand for equal rights by the LGBT community. What should have been a routine police raid on an underground New York City gay bar turned into much more. For a variety of reasons, patrons were fed up. No longer content to scurry off into the night, they stood their ground. The confrontation with police that ensued would forever change the gay-rights movement and the nation.
In his excellent book on Stonewall, David Carter recounts the hectic events that led up to the violence of June 29, 1969. In the preceding week, the police had seemed to step up their raids and intimidation of the gay community in New York City’s West Village neighborhood. Some believed this was related to the mayoral election, that Mayor Lindsay was trying to look tough on immoral behavior. Others cited new leadership in the sixth police precinct that covered the neighborhood. But, whatever the cause, tension was high. These were life-and-death issues for many of the closeted gay men, who risked losing their jobs and even their families if they were arrested in a gay bar.
The raid started like many others. The police entered, turned on the lights, and began separating patrons from the people who worked there, including the mafia bosses who ran the illegal club. Another group they separated were the small number of transvestites, who were breaking the law by wearing women’s clothing and who the police suspected of prostitution. Those groups were held in the back room. Meanwhile, in the main room, some gay patrons were filing out after showing ID, and others were stubbornly refusing to leave. As tensions rose, crowds gathered outside, soon in the hundreds. It started to become clear that this would not be another routine raid.
Here’s Where the History Diverges
This is the point at which those who accept the revisionist history of events believe that the trans women of color present, more or less on their own, started fighting back. It is clear from Carter’s book, as well as his valuable collection of first-person accounts, that a trans woman hit a policeman with her purse. There are also accounts of a “butch lesbian” fighting with police outside the club. Other mentions of trans people are scattered.
But these were a handful of individuals out of hundreds who were hurling coins and cans, trying to overturn a police wagon, and rioting on Christopher Street. The vast majority of these rioters were indeed, young, white, gay men. To demean their acts of courage that night, for any social or political reason, is simply shameful. Any American who celebrated the victory of gay marriage this year owes these men an enormous debt. Those who are repaying that debt with scorn and threats of boycotting a film that celebrates them are engaged in a despicable act.
Consider the accounts of the white, gay men interviewed for an AARP video celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. They are quite clear about what led them to riot. It wasn’t the actions of the small number of transvestites that led them to fight back. It was the actions of the police, the frustration of being left behind in a nation that was slowly embracing civil rights. It was the moment when they refused to be cowed by a culture that condemned the very essence of who they were.
Let us be clear that those who accuse “Stonewall,” the movie, of whitewashing and cis-washing the events of that night are calling these men liars. In a terrible and disgusting irony, many of today’s gay-rights activists are accusing their incredibly courageous progenitors of exactly the kind of weakness and passivity that the actions of Stonewall belied. But what could lead to this? How could we have reached the point where those who enjoy the wide acceptance of homosexuality today are damning the memory of the very people who made that acceptance possible?
Heroes Are Heroes for a Reason
Sadly, the current practice of revising history to downplay the contributions of privileged, suspect classes of people is widespread in the academy and popular culture. From the questionable changes to the Advanced Placement American history curriculum to the banishment of Jefferson and Jackson from the lore of the Democratic Party, these erasures are becoming more common. This is rooted in a desire to bring the dark periods of the past into better sync with the enlightened attitudes of modern progressives.
This is folly. It is affirmative action applied to historical narrative. In providing a more balanced and diverse version of history, it is not enough for progressives to celebrate the actions of the traditionally unsung. They must also besmirch the traditional heroes. For progressives it is not enough for Emmerich to include trans people of color in his film (which he absolutely does), he must knock the gay, white participants off their pedestal. The gay, white men of Stonewall can no longer be the heroes of their own story. They must rather, apologize for having appropriated an event that they allegedly have no right to call their own.
For those who believe our nation is little more than a breeding ground of inequality, privilege, and racism, the past must be forcibly brought in line with the present. Facts be damned. Circumstances be damned. Unless one was a member of a group or class that is oppressed today, he or she has no business being celebrated in history. Whatever a person accomplished was simply the byproduct of systems meant to ensure his or her dominance.
This irony underlies this entire absurd controversy. It is the very fact that gay, white men have reached such a level of acceptance in our society that makes them the target of historical revisionism. It doesn’t matter that, 40 years ago when the windows were smashed at the Stonewall Inn, these very same men were among the most reviled and vulnerable in our country. Now they have privilege. And they must sacrifice their own proud history in a vain attempt to empower others.
It won’t work. Inventing a historical narrative for trans people or people of color by exaggerating their role in actual events is not empowering. There is no concerted effort to rob transvestites of their role at Stonewall. Even a cursory student of the event is acquainted with their contributions. And people who watch “Stonewall” will become acquainted with them. But the demand that transvestites be treated as the primary motivating factor of the Stonewall riots is hogwash.
The fate of “Stonewall,” the movie, is unclear now. With so much of its target audience convinced it is presenting a maliciously false version of events, who will see it? It’s not the 2005 of “Brokeback Mountain.” The subject matter of homosexuality is no longer shocking enough to ensure ticket sales. Social-justice warriors may succeed in suppressing the film. But no amount of progressive mythology can change what really happened. Stonewall will always belong to the people who fought there, the vast majority of whom were gay, white men.