There is a lot of dismay and anger over the new film Stonewall. The reasons are many but they center on the appropriation of the story of that pivotal night and the ways in which Hollywood deforms truth for commercial ends. Many are furious to see the tale told from the viewpoint of a white suburban male, and that the telling of a riot initiated by transgender women of color now sees them shunted aside, while the history, and the honor, is colonized by gay white men.
In short: Truth is sanitized -- revised to comport with a preset idea of how it was Way Back When. It's the same process by which the 60s are extolled as an era of "peace love and flowers." The 60s did, indeed, have an aspect of that ideal. (I saw it. I was there.) But the Summer of Love in 1967 was brief. More to the point, it was a decade in which leaders were gunned down, (e.g., JFK, MLK and RFK), and where heads were busted by cops and hardhats. Yet as imagined through the rosy lens of hindsight, platitudes trump the hard-nosed reality of an era when a nation was being torn apart by a second civil war.
As an activist/writer, I'm familiar with the wrath of revisionists upset at seeing their cozy assumptions punctured. And it makes sense: careers are built on 'owning' a socially approved angle on a profitable commodity, such as being a 60s radical, or vanguard 70s "gay activist." But the actuality of such eras is far different from reductionist simplicities and certainties translated into easy generalizations.
Years ago, I published a memoir about my life in radical "gay lib" culture. It was hailed as a fascinating, no-holds barred tale of the 70s -- the highs and lows of a gorgeous, luminous time. But while it was a journey into an unusual underground scene which, at its best, was shining and radiant, and which inspired Harvey Milk, there was, also, an ugly underbelly of drug addiction, manipulation, sordid and psychotic depravity, running in tandem with the visionary beauty.
Perhaps there's always light in striking contrast to dark? I don't know. I do know that a few pc thought police were outraged that I'd suggested the cosmic force of gay light was infested with, and ultimately demolished by, centrifugal and progressive damage as the 70s spun across the threshold of AIDS fueled by age, penury, the burdens of addiction and trying to sustain a dream while living a marginal existence.
A porno critic (?!?) savaged my book. So did a self-anointed cultural critic who lived in SF until 1976, but never joined the 'radical gay lib movement.' Having been a bystander when it counted, he now shared his outrage.... in an anonymous review.
My point isn't that people with no first-hand knowledge present themselves as well-informed. My point is that history requires honest accounting of what made an era great, as well as the human failings (or mounting pressures), which combine to make it brief. The undertow and turmoil are as relevant as that which propels a revolutionary movement into self-actualization.
The film, Stonewall panders to those who want history sanitized and don't mind shunting aside challenging realities for the Pablum of easily-digested maxims. The loss is that any such view erases complex and thought-provoking paradoxes of how marginalized outsiders work through their demons as they progress towards maturity. But ignoring that fidelity to how things actually are, and exalting the mundane, robs any recounting or film of its chance at validity or greatness.
The trajectory of LGBT history was neither smooth nor easy. And those in the vanguard were often troubled. But how could it be otherwise for people brought up to be self-hating and called 'sick?' Correcting that lie took years of effort by heroes, such as Frank Kameny. But one hallmark of wholeness is in the courage to face the diverse, contradictory and, sometimes, self-canceling aspects of our Past. That is how we grow. And evolve.
As for Stonewall -- the event -- we now know that gay white men didn't assert a leading role; it was transgender women of color like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. As such, the effort to evade that fact not only deprives the film of accuracy, it repeats the damage inflicted by a culture, which wants history presented in bite-sized pieces instead of the often wrenching, painful and contradictory ways in which Life actually occurred. But value and integrity require facing facts as they are, not in how we'd like them to be to promote facile group-think.
Or so say I.