Queers on Media, our new monthly segment, will explore LGBTQ+ representation in all forms of media. Whether focusing on a single aspect of our various platforms of media or a large array of items throughout the month, each post will be written by a staff member(s) from a queer perspective. Our first post is on the trailer of the new Stonewall movie, directed by Roland Emmerich.
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by robert esposito, prose reader
Because there’s always a catch. Because the contemporary queer community has learned to taint hope with quiet apprehension, waiting for the fault line to appear. Maybe, as some in the queer community might be able to believe, it is a step in the right direction. Queer history branded proudly on the most widely absorbed medium there is, when before the only mention of queer struggles had been restricted to cult movies and high school teachers red-facedly outlining the AIDS crisis. Here is an entire movie devoted to the LGBTQ+ struggle.
The catch? Two minutes and twenty-two seconds of classic white-washing, transgender erasure, a continuation of queer resignation.
Allen Ginsberg: “You know, the guys there were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”
These riots were the start of pride, a completely new self-perception on being queer. They were the beginning of lividness and chanting in lieu of constant embarrassment and ache. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman of color, instigated the eruption. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman of color, threw the first brick of the Stonewall riots and the LGBTAQ+ revolution. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman of color, was the catalyst. And yes, they assure us, Martha P. Johnson is honored – somewhere – in this film. As The Mary Sue points out, one small problem; she is “played by a [cisgender] male actor.”
John Robin Baitz, the screenwriter, blames the white-washing of the trailer on the marketing department. After all, their job is to target the film at large majorities of the population, to make everything as uncontroversial and safe as possible so that the movie can become a casual late-night family outing, not the necessary symbol for the queer community it could have been. Baitz also claims Emmerich is paying for this film out of pocket, that even “studios he has made a great deal of money for” would not support his perilous venture into queer territory.
So here comes lord, savior and director Emmerich, fighting through the financial schisms of the movie world to bring you Stonewall. A white-washed main character, surrounded by his loyal extras, people of color and drag queens neatly relegated to the sidelines, the footnotes, the part of history we do not want big-screened. Baitz explains, “It is not the definitive story of the revolution; that film has yet to be made.” But even if Stonewall never claimed to be a realistic portrayal of the Stonewall events, if you brand yourself with the name, you must see the necessity of creating an honest, documentary-esque film before you wander off into fictionalized territory.
Their excuses are predictable. The obvious PR claim of “it’s art, it’s interpretation. We’re a lit mag, so I can see pretty eye-to-eye with the sentiment. But if you name your movie Stonewall, those without any prior knowledge of the events seeing this film will obviously treat this as the true representation of the Stonewall riots. So cut the crap. Playing the art card is reasonable when you are not toying with the world’s perceptions of very real people, transgender people of color who you are trying to turn into supporting characters to yet another white savior instead of giving them the honor they deserve. You’re not Bieber apologizing for pissing off a skyscraper. Why give us this show of an apology, when you can’t even answer opposition with a straight face? As you say, “I go cold in the presence of finger pointing.” Oh Baitz. Oh bae.
Furthermore, Emmerich assures us that this film “deeply honors the real-life activists who were there – ” namely Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Ray Castro. But my question is, if you are paying for it all, if you make it so apparent that you’re straining your pockets to fight for the queer community, why not keep the “real-life” activists in the focal point? Why create fiction before the truth? As Huff-Post says, why place a Western white cisgender gay man at the center of the story when you had all the opportunity to make this movie into something Hollywood could never touch? Is the story of the female dark-skinned heroines not enough fire for you? Not enough blood and shame and hurt? Perhaps it is too dangerous to cross into territory that is still burning bright with pain and violence, with a new face on the news each day – Lamia Beard, Taja DeJesus, Penny Proud, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne. A fictional movie needs a clean conclusion, and focusing on the ongoing struggles of the queer community would just be too messy.
Or perhaps Jeremy Irvine, the lead actor (white, cisgender, straight), was simply vastly superior to all his competition. “I always actually work with the best actors,” Emmerich claims in an interview. Does Irvine really revolutionize the boy-meets-world story arc in a way that a transgender person could not have? In a way that a person of color could not have? We are not asking for anything beyond accuracy and representation. Although white, gay, cisgender men played roles in the campaign for queer rights, their fight overshadows their non-white, non-gay, non-cisgender counterparts, and the former’s stories have been told in every way already. The latter’s stories must be told more frequently, more accurately. Is the protagonist’s whiteness that important to his role?
For those who tell us not to judge the film by a trailer, I will say this. In that very trailer, it states, “Inspired by the incredibly true story of the unsung heroes whose courage broke down walls.” Inspired by the true story, let us bring you this fictionalized, white-washed, white-man’s fantasy reel of one of the most important movements in LGBTQ+ history. Let us ignore our siblings still fighting for the freedom to express their gender properly. Let us show you yet another movie about white men fighting for love, white men forgetting the female people of color who led the tides. The queer rights movement is not about love – it is about violence in the middle of the night without repercussion; it is about violence in broad daylight without consequence; it is about hospitals not treating queer patients with AIDS; it is about a 40% queer, homeless population; it is about fighting hatred and inequality and death. It is not about love.
Pat Cordova-Goff, who is leading the boycott against the movie (https://unite.gsanetwork.org/petitions/boycott-2015-stonewall-movie), writes: “It is time that black and brown transwomyn and drag queens are recognized for their efforts in the riots throughout the nation. From the preview alone, we know that will not happen.”
I am praying that she is wrong. I am praying that this trailer is not indicative of the real movie. I am praying that these scenes were indeed taken out of context, though the premise of a fictionalized version of Stonewall remains troublesome, to say the least.
But most of all, I am praying that someday, transgender people of color will be able to make money up on the screen. Baitz blames the marketing department, as if this is not a problem in and of itself. Apparently transgender people of color are unsafe for features, a casualty to a movie’s profits. Maybe the trailer is not indicative of the movie, but what is undeniable is that the trailer is indicative that transgender people of color may not be outright silenced by batons and riot shields, but instead are oppressed by money, desire, erasure, and blindness.
Stonewall is yet another white may saying, “It wasn’t me.” Another white man saying, “We understand your fight, but we struggle too.” Or, as Emmerich says so poetically, “We are all the same in our struggle for acceptance.” If that were ever true.