Why I'm Stonewalling 'Stonewall'

Stonewall, Roland Emmerich's coming-of-age film about a young gay man from Kansas set amid the Stonewall riots has been bombingat the box office.

I didn't go see it. I also wouldn't watch a movie about the Montgomery bus boycotts that centered on a fictionalized white woman who fictitiously organized them.

What any work of art is centered around -- particularly a major motion picture that tells the story of a major historical event -- is a deeply political choice, and it's time that we started treating it like one. And what's so offensive to me and so many others is that this film feels like a slap in the face to the amazing progress the LGBTQ community -- the entire LGBTQ community -- has made in recent years.

Thankfully, representations of LGBTQ people in media have improved alongside our political and social changes -- the Wills of 1990s TV have given way to the Shanes, Crazy Eyes, and Bos of modern entertainment, showcasing more thoughtful, diverse, and subversive characters.

Stonewall, however, does not follow this trend. In spite of the rich diversity of the activists behind the Stonewall riots, Emmerich chose to center his film on Danny, a fictional white, cisgender, straight-acting gay man, and put the non-white, non-cisgender, and non-male characters in the background of the film.

This was not just a filmic choice; it was a political one. By putting these people in the background of the riots -- even though it was trans women, butch lesbians, and working class people, many of whom were people of color, who made up the majority of those who clashed with police during the riots and organized activist actions immediately following -- Emmerich is engaging in historical revisionism, cheapening their contributions, and fostering the myth that only white, cis males can move our movement forward.

I'm a white, cis, male, and I'm calling bullshit.

In my work on DC marriage equality movement, on family acceptance, on employment non-discrimination, and on supporting LGBTQ asylum-seekers, I was happily but a small part of a constellation of LGBTQ allies and voices, of many races and genders. None of that work would have progressed without our collective efforts. None of us would progress with only white, cis men in the room.

Tragically, this movie will be the first time many people are learning about the Stonewall riots -- and this opportunity to tell our story was wasted on a two-dimensional piece of fluff centering the most privileged, most normative kind of LGBTQ person there is, failing to show the diversity of the movement and failing to center the movie around people who actually were at the heart of these events.

Look, I get it. Movie-making is a business. Audiences respond well (and buy movie tickets) when they recognize something of themselves in characters. That being said, it is both narrow-minded and incredibly cynical to assume that this means that someone like me can only relate to, empathize with, and root for someone who looks exactly like me.

Yes, I am a white, cis, gay man. I live in Washington D.C., one of the "gayest" metropolitan cities in the U.S. And I adored watching the ferocity and vulnerability of trans actor Kiki Kitana Rodriguez in Tangerine. I have spent many a Netflix binge rooting for Lea DeLaria and Laverne Cox as they kill it playing the butchest of butches and an elegant trans femme in Orange is the New Black.

I'd like to quote more examples, but frankly, there aren't enough.

These characters are the farthest thing from white-bread audience surrogate; they're the farthest thing from what used to be considered a safe studio choice. And they're addictively watchable.

Clearly, I don't need to see myself in films to want to watch them. And when "seeing myself" in films does so at the expense of the communities of people who actually shape and move our cause, who face far more oppression that I do, then I don't want to see characters that are stand-ins for me.

There is still a long way to go before our community has full equality, and there is far more work to be done for LGBTQ people with more marginalized lives and experiences. And because media shapes -- as well as reflects -- this marginalization, people working in this media have to do better. That is why a work of art or entertainment is a political choice, and why we must hold our storytellers and entertainers accountable for representing the truth of our community.

I hope Hollywood is listening.

Tragically, this movie will be the first time many people are learning about the Stonewall riots -- and this opportunity to tell our story was wasted on a two-dimensional piece of fluff centering the most privileged, most normative kind of LGBTQ person there is.