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Stonewall and the Politics of Memory

DSC_9900Timothy Stewart-Winter is an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark and the author of Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics, which will be published in January 2016 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. He was interviewed about Stonewall on NPR’s All Things Considered in September. Follow him on Twitter @timothysw.

In the summer of 1969, the word “homosexual” appeared once on the front page of the New York Times: sometime during the last weekend in June, vigilantes in Queens chopped down several dozen trees in a wooded area because they were upset men were cruising there at night. That same weekend, people rioted outside a Greenwich Village gay bar after a police raid—a story the Times covered in a much shorter item on an interior page. Days later, in a digest for the most important gay newsletter between the coasts, Chicago’s William B. Kelley gave the two events equal space: “Riot, Tree-Cutting Mark NYC Gay Scene.”


William B. Kelley’s 1969 article in the Mattachine Midwest Newsletter, July 1969 issue, p. 7. Kelley’s mention of a “citizen overreaction” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the city of Chicago’s official report on the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which alleged that citizens overreacted to police aggression.

No one knew, on the first night of the Stonewall rebellion, that one month later activists would lead a peaceful march on the NYPD’s Sixth Police Precinct, or that the one-year anniversary would see marchers in four U.S. cities proclaiming “gay liberation.” TV networks routinely flew motion-picture footage across the ocean from Vietnam for domestic broadcast, but they sent no cameras downtown to cover Stonewall—not even on the sixth night. No video has surfaced.

But in Roland Emmerich’s movie Stonewall, when a glowing, gauzy dawn breaks after the first night of rioting, a new era in gay history has already begun. The movie fast-forwards to the one-year anniversary. As a result we see almost nothing of the year in which Stonewall in fact became important.

For historians, too much happened later. An unexpected clash between bar patrons and policemen—patrons managed to barricade cops inside the bar—was a political opportunity. New York gay activists grabbed it and ran with it.

Emmerich’s movie about the 1969 uprising against police harassment, the first theatrically-released dramatization in twenty years, is not like “Kinsey” or “Milk”—flawed Hollywood fictionalizations that I can still imagine teaching with.

The strangest thing is that much of it takes place in Indiana. As the movie begins, Danny has been admitted to Columbia University with a scholarship for the fall 1969 semester, but, caught giving the quarterback a blowjob, flees his small-town Midwestern high school mid-spring. While fighting to hold onto his scholarship, he falls in with a gang of homeless but lovable queer youths, led by effeminate Puerto Rican Ray. Danny gets a job at an Italian grocery—to Christopher Street what Mr. Hooper’s store is to Sesame Street—yet faces a moral dilemma when his new friends want him to steal things for them.

As Slate’s Bryan Lowder wrote, the film is “so sloppy in its execution that it’s impossible to attribute any single focused ideological project to it.” Emmerich’s ludicrous plot cartoonishly “includes” people who today we’d call transgender, but the script is filled with clichés and stereotypes. Ray teaches Danny how to be gay, and falls in love with him. Danny teaches Ray that (a) he can aspire to make something of himself and (b) he cannot have Danny. In the movie’s world, only chiseled white male faces and bodies are desirable.

On social media sites, users organized boycotts against the film. This Instagram photo was captioned:"Stonewall!!! Transgender Women of Color started the Stonewall Riot! No movie will ever erase the truth about the history of the LGBT rights movement. "

On social media sites, users organized boycotts against the film. This Instagram photo, in which Marsha P. Johnson appears to the left, was captioned: “Stonewall!!! Transgender Women of Color started the Stonewall Riot! No movie will ever erase the truth about the history of the LGBT rights movement.”

From the moment the film’s trailer was released, LGBT activists objected to its depiction of a white, masculine, conventionally attractive teenager named Danny Winters throwing the first brick that sparks the rioting. After seeing the trailer, with Danny’s brick-in-hand moment, an 18-year-old transgender community college student in California, Juniper Cordova-Goff, started a boycott petition.

Cordova-Goff transformed the movie’s critical reception. The film is, in fact, not respectful. Emmerich didn’t help himself when he told an interviewer that he deliberately chose to cast a white male protagonist so moviegoers could identify with him.

Stonewall was not the first time gay and transgender Americans fought back against the police. But it did spark a new phase in the post–World War II gay movement. Its significance lies largely in how people chose to commemorate it after the fact. In the second half of 1969, radicalized gay activists newly stressed disclosing one’s gayness to nongay people. More of them than ever before went above ground.

We know the bar patrons barricaded the police inside the bar. Emmerich gets that right.

But Emmerich’s “Stonewall” is in one respect unforgivable: there are exactly two bricks thrown, as Jason Jackson, an activist in Chicago and a friend of mine, pointed out: “Danny was the first person to throw the brick, inciting the riot—but the first person to throw a brick in the film was Cong, the flamboyant black character.” He’s right: early in the movie, Cong sees a hat in a store window, decides he wants it, picks up a brick, and smashes the window in broad daylight to steal the hat. “I always take what I want,” Cong says.

Cong later hands Danny the fateful brick. As Jackson puts it, “Message: black people riot to take things. White people riot to gain justice.”

That a white Ivy League student teaches a black street kid how to resist police brutality is the most offensive aspect of Emmerich’s movie.

We do not know who threw the first brick, coin, or bottle. Contemporary accounts suggest that many of those who fought the police first, and hardest, were young gay runaways or teenagers without permanent homes. Dick Leitsch, of the New York Mattachine Society, wrote in his group’s September 1969 newsletter that “those usually put down as ‘sissies’ or ‘swishes’ showed the most courage and sense during the action. Their bravery and daring saved many people from being hurt, and their sense of humor and ‘camp’ helped keep the crowds from getting too nasty or violent.”

These were effeminate young men who wore makeup some or all of the time. They turned tricks. They were vulnerable to violence and harassment. They were known as “street queens,” the journalist David Carter notes.

There were important black and Puerto Rican activists, present on the early nights, who played key roles later in fanning the flames and radicalizing the movement. Theirs are important stories to tell. Happy Birthday Marsha, a fictionalization now in post-production, centered on Marsha P. Johnson—a black trans woman who cofounded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries—will tell such a story, and many expect it to be more entertaining and accurate than Emmerich’s film.

A counternarrative says black and Latino drag queens “started” Stonewall. It’s appealing in the face of Hollywood whitewashing, but in the urban North gay nightlife was only slightly less racially segregated than nongay nightlife. The Village scene, and the Stonewall Inn’s clientele, were predominantly white. All we have are likelihoods cross-checked with oral histories. No hard facts. That documentary scarcity is part of doing queer history.

Perhaps a chiseled, corn-fed Ivy League youth threw the first brick. Ultimately, who threw the first brick is the wrong question. We will never know many things about Stonewall, especially the things Emmerich focuses on. With so little gay political history yet written, we misremember exceptional events in New York and San Francisco as having national significance that they did not have.

Stonewall Inn historical marker (1)

Author’s photo of the historical marker outside of the Stonewall Inn.

Danny doesn’t go for effeminate guys, but he falls hard for Trevor, a Mattachine Society activist from a rich family—little realizing that his “politics” is all talk, and that Trevor is also cheating on him.

Trevor is a ridiculous caricature, and he epitomizes Emmerich’s cruel depiction of pre-Stonewall gay activists, who called themselves homophile activists. They were a tiny but courageous band. In the movie, the homophiles got everything wrong, the gay libbers got everything right, and Danny’s moment of courage is the changing of the guard.

Yes, the homophiles were eclipsed after Stonewall by more radical voices. But the homophile movement was moving toward greater militancy even before Stonewall.

Emmerich reproduces instead of historicizing the gay liberationists’ assertion that they had ushered in a new era. He’s far from the only one to paint this picture, but the movie gives this dynamic Manichean proportions.

In Stonewall, Danny briefly encounters the legendary homophile activist Frank Kameny, who says, “Wearing a suit and tie will make them realize we’re just like them. That’s how we win.”

It’s true Kameny thought gay activists should dress respectably at public protests. He also thought everyone should come out, even though they might lose their job or their military career or their government appointment. He himself paid that price. In July 1968 he wrote to a group of Midwestern activists, “The closet is getting stuffy! Open the door and come out into the full daylight. The fresh air and the sunshine are wonderful. I know. I’ve tried it. I would never go back into concealment.”[1]

Emmerich’s perspective is so foreshortened that Kameny can only be a dinosaur. Totally missing are cross-cutting figures like Martha Shelley, who was a leader in the homophile Daughters of Bilitis but then helped create the Gay Liberation Front.

Post-Stonewall, gay politics expanded outward. In 1973, Jeanne Sobelson Manford, a Queens-born schoolteacher, founded Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays after marching in the New York pride parade with her gay son Morty, who later died too young from AIDS. (Where is the biopic about them?) Excellent monographs by Heather Murray and Daniel Rivers trace how in the 1970s gays’ relationship to, respectively, their parents and their children, shifted.

For Emmerich, post-Stonewall mobilization means Danny persuading his mother to sign the paperwork to let him keep his Columbia scholarship. After his freshman year, he comes back downtown, where Ray and company welcome him. Danny’s mother and sister travel to New York to join him in the first pride parade. It is Emmerich’s final absurdity: the only people whose political awakening after Stonewall is depicted with any nuance are nongay and in Indiana.

[1] Franklin E. Kameny to Mattachine Midwest, July 3, 1968, box 77, folder 6, Franklin E. Kameny Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.