A Study in Contrasts: Trans Media Representation in Stonewall and Law & Order: SVU

This fall season has been marred for the LGBT community by the premiere of the movie, Stonewall. Directed by openly gay Roland Emmerich, known for his disaster movies such as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, and White House Down, this film has turned into a disaster of another sort. Terrible box office, abysmal online ratings (10% Rotten Tomatoes, for instance), and an almost consensus panning from the LGBT and, particularly, the trans viewing public. At a time of growing cultural and legal acceptance, the need for accurate portrayals of the community, past and present, is all the more necessary, and being increasingly demanded. That the title, Stonewall, represents an iconic moment in LGBT history ratchets up the power of this moment and the missed opportunity.

This has all lead to a very confusing cultural moment where film criticism and historical revisionism are colliding. There are multiple issues at stake - the actual history of the Stonewall uprising, its place in the context of the nascent LGBT movement, the relationship between the trans and gay communities in 1969 and thereafter, the importance of being true to that history in a non-documentary vehicle, responsiveness to the most marginalized gay and trans persons, and also the ability to interest the larger non-LGBT white community in this history. There was no way it was going to end well, though it could have been done in a manner similar to Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, which arguably played a very important, positive role in educating America about the gay community and the AIDS epidemic (which was nearing the breakthrough in drug treatment just two years later). That film, with big-budget stars that drew in the general public, succeeded where this film failed.

I find it interesting that the petition to boycott this film has at least at this time successfully promoted the belief that the Stonewall riot was led by lesbians and trans women of color. The histories do not bear this out, and many of the facts have already dissolved into mythology. Like several colleagues who were also there, including Robin Tyler and Art Leonard, I remember a sea of mostly adolescent young men with a scattering of drag queens/trans women. Robin wrote, in a personal email on September 28:

I saw Stonewall . . . I went to Stonewall the second night [of the uprising] but because I was from Canada and didn't want to be thrown out of the country, I did not participate.

So, it wasn't a great film, but depicted my experience. I was arrested for female impersonation when I first got to NY (at a drag ball) along with 44 men. (I still have the clipping). I got a job at the 82 Club (owned and run by the Mafia) doing Judy Garland (real voice). So I got to know drag queens and (although we didn't have the term) trans butches and women. The impersonators (the majority of whom went in drag and were not taking hormones) did sit with men during intermissions, and many 'dated' guys who picked them up there.

However, what I observed the second night [of the uprising] was that there were some 'gay women', mostly butches, a few people of color, but the absolute majority was gay white men. (Many young.) I talk about all of the above in my one-woman show that I have been doing since 2009.

I am so sorry that people went after Stonewall with such vitriol. Again, it was not a great film artistically, but it reminded me so much of what I had gone through, that I was crying watching it.

I have no idea who threw the first brick/high-heeled shoe/Molotov cocktail, and I don't believe it matters. What matters is the broader history, the incidents that preceded Stonewall (Compton's, Cooper's) and the growing grassroots movement that excluded women of all types in the ensuing three years. Sylvia Rivera, of Puerto Rican descent, in one history admitted she was not there on the first night, but Marsha P. Johnson, an African-American woman, was, and both created the first New York support group, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) shortly thereafter. That's what is most important, the work done against great odds and intense resistance from the gay movement, not who gets credit for being the first or most famous (similar to the attacks by some against Caitlyn Jenner for being white and rich, as if that's a personal flaw of hers or she's personally responsible for inequality in America).

Jenner plays into this discussion in another manner. She has publicized the trans community both here and abroad in a manner like no one else. Her race and ethnicity are irrelevant to her impact, and we all benefit for the newfound awareness many now have of the trans community. Most trans women share the same challenges in our society; women of color clearly have more complex and difficult ones than others. But the impact of Jenner, at least to date, has been salutary for the entire community. Just as Jenner, as an American hero, has had an immense impact on Americans who have never heard of trans people, let alone met one, Emmerich was trying to make a film that not only reflected back who he is but projected a story to the country and world that might actually open some hearts. I don't think he succeeded, but his actions don't deserve the derision many have thrown his way. Maybe the day will come when the risk will be taken to cast a young LGBT person of color in a history of the early movement. One can hope.

I sense that the opposition to this film, indeed the rage, of some queer persons of color, has been greatly colored by the history of the past 46 years. Rivera and Johnson, who identified as "gay" in those days and used the now archaic term, "transvestite," to self-identify, were excluded from a movement that would not tolerate the gender nonconformity of trans and lesbian women, and were not comfortable with women of color. I could even argue that the resistance of the gay community to truly embrace the trans community continues to this day, in spite of the rash of organizational name changes this past year (e.g., National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to LGBTQ Task Force, IGLHRC to OutRight Action International). I certainly felt it during my campaign against a gay man for the Maryland state senate last year, and I believe it plays some part in the resistance of the national leadership to promote the growing acceptance of Title VII coverage for trans workers. HRC lambasted the Pope for meeting with Kim Davis, but never said anything in response to some of the awful comments against trans persons emanating from the Vatican. The Michigan Women's Music Festival railed against trans women to its dying breath, and donor monies are still only trickling to trans-related projects.

Given that history, the rage is understandable. Those of us who are professionally and financially secure can afford to be angry and continue to work within the system, but those who are not have fewer outlets and have to expend much of their energies on survival. Recognizing the trans community's own efforts towards its liberation is critical, and the culture within the LGBT population can be changed for the better by ceasing to cast trans women as sidekicks to the gay leads. We may be the younger sibling in the movement for equal rights, because of our smaller numbers and later start thanks to decades of exclusion, but we're here now and can make the world better not only for ourselves but for the greater LGBT community as well.

In contrast to the Stonewall movie, this week the venerable Dick Wolf franchise, Law and Order: SVU, highlighted the status of trans teens in its 17th season. This serial drama has consistently been ahead of society's curve when it comes to the portrayal of trans persons. Not far ahead, but accurately mirroring the society, with progressive improvement in the language used by its regulars while not shying away from some of the nastiest of the slurs that come from the ignorance and bigotry portrayed by some of the regulars and other characters.

I take issue with my friend, Dawn Ennis', characterization of the program as "All too often in its 17 seasons on television, L&O: SVU has portrayed trans characters as sex workers, crime victims, undesirables and caricatures." When asking a spokeswoman for the program if it will begin to show trans characters in a more sympathetic light, implying they've been doing a poor job of it, the spokeswoman replied:

SVU strives to start a conversation and educate viewers on topics that may not otherwise come to light on television. The show has been telling stories about and with trans characters since its inception -- some storylines that stood out for me were episodes like 'Fallacy' in 2003, where a transgender woman is faced with jail time in a men's prison, 'Identity' in 2005, where questions of 'nature vs. nurture' in a child's gender identity are put to an extreme test, and 'Transitions' in 2009 where two parents have vastly different views on the upbringing of their transgender child.

I agree. I remember those episodes going back at least 12 years. Over the years, fewer trans victims have ended up dead, though that was the ultimate if accidental outcome for the trans teen in this episode, "Transgender Bridge." This episode dealt thoughtfully with the issues surrounding many adolescent trans girls, as well as parsing the meaning of "hate crime," sensitively intersecting with race, and highlighting the significance of codes of masculinity among the young men who commit most of the crimes against trans women. The key to creating a world that no longer hates trans persons to the point of violence is to confront those codes of masculinity which negatively impact all adolescent boys, in one form or another. We owe it to all our children to tackle this problem head-on. This episode was remarkable in the degree of nuance and sensitivity it expressed.

The contrast between Stonewall and SVU couldn't be more stark, but in that contrast lies hope.