Whitewashing Stonewall: Why I’m Not Optimistic

If you’ve taken our Basic Stonewall Quiz, you’ll know all there is to know about the Stonewall riots that are regularly cited as the catalyst of all the progress we’ve made today. You’ll also know about the predominantly poor gender non-conforming majority of color being at the center of that. You’ll also know that leadership came in the form of Marhsa P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. That being said…

Why is #Stonewall being portrayed as having been led and sparked by a white cis man? Click To Tweet

The history of the Stonewall riots and the narrative surrounding Stonewall (if the trailer and heresay are to be believed) are being whitewashed in an upcoming film. I’d like to think that perhaps the director is purposefully focusing the trailer on the white cis male character as a way to draw in mainstream audiences before doing some sort of switch and bait a la Orange is the New Black. To use the standpoint of whiteness as a conduit into a world of rich and nuanced experiences typically ignored in media.

But honestly, I don’t feel the film will be this clever switcheroo. I have a sinking feeling that this will be another film that helps revise and whitewash a landmark event wherein people of color (specifically gender nonconforming [GNC] and trans Latinx and Black women) are erased to make way for a shiny white guy who’ll be lauded as the icon of a movement in their place and “groundbreaking and brave” come Oscar season. I feel that it will also cis-ify the history, considering the protagonist is a man whereas the historical heroes were not.

In this piece, I’ll provide the reasoning for my dwindling optimism. Afterward, I’ll talk about the consequences of revisionist cultural propaganda.

“Yo, you wanna see what the underside of a bus looks like? Allow me!” says the privileged

Queer liberation has been taken over by white assimilationist ideals, so much so that gay itself is synonymous with “white cisgender man.” As we’ve already discussed, the “Gay liberation” of the past was much more gender nonconforming, much more diverse, and much less identified with the monied classes. To illustrate the point (emphasis mine):

Street Trans Action Revolutionaries (STAR) was founded as a caucus within Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1971 to put forth trans demands in the gay liberation movement. The co-founder of STAR, Sylvia Rivera, was a Puerto Rican trans woman who led the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969 along with other trans of color. Yet gradually, the gay liberation movement was co-opted by white middle-class  folks who are gender-conforming and became conservative. Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), a New York based gay rights group was founded by ex-members of GLF who did not appreciate its radicalism and wanted to form a single-issued organization that only focused on reformist gay rights. GAA’s conservatism and transphobia showed when they dropped the trans demands while advocating citywide anti-discrimination rights in the 70s. They saw actions put on by STAR and Sylvia Rivera as too “dangerous,” “crazy,” and “extreme.

~Unity & Struggle

For a movement that focused on issues of human dignity including freedom from harrassment, homelessness, unemployment, etc. to be mobilized into one that is based on assimilation into mainstream hetero-value culture, the whitewashing and cisifying of the film is a slap in the face.

stonewall uprising,

There is a reason that many low-income queer people and queer folks of color (who make up a large portion of the low income queer population) stand by the belief that marriage equality is a white gay issue or a rich gay issue: Their basic needs aren’t being met or fought for on the level that the mainstream LGBT movements ought to have fought for them.

Can you imagine?

We’re being brutalized! Well stop provoking the police and communities you live in by being alive–MARRIAGE.

We’re being fired because of our identities! Well maybe try to be more straight-acting?–MARRIAGE.

We’re being evicted for no reason! Well perhaps you should look into home ownership in a community you can’t afford where you’ll be harrassed in different ways–MARRIAGE.

We’re being killed! Maybe stop being so susceptible to bullets and living near bullet-ladden places–MARRIAGE.

When queer people are targeted by various government policy, a social climate of gay panic[CW], and a society that believes it has a right to trans terror[CW], those with the means to do so have shown that they will align with the side of power–the status quo.

Example: If you want to start a business and you can secure bank cooperation due to color and gender despite “being a disgrace to the family name” for your gayness, while you might be oppressed, you are still able to access privilege. And when you restrict who that business caters to and associates with (ex: barring “obvious queers”, “low class queers”, etc.), you’re participating in oppression. In fact, James Baldwin said in an interview:

I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly…Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to their sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society.

In this context, queers of means have navigated oppression (and perpetuate it) by distancing themselves from the real problem people while wearing faces that say “I’m just like you” to power while passing, assimilating, and stabbing solidarity in the back while propping it up for support from the very people they seem to despise given their actions.

So I’ll say it clearly for the folks in the back:

Gay liberation was hijacked by people who could afford to withstand legal and social sanctions. Click To Tweet

And this film looks like an effort to go back and legitimize the hijacking by re-framing history. While I want to be optimistic, I don’t have enough reason to believe the privileged will leave their station.

For further understanding, here is Janet Mock oh so elequently slaying the topic as she is prone to doing:

.@JanetMock on the #Stonewall revision, slaying as she is prone to do. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaFx-YmJ5ik Click To Tweet

Sage Nenyue

Sage is a twenty-something Millennial who lives with his partner and two cats in Recife, Brazil. He graduated with a Bachelor's in Communication Studies (Media Studies) from The College of Wooster and now teaches English to some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet.