The Stakes of Stonewall

Jonny Beauchamp as Ray/Ramona in Stonewall.

Photo by Philippe Bosse. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

The historical moment we call “Stonewall”—a series of grass-roots protests with complex motivations and diverse participants that took place in and around a divey Manhattan fag bar during the summer of 1969—has always been something of a Rorschach test: We see in it what we need to see.

Even my use of the word protest betrays a personal bias; other equally valid words—riot, rebellion, disturbance, uprising, vandalism—each cast a different hue on the events of those nights. And there are other subjective choices to be made. I have long chosen, for example, to invest in the interpretation of Stonewall that attributes a significant part of the don’t fuck with us energy of the first night to Judy Garland’s public spectacle of a funeral, which had occurred earlier that day on the Upper East Side. Why? Because I want to believe in a gay politics that springs from gay culture, from the don’t fuck with me divas and weaponized camp sensibility that were so important to those I claim as my ancestors. I don’t particularly care if that view is “accurate.” (My self-conception as a gay man depends on it.) Others may see Stonewall as an unsurprising extension of the other ’60s revolutions or as an unsettling betrayal of the homophile integrationist impulse. The point is that we all, whether we intend to or not, decide for ourselves what a thing like Stonewall means—that’s just the nature of encountering history.

Of course, the meanings we impose on history are usually considered in private or discussed among friends. It’s only when some foolhardy soul attempts to represent his view of history in art that we bring our meanings to the public square—and there we often find that they do not necessarily get along. So it goes with Stonewall, Roland Emmerich’s feature-length attempt at recounting the story, which, in a bit of poetic symmetry, is currently being trashed about as fiercely as its namesake bar was in real life.

Jeremy Irvine as Danny.

Photo by Philippe Bosse. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Stonewall’s narrative follows Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine), a handsome white fella from Indiana who, after being caught sucking off the high school quarterback, must decamp for New York a few months earlier than his admission to Columbia University requires. Stepping off the bus into the queer wonderland of Christopher Street, Danny quickly falls in with a group of queer homeless folks who make a living shoplifting and turning tricks. Their brashness and relative comfort with gender play—Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp) and Cong (Vladimir Alexis) are unapologetically femme and regularly go out in drag—initially frightens innocent Danny, but soon his lack of city survival skills and a growing political consciousness draw him into a sort of sisterhood with the crew. The rest of the film lurches toward a condensed version of the protest itself, with detours along the way into the familiar respectability vs. radical action debate (embodied in Trevor, a political organizer played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a ginned up B-plot involving a sex trafficking mobster based on Ed “Skull” Murphy, and a grating (if not entirely outlandish) unrequited love dance between Ray/Ramona and Danny. After the rioting has subsided and the next-day leafleting begun, there’s a coda in which Danny returns home presumably in search of some kind of closure, only to find himself trapped in a mash-up ad for Country Time Lemonade and J. Crew. Cut to footage of the first Pride parade, Danny’s mom beaming and nodding absurdly from the sidewalk; cue the requisite historical “real people” title cards; roll credits.  

To be sure, much of the criticism, if not some of the more hysterical vitriol, is deserved: Stonewall is a bad movie. The set-design is weirdly plastic, the pacing and emotional logic often nonsensical, and the acting, save for Beauchamp’s affecting portrayal of Ray/Ramona, is on the level of an underfunded high school musical. (Irvine’s Danny, whose inclusion has drawn the most hate, often feels like he stumbled over from a Glee taping and forgot that every emotion need not be stamped on his anguished—but always pretty!—face.)

Accusations of biased or inaccurate representation—which have hounded the movie since its first trailer suggested a film about a fictional white, cisgender person rather than one focused on a number of gender-variant people of color, like Marsha P. Johnson, who were known to have been present at the riots—are more complicated to parse. The actual film is not really the atrocity of “whitewashing” many feared, and it’s actually pretty solid on many historical details—any reviewer dismissing it out of hand as “offensive” is being willfully ungenerous. There are plenty of moments in which Danny’s privileged naiveté is called out, and Ray/Ramona is arguably the film’s most heroic and appealing character. That said, Stonewall is certainly … uneven … with regard to the message it wants to convey—which goes a long way toward explaining why we find it so vexing.

Take, for instance, the (historically dubious) question of who “started” the riots: Yes, white dude Danny throws the overly fetishized “first brick” in a dumb action movie scene, but you could equally argue that it’s a butch dyke’s arrest or Marsha P. Johnson’s verbal jabs at the police that really gets the crowd roiling. And while the movie is refreshingly unapologetic about the femmeness of most of its characters (mascbros Danny and Trevor seem like anxious outliers in comparison), there’s also a scene where Danny sobs while an overweight old queen in bad drag, having paid for the privilege, attempts to service him. Does that make the whole film femme-phobic, or for that matter, fat-shaming or anti-sex work? And what about the relationship between Danny and Ray/Ramona? Is Danny really a “white savior,” as some have argued, because he holds her after a beating at the hands of a john? Is Ray/Ramona “problematic” because she dreams of playing house with a strapping man like Danny? (If femme gays aren’t allowed to want butch boys anymore, we’d better alert the community listserv—it’s still very much a thing.) Is it possible that they “save” each other in different ways?

I’m not necessarily endorsing any of these interpretations. I just want to point out that they and many others are possible when examining Stonewall, a document so sloppy in its execution that it’s impossible to attribute any single focused ideological project to it. One critic sees Stonewall as an endorsement of masculine gayness at the expense of swishy femmes. Meanwhile, a closeted teen living in a less-than-enlightened part of the country sees a gender-queer person portrayed as legitimate for the first time in his life, and his sense of the possibilities of self-expression grows three sizes. Both reactions are valid. Of course, real life is also sloppy, and its events may be read in a variety of ways, depending on your investments. I see Stonewall as a powerful moment when gay culture generated a new sort of gay politics; another person sees it as a point when proto-trans people of color launched a movement only to have it stolen from them by white gay men soon thereafter. Again, both readings are legitimate, to a degree—but that doesn’t mean they coexist peacefully.

This is particularly true of Emmerich’s own view of Stonewall (which, naturally, is part—though only part—of Stonewall’s messy makeup). The director—who really should stop talking to the press—has said that he was particularly interested in bringing attention to homeless LGBTQ youth, and that’s clearly a part of the movie. But you get the feeling that, deep down, what he really sees in the riots is a narrative of maturation, an upward progression in which downtrodden, furtive souls finally find the courage to come into the light and reform themselves into a serious, self-respecting political force. (In that context, Danny becomes not so much an ahistorical “savior” as a backward projection of the healthy, respectable sort of queerness Emmerich thinks the community should be striving for.) This, of course, is yet another possible reading of Stonewall, but it’s also basically the worst—or certainly most controversial—one that Emmerich could have espoused right now.

Speaking with the New York Times about the trailer controversy, University of Arizona professor Susan Stryker offered an extremely productive insight: “Fighting over Stonewall history is a proxy battle for more entrenched structural conflicts [between LGBTQ identity groups].” One of the most heated of those “entrenched structural conflicts” is over this question of what it means to be a “good” queer person. The push for marriage equality, in particular, depended in large part on a public relations campaign centered around well-scrubbed folks like Danny, queer individuals who could be presented to the public as worthy of dignity and protection. That queer people with less assimilative goals or different concerns have chafed at that strategy is to be expected. Part of the push-back has been a reconsideration of history, one premised on the recuperation of underappreciated figures (especially gender-variant and of color), an active construction of a “proud” lineage, and a dash of hagiography. The overarching point is to challenge narratives of “progress” that supposedly end in a beatific vision like Danny. There was never anything wrong with us. We didn’t need to grow up; straight society did—and still does.

What’s interesting about the near-absolute rejection of Stonewall is that it shows how pervasive—at least among a certain queer cognoscenti—this view has become. Any piece of art purporting to represent the “birthplace of the LGBT movement” will invariably attract anxious attention. But in digesting the thousands of words already spent on this mediocre movie from a well-intentioned, if laughably clumsy, director, it’s clear to me that we’re not so much talking about Stonewall as we are expressing concerns about the state and direction of the LGBTQ community today. Most of us agree that the further Dannyfication of queer life is not desirable. But what do “we” want instead? I’m interested in queerness as a cultural practice, so I saw a technically flawed but OK tale of queer initiation. BuzzFeed’s Meredith Talusan, on the other hand, saw in Danny’s story a dangerous machine for creating “a hierarchy of masculinity for those who are assigned male.” Where a critic for the Hollywood Reporter was pleased with the movie’s encouragement of “political awakening,” Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak recoiled at a straight-pandering “monstrosity” whose “badness is nearly unfathomable.” Our disparate reactions to a movie like Stonewall can’t help but reveal personal preoccupations and wishes, and those, in turn, suggest a queer “community” that is very much unsure of where it wants to go next.

To be clear, taking Stonewall seriously in the way I have is not the same as offering a defense. It doesn’t warrant that. But I do think it’s worth considering why such a small, misbegotten movie—one that we could, as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir suggests, just as easily nudge into the memory hole—has generated so much angst. Stonewall was a moment when we all put aside our differences and united to finally fight back—or at least that’s what most of us want it to have been. Stonewall, on the other hand, comes at a moment when the always jury-rigged alliance between the various queer contingents feels more uncertain every day; when our debates over terminology, community norms, political goals, and paths toward social justice feel increasingly fractious. Is it any surprise the stakes of this movie—our movie—feel so high? Usually cinema screens simply reflect back the light projected onto them—but sometimes, they act as mirrors for the audience as well. This is one of those times.