The Realities of Stonewall

Posted August 17, 2015 by Shawn Reilly

If you google “Stonewall Riots,” your search will result in hundreds of photos of white men with banners and signs, defying police and fighting for their rights at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City bar in Greenwich Village. While this may seem all well and good, there is something amiss. White men were not the prime movers of the Stonewall Riots.

In fact, trans women and queer women of color were at the forefront of the fight. With three trans women of color, Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major, leading the charge, the Stonewall Riots lasted for three nights, successfully resisting the police brutality that the queer community had been continuously facing since the beginning of time.

So why don’t we hear of these women?

  • The quick and dirty answer: The whitewashing and erasure of transgender people and women (as well as transmisogyny) in our history is a reality not many of us are aware of. For many people in the American education system, it is possible to go through highschool without studying people that share their own identities. People of color, people with disabilities, queer people, and all historically marginalized groups have been erased from our textbooks and classrooms. When history is written by the winners, those that have been historically disenfranchised lose their place in the narratives we are taught about America and the world at large.

What else is erased about Stonewall?

  • Many people don’t know that it was a reaction to police brutality. Although Stonewall was a spontaneous reaction to police, it was not at random. Queer and trans people that frequented the establishment were used to the routine police raids and violent treatment from cops for a long time before the fateful day of June 28, 1969.
  • The Stonewall Inn was frequented by “street (homeless) kids.” Who were offered shelter there during the night for the equivalent of modern day twenty dollars. These street kids played a major role in the resistance of police.
  • The Stonewall Inn was run by the mafia, who routinely paid off police to allow queer and trans people to gather at the Stonewall. This helped businesses capitalize and exploit the reality of serious lack of LGBTQIA+ affirming public spaces.
  • The huge numbers of people at Stonewall were gathered there in order to celebrate Marsha P. Johnson’s (one of those rockstar transwomen) birthday! Even though so many people were there for her birthday, she, along with so many others, are often erased from the story we’re told about Stonewall.

This Is All So Interesting! I Can’t Wait to Learn More By Watching Stonewall!

  • No. No, no, no, no and no.
  • Like most mediums of teaching American history, the soon to be released Stonewall Movie is inaccurate in its storytelling. In the recently released trailer, the three pioneers of the movement, (those wonderful transwomen we talked about earlier), are only pictured being beaten by police in the film. There is no evidence of their crucial resistance to the oppressive police force throughout the piece (Although director Roland Emmerich has officially responded to these critiques).
  • At the center of the film is a white, cisgender man. Centering the narratives of the most privileged in the LGBTQIA+ community helps further the horizontal hostility and violence that trans women and people of color face from within and without the queer community.
  • Further, key players of color from the Stonewall Riots are portrayed by white actors, including Storme DeLarverie’s character. DeLarverie, a multiracial lesbian is portrayed by a white actress in the film.
  • All of these issues and more make the film beyond problematic.

Alright. So What Can I Do About It?

  • The GSA Network has organized a boycott of the Stonewall Film, advising those that are aware of the issues inherent in the film “to not throw money at the capitalistic industry that fails to recognize true s/heros. Do not support a film that erases our history. Do not watch Stonewall.” You can learn more about the boycott and sign the petition here
  • The GSA Network also encourages people to “Tell your own history! Use social media to recall what you know to be true of Stonewall. Film your own short films. Make videos, write poems, sing songs. CONTINUE TO TEACH TRUE HISTORY.” See what some folks are saying here
  • Know any teachers? Are you a teacher yourself? Encourage teachers that you have relationships with to include everyone in their teachings. By offering representation of all people, teachers can allow students to make deeper connections to their understanding of history and modern realities.
  • Question what you know. Thanks to institutions such as the media and our education systems, we very often take the stories we hear as fact. The Stonewall Riots is not the only whitewashed story we’re told. Take time to relearn your own history. Some books that are good starting points are A People’s History of the United States and Lies My Teacher Told Me.