In a recent interview, director Roland Emmerich attempted to explain his baffling decision to make the protagonist of his much-maligned new film, "Stonewall," a fictional twinky corn-fed white cis gay man instead of one of the many non-white transgender people, genderqueer individuals, drag queens, butch dykes and sissy men present at the iconic riots credited with birthing the modern queer rights movement.
"As a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I'm white and gay," Emmerich told Buzzfeed in what qualifies as one of the most ahistorical, culturally tone-deaf and narcissistic soundbites printed in recent memory. But, sadly, that wasn't even the most ridiculous or troubling part of the interview.
"You have to understand one thing: I didn't make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people," he said. "I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny, the lead character] is a very easy in. Danny's very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him."
:: Shudder ::
As if hearing about Emmerich's inspiration for completely rewriting queer history and erasing the contributions of those who are already erased too often in order to be able to place and view himself in his own movie wasn't bad enough, now we learn he was concerned with making "Stonewall" palatable for straight people. And to make that happen, he apparently thought he had to create a "straight-acting" lead character.
The fact that Emmerich can earnestly trot out the term "straight-acting" (he apparently used it in the production notes for the film, too) with a straight (no pun intended) face (and without spontaneously vomiting up his Fruit Loops) means he's either luxuriously ignorant... or he's just an asshole.
Being "straight-acting," for a gay man at least, is directly related to how convincingly he is able to present traditionally masculine mannerisms. The term is so markedly offensive because its very existence insists that there is a particular, instantly identifiable manner of being gay (defined by effeminacy). And what's more, those qualities are seen as patently unattractive, undesirable and wildly dangerous. Conversely, it then follows that there simultaneously exists a particular, instantly recognizable manner of being straight (defined by "masculinity"). And what's more, those qualities are seen as incredibly attractive, desirable and wholly advantageous -- enough so that gay people would try to "act" in that way.
And there is a long history of straights attempting to straight-ify queer people (and of us trying to do it to ourselves). The performance of straightness is something that gay men have struggled with and against for as long as modern gay identities have existed. Because being gay has been so intimately connected with being effeminate, which was -- and still is -- equated with being submissive, weak and ineffectual. Gay men have been shamed (and attacked and murdered) for any display that does not reverberate with and reflect what our culture has determined is sufficiently masculine. Therefore many gay men have longed for and looked for any means by which they can throw off (or at least hide) the curse of even the slightest hint of effeminacy and thereby be welcomed into straight society or at least fly far enough under the radar to remain relatively unharmed.
I should know -- I was one of them.
I spent most of my young adult life trying to butch myself up. And it worked to some degree: I'm nowhere near the sissy I was when I was growing up. My deliberate metamorphosis was a survival mechanism. I survived. But I still mourn the little faggot inside of me who pretended to be Jem and secretly draped long-sleeved shirts over his head so he could live the dream of having mermaid hair for a few minutes at a time. I miss him. And I wonder what incredible things I've missed out on -- and who I could have been today -- because I euthanized him twenty years ago. But I also wonder if I would still be here -- if I would still be alive -- if I hadn't.
The bottom line is that we shouldn't have to choose between living as exactly who we are and death (figuratively or literally) because our society says in order for us to be worthy and valuable we have to "act straight." Too many queers have bought into this lie for much too long.
And we certainly shouldn't be sold out by our own kind, no matter how good their intentions may be. We haven't fought as hard as we have to ensure that once queers like Emmerich were able to get into positions of power and influence they could turn around and bleach our history while pandering to the very people who oppressed us.
By claiming that in order for straight people to like us or understand us, we need to be like them in very specific, stereotypical ways (or that if we are like them we must be "acting") Emmerich and anyone else who uses the term "straight-acting" -- including the legions of men on hook-up apps whose profiles read "Masc 4 Masc" and "Str8 acting only" -- is affirming all of the lies about who we are (and who we aren't) that we've been raging against for as long as we have been a "we." In fact, isn't this what the heroes of Stonewall were ultimately battling? Didn't they finally say "enough" to the constant tormenting they faced for being different from what society expected and demanded of them? And how stupendously offensive to take the story of these brave warriors and attempt to repackage it so that straight people can find a way to comfortably stomach our rebellion.
It's time we stop using "straight-acting" as some kind of dreamy, aspirational bridge-building tactic or lure. There are all kinds of different ways to be gay and straight (and everything in between or outside of that binary). And while we're at it, how about we just stop trying to act like straight people all together and start acting like exactly who we are? And let's get some sissies up on the big screen. And let's get some more trans people in the spotlight. And let's remember that our community is not comprised of only gay white cis men. Let's tell our stories to each other and anyone else who will listen. And if they won't listen, fuck 'em. If they'll only take us seriously (or won't jail or oppress or exterminate us) if we look and sound exactly like them, fuck them. Seriously! We'll just keep telling our stories over and over again until we all know them by heart and they're so loud and powerful and yes, of course, awful and painful and tragic in parts, but finally so beautiful and true that when we're finally heard -- and we will be heard -- they'll know exactly who we are, what we have been through and why it matters.
There are enough bad guys out there making it hard for us, Roland, without you joining their ranks. There are enough assholes telling us that we aren't butch enough or white enough or safe enough or relatable enough, Roland, without you adding fuel to their already handsomely blazing fire. "Stonewall" is a mess -- but this isn't over: There's still time to ensure this becomes an invaluable lesson for anyone watching now or one hundred years from now. The sooner you -- and all of us -- stop acting and start being honest about who we are and what we've achieved, the sooner we'll no longer feel the need to make the hideous concessions and compromises we're told we need to make to be like everybody else because we'll no longer want to be like anybody else but ourselves.
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