Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, however unwittingly, perfectly symbolizes how the mainstream gay rights movement has treated trans and gender-nonconforming people ever since the fateful Stonewall Riots more than four decades ago. We’re comrades, even “sisters,” when our numbers and our willingness to put ourselves on the line for the LGBT cause are needed, but we’re also the first to get tossed aside to pave the way for more “respectable” queer people.
Controversy has dogged Stonewall since the first trailer indicated that the film, inspired by the real-life riots of 1969, would be led by a fictional white gay protagonist, Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) as he navigates life in the big city while surrounded by a racially-diverse gang of femme street urchins. Stonewall proves to be much less about the riots than it is about the coming-of-age of its main character, Danny, a promising young man from Indiana who’s forced to arrive in New York a few months before he’s set to start his first year at Columbia University.
Danny senses that the center of gay culture in New York City is Christopher Street, so that’s where he ends up. After getting beaten by some anti-gay policemen, he finds support and friendship in Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), a young street hustler drawn to wearing shiny clothes and lipstick, who develops a fondness for Danny’s blond, wholesome good looks, as does practically everyone he meets. From this point on, the film shifts back and forth between Danny’s new reality among the gay hustlers — his friends sleep twelve to a room after turning tricks all night — and the all-American Midwestern town he left behind. Plenty of screen time is devoted to Danny’s recent history as told in flashback: Danny gets kicked out of the house when his dad — who, of course, is also his high school’s football coach — finds out that his son is fooling around with none other than, you guessed it, the hunky star quarterback, Joe (Karl Glusman).
Danny’s stint with the gay and gender non-conforming sex workers of the Village adds interspersed color and spice to his foregrounded white-bread Americana upbringing, of which we see plenty — the impending Stonewall riots, and the street kids who will start them, are merely window dressing to Danny’s storyline of self-acceptance, rather than the center of the story in their own right.
Eventually, Danny and Ray find themselves at the Stonewall Inn where they meet Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a member of the Mattachine Society, a gay rights group that advocated for change through “respectable” means. When Danny attends a meeting, after which Trevor conveys his belief that it’s in suits rather than dresses that the gay rights struggle will be won. Danny defends Ray and his femme friends: “It takes a lot more balls to wear a dress than a fucking suit and tie.” Then Danny sleeps with Trevor anyway, and ends up living with him for awhile, until Trevor finds another young waif and Danny feels betrayed.
Of the femme friends Danny defends, a few are based on actual people who were at the Stonewall riots. Marsha P. Johnson (Otoja Abit) is present, a black trans leader who later co-founded the trans rights organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Ray is a composite of several figures, one of whom is the other STAR founder Sylvia Rivera, a Latina trans activist who was part of the riots, but was eventually kicked out of the gay movement she helped incite. Johnson is at best a tangential part of the movie’s narrative, a symbol for the “extreme” faction of the gay community. As Trevor explains to Danny, the police “only arrest the trannies” when raiding Stonewall – Marsha is that lone figure who gets to stand for the “tranny” faction (though Cong, another member of Danny and Ray’s gang, is female-presenting part-time). Marsha represents the film’s token nod to trans women, while also providing one-dimensional comic relief: she pops up to be fabulous and trot out one-liners, including one the real Johnson had actually said: the P. in her middle name stands for “Pay It No Mind.”
Ray is an odder case. He seems to flit back and forth between genders, occasionally called Ramona by friends, though Danny insists on using his male name. After Marsha’s first appearance, when she greets Ray and his friends, Ray says, “Marsha’s the only drag queen that’s nice to us” — implying that he is a feminine gay man and Marsha is the Other. But when Marsha later gets arrested during a raid at the Stonewall because she presents as female — violating the New York penal code that, in 1969, required people to wear at least three articles of clothing “appropriate” to their gender — Ray gets arrested along with her. It’s an indication of how the movie wants Ray to be just gender-nonconforming enough so that he at least has some relationship to historical reality, but not so gender-variant that he couldn’t be claimed as a cisgender gay person. Marking him as fully trans would undermine the popular ideology that portrays the riots as led by “gay” people. Even if gender nonconforming people called themselves “gay” or “queens” in 1969, they were policed and marginalized the way trans people — especially trans women of color — are today.
While people protested the trailer because Danny is depicted as throwing the first brick to incite the riots, that scene is actually one of the less cringe-inducing moments in Stonewall. Danny’s brick-throwing was clearly done with the support and collaboration of the street hustler femmes around him, particularly Cong. The movie also keeps with historical accounts that an anonymous butch dyke was the riot’s first agitator. And even though Marsha Johnson herself has been credited by some as the first brick-thrower, the truth of who actually did it has been lost in history — though the chances that it was a strapping white guy from Indiana are pretty slim.
It would have been nice if male-assigned feminine people could have played an even more prominent role in Stonewall, especially since they are presented as so debased that they do not deserve to be loved. Ray, the gender-nonconforming Latino, has little agency in the film beyond striving for Danny’s affection, in the tired trope of male-assigned femme serving as ultimate victim who can only potentially be saved by the love and protection of a good man (harkening back to films like The Crying Game and Dallas Buyers Club). When, after the riots, Danny tells Ray he can't possibly return his love, he consoles him by saying, “You’ll always be my sister.” Then Danny proceeds to leave Christopher Street behind for a presumably much higher quality of life at Columbia — only coming back to his old haunt a year later when there’s a gay parade.
Ray and the gang seem happy to see him upon his return, even though Ray accused Danny of “just slumming it” for the sake of a "funny story" when he once lived among the hustlers. There’s no sign that Ray or his street friends are in any better condition than when Danny met them, though at least Danny has learned from his experience and grown to be a better person, as cis white people tend to do after spending time with the downtrodden.
Even though, when rejecting Ray after the riots, Danny says “I’m too mad to love anyone right now,” he goes back to Indiana in the very next scene and professes his love for the white closeted football player Joe, who had refused to support him when he’d been thrown out of the house. Joe once again rejects him, because he has a wife and kid on the way.
Joe is nothing but a classic gay porn fantasy: the quarterback of the football team; a guy so masculine that no one can tell he’s gay; a guy who’s happy to get a blowjob but would never demean himself by reciprocating. When he and Danny had originally gotten caught fooling around together, Joe told Danny’s father that Danny seduced him and got him drunk, so he didn’t even know what was happening. And yet by the end of the movie, Joe is still the ultimate figure of Danny’s desire, the misunderstood guy he continues to love despite the fact that he has no redeeming qualities except for being hot (if you’re into hyper-masculine, unexpressive, closeted white gay men).
The film thus creates a hierarchy of masculinity for those who are assigned male — the more masculine you are, the more lovable you are, and so much the better if you’re white. Joe, the “straight” guy who experiments, comes first; then comes Trevor, the straight-laced respectable activist; then we have Ray, the guy who puts on lipstick but doesn’t fully identify as a woman, so he can at least dream of being with Danny. Finally, there’s Marsha P. Johnson, who’s portrayed as an accessory who can’t dream of being loved, whose body is only available for sex work. This doesn’t even account for the fact that lesbians are barely present in the movie — there’s only one butch dyke with a few lines, and during the riots, what appears to be a single lesbian couple kissing in a sea of men. These hierarchies also correspond with access to political rights and social acceptance through the years, hierarchies that trans and gender-nonconforming people are constantly fighting against, and that the mainstream gay rights movement has historically upheld at our expense.
Stonewall ends appropriately, with tributes to real-life people who were portrayed in the film. Then there’s a black and white picture of the half-fictional gang headed by Danny, with a caption that reads: “This movie is dedicated to the unsung heroes of the Stonewall Riots.” The filmmakers had the opportunity to recognize and give agency to those unsung heroes — Johnson, Rivera, and the full spectrum of gay, trans, and gender-nonconforming people who fought for queer liberation that night — but instead, they chose to minimize trans contributions to spotlight the (made up) cute white twink from the Midwest.
If the gay rights movement wishes to come of age like Danny, then it must also recognize the ways in which queer respectability has been won on the backs of trans and gender-nonconforming people who continue to struggle. Stonewall can be the start of a conversation about what’s wrong with how the gay rights movement — and even its well-meaning members — has represented its trans siblings. Gay people who now find themselves with a measure of power need to listen and learn, before they continue to make movies that trample on our history.