Erasing Erasure Project - Stonewall Riots

The Stonewall Riots were undoubtedly one of the most poignant events in the history of LGBTQ+ liberation. The bravery and perseverance of those who fought for their rights during this time period was unprecedented. If modern day life as an LGBTQ+ person seems hard, life in the 1960s was impossible. It was illegal for gay couples to publicly engage in any sort of display of affection. In New York City specifically, people could get arrested if they weren’t wearing at least three items of clothing that was deemed to match their gender. Life as an LGBTQ+ person was strenuous, but they did have sanctuaries to retreat to such as gay clubs and bars. Here, they could express themselves freely and converse without judgement.

One of these bars, called the Stonewall Inn, was a bar bought and advertised as a “straight bar” only to be later renovated and remodeled into a gay bar. This particular bar welcomed homeless LGBTQ+ youth, drag queens, and runaways. Raids were common but no consequences followed as the police were often bribed to keep quiet about the activities taking place within the bar. On June 28th, 1969, there was a raid that caught the entire bar off guard. Police barged in and began to patronize everyone inside. Two of the women inside the bar this night were Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both trans women of color. It is unclear but likely according to many survivors that Johnson was the first to fight back and spark the riot. Essentially what happened that night was the police raided the bar, violently manhandled the people inside, and the crowd decided to fight back.

So here’s the issue: the most impactful and powerful members of this fight are being left out of the picture. Courageous souls such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are glossed over as if they weren’t even in the movement to begin with and are painted over as white cisgender men. It seems obvious that these people should be receiving the credit that they deserve, but that’s not the case for everyone, especially in Hollywood.

In the movie Stonewall directed by Roland Emmerich, the main character is a white and cisgender gay boy named Danny. After the trailer for this movie was released, countless members of the LGBTQ+ community became outraged at the noticeable lack of representation in the movie. Essentially what they were saying was that the movie was too white for what the Stonewall community was actually like. Even some survivors of the riots spoke up. According to Titus Montalvo, a survivor of the riots, about 70% of the crowd at the Stonewall was of color.

The most treasured fighters from this time period were trans people, people of color, etc. This whitewashed and erasure-packed movie completely and unjustly strips the beloved martyrs of this movement of their title and their courage. To essentially erase a trans woman of color, who had to fight 10x as hard as a white cis gay boy and paint him in her place is damaging and painfully disrespectful. They did include a minor character to represent Marsha Johnson, but she was played by a cisgender man which perpetuates the transphobic notion that Marsha was simply a man dressed up as a woman rather than a real woman. The point of dissecting this film is not necessarily to belittle the true pain and ignorance people like the main character had to endure, but rather to analyze the privilege that comes with that experience and how it compares to those less fortunate.

How does this apply to today’s trans population of color? Trans people of color know erasure and discrediting all too well. To them, movies like this make them feel like they just can’t have anything. These people already have to endure battles every single day just for existing, and erasure like this invalidates and simultaneously adds to their struggle. Having to speak up and say “actually, it was my people who won those battles for all of you,” isn’t something they should have to deal with. Additionally, a lot of the white and cis people at the forefront of LGBTQ+ movements are notorious for dissing people of color and trans people, even though those are the people that caused for gay men to even be allowed to show themselves in public. Essentially, the Stonewall Riots erasure is only contributing to the challenges that the people involved have to face nowadays.