Whitewashing Stonewall: A Gay Pride Film Goes Awry

Critics of the historical drama say it excludes the people of color and transgender activists who paved the road to gay rights.
(Photo: Facebook)
Aug 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Initial excitement over the upcoming release of Stonewall has been stymied by the release of its trailer this week, which some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community say excludes the transgender activists and people of color at the heart of the movement for gay rights. Hundreds of critics took to social media to air their concerns about the movie’s apparent exclusion of key figures in the uprising.

The historical drama, made by openly gay director and producer Roland Emmerich, tells the story of the 1969 Stonewall riots, which took place at a bar of the same name in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village that catered to an LGBT crowd. Many gay bars at the time were routinely raided by police, including the Stonewall Inn. One such raid led to an uprising that paved the way for the gay rights movement. In June, the Stonewall Inn was added to New York City’s list of historic landmarks.

In an interview with Vulture, Emmerich did not express concern about the alleged lack of diversity in the film. “I think we represented it very well,” he said. “We have drag queens, lesbians, we have everything in the film, because we wanted to portray a broader image of what ‘gay’ means.”

Emmerich is best known for action and adventure films such as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. In 2006, he donated $150,000 to the LGBT film festival Outfest’s Legacy Project, which is dedicated to the preservation of gay and lesbian movies, according to IMDB.

Actor Jeremy Irvine takes the lead in the film as Danny, a young white man who has been cast out of his Midwestern home for being gay. His costars are Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ron Perlman, both white. Meyers, who is straight, has a strong gay fan base, partially owing to queer roles in movies such as Velvet Goldmine, The Tribe, and B. Monkey.

In Stonewall, Irvine’s character is portrayed as throwing the first brick at the storied building, inciting a riot. But members of the LGBT community argue that this effectively rewrites and whitewashes history.

Sylvia Rivera, a Puerto Rican drag queen, was apparently one of the first to cast a bottle at the building. Yet her character does not appear in the film. During raids, police reportedly lined up bar attendees dressed as women and forced them to reveal their gender. Of course, this practice targeted transgender women—and activists say their resistance and bravery was at the heart of the Stonewall riots.

Rivera, who was 17 at the time of the riots, went on to become one of the most prominent advocates for the transgender community, particularly low-income transgender people of color. Shown here at a 1973 rally for gay rights, Rivera commands the stage, sharing her story as a rowdy crowd cheers her on. “I have been thrown in jail,” she says. “I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment. For gay liberation!”

The online community has called out Emmerich for excluding Rivera from the story. Since the trailer’s release, two online petitions have circulated urging signers to boycott the film. Together, they’ve attracted more than 11,000 signatures. Rivera’s efforts for gay and transgender rights left a prime opportunity for a rich character. To the critics, Stonewall is a missed opportunity.