Whitewashing History with Stonewall

Thousands of members and allies of the trans community are up in arms, and for good reason. German director Roland Emmerich, most well known for his apocalyptic movies like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, has made his biggest disaster movie yet.

The trailer for the upcoming movie Stonewall was released a few days ago, and with it came a blatant disregard for historical accuracy. For those who don’t know, the Stonewall riots are considered the catalyst in the struggle for gay rights when one of New York's more accepting gay bars, the Stonewall Inn, was unjustly raided by police in the early morning of June 27, 1969, sparking a series of violent demonstrations standing up against what happened.


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It is generally agreed upon by eyewitnesses that the riots were instigated by none other than Sylvia Rivera, a Latina trans woman, and Marsha P. Johnson, an African-American trans woman. Unfortuntately, these women of color are mere backup characters barely to whom Emmerich’s whitewashing of Stonewall pays lip service, rather than being the leading ladies that they were.

In the trailer, you see that the story focuses on a white gay man from middle-class America who comes to New York and, aided by a person of color who he ultimately rejects, discovers within himself the strength to fight against social injustice.

Trans activist Pat Cordova-Goff started a petition campaigning for a boycott of Stonewall, which has grown from 1,500 to over 11,000 signatures overnight with no signs of slowing down.

This comes partly as a response to continued lack of inclusion of trans people in their rightful place over the past few decades. Despite Rivera’s and Johnson’s heroic roles in the Stonewall riots, their status as trans women of color made it difficult for them to be accepted by the larger gay community, an issue that persists to this day, as you can see by the choices made for Stonewall.

New York based-trans activist Elizabeth Marie Rivera explains why there is resistance to giving credit where it is due. “It was already hard for the gay community to be acknowledged by society, so having two individuals like Marsha and Sylvia at the forefront would present challenges,” she tells SF Weekly.  

But 45 years later that mindset doesn’t justify the continued exclusion of trans people from accurate portrayals of history.

“Eleven trans people have already been murdered in the U.S. so far this year,” Rivera said. “People are committing suicide, taking their own lives because they don’t feel accepted and don’t feel supported by their friends, family, and community. So when things like this movie come out, what are you telling that young trans person?”

We reached out to Roland Emmerich for comment, and he though he did not respond to me directly, he had this to say to people who took issue with his portrayal of the riots:

But he misses the point. By portraying Stonewall as he has, Emmerich is conscientiously choosing to ignore the role of trans people in the fight for civil rights.

A friend of mine, Lawrence, who is a vocal activist for trans rights, explains the crux of the problem: “The trans women and drag queens who began the Stonewall riots fought first because they were most at risk for arrest and abuse at the hands of the police (relative to cis gay men present that night). This was especially true for people of color. So this movie doesn't just erase the role and importance of Sylvia and Marsha, it also erases the unequal distribution of risk of violence with which the speed of their resistance correlated.”

Rivera assured me the trans community will not back down on this issue: “This is our narrative, our history that’s being erased. We aren’t going to be silent. My last name is Rivera, and I’ll be damned if I allow people to forget Sylvia Rivera.”

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