Transgender History: The role of transgender people at the Stonewall Rebellion

There has been quite a bit of online controversy surrounding the trailer for the new movie “Stonewall” coming out in September. The movie is a fictionalized account of the Stonewall riots, the event commonly credited as being the spark that ignited the LGBT rights movement in the United States, which began June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The movie trailer focuses on a fictional gay white male character who is kicked out of his midwestern middle-class home and moves to New York to find a community of LGBT people. He is presented as a central figure in the Stonewall riots.

The difficulty with the trailer is that many of the real central figures of the Stonewall riots — the folks who were among the first to fight back and the defacto leaders of the several days long event — were people of color, transgender people and lesbians, all of whom were prime targets of the New York Police Department. Those people appear to be relegated to background characters according to the trailer, to the cast list on Internet Movie Database and by reports from the set during filming.

Trans Pioneer Marsha P. Johnson

Trans Pioneer and Stonewall Veteran Marsha P. Johnson

Although there were sodomy laws on the books, the police who stormed the Stonewall Inn in 1968 were primarily enforcing laws on the books banning “cross-dressing” in clothes that were not considered “of the gender” that persons were assigned at birth. (Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco). It was much easier for police to hassle, arrest and threaten people who were breaking gender norms than it was for them to find positive proof of people violating sodomy laws, so the folks who were arrested when the police raided a bar were most often transgender women and men, drag queens and butch lesbians, while cis gay people who fit the gender they were assigned at birth were routinely let go with a warning.

[See also – PBS News Hour Arresting dress: A timeline of anti-cross-dressing laws in the United States]

From wikipedia (see page for source citations):

Police raids on gay bars were frequent—occurring on average once a month for each bar…. Those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested; others were allowed to leave. Some of the men, including those in drag, used their draft cards as identification. Women were required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing, and would be arrested if found not wearing them. Employees and management of the bars were also typically arrested. The period immediately before June 28, 1969, was marked by frequent raids of local bars—including a raid at the Stonewall Inn on the Tuesday before the riots—and the closing of the Checkerboard, the Tele-Star, and two other clubs in Greenwich Village.

The raid did not go as planned. Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men dressed as women would be arrested. Those dressed as women that night refused to go with the officers. Men in line began to refuse to produce their identification. The police decided to take everyone present to the police station, after separating those cross-dressing in a room in the back of the bar. Maria Ritter, then known as Steve to her family, recalled, “My biggest fear was that I would get arrested. My second biggest fear was that my picture would be in a newspaper or on a television report in my mother’s dress!” Both patrons and police recalled that a sense of discomfort spread very quickly, spurred by police who began to assault some of the lesbians by “feeling some of them up inappropriately” while frisking them.

A scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon several times. She escaped repeatedly and fought with four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes. Described as “a typical New York butch” and “a dyke–stone butch”, she had been hit on the head by an officer with a baton for, as one witness claimed, complaining that her handcuffs were too tight. Bystanders recalled that the woman, whose identity remains unknown (Stormé DeLarverie has been identified by some, including herself, as the woman, but accounts vary), sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, “Why don’t you guys do something?” After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became a mob and went “berserk”: “It was at that moment that the scene became explosive.”

There are many accounts of how the riots actually started, but in all of them, transgender women Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Tammy Novak and butch lesbian and person of color Stormé DeLarverie, are prominent.

Yet in the trailer and in the cast listing (and by reports from people who were present during shooting of the film) some of those key folks in the riots are not central characters, and the reasons cited for the police arrests does not acknowledge that cross dressing was the reason most of the people were being hauled in.

Other problematic points in the trailer as identified in comments online:

  • The two people shown to be sparking the violence and destruction of property are cis white men who are doing it to protest sodomy laws in an organized way. In fact the catalyst was spontaneous and born out of the targeting of genderqueer people over cross-dressing laws.
  • “Trans women are represented as “Black Transvestite character” who is also fictional to avoid highlighting the narratives and struggle of actual movement leaders”
  • ‘Deliberately erasing trans women of color by misidentifying them as drag queens and repackaging it all as part of an umbrella “gay” identity”‘
  • “lesbians have also been mysteriously erased from the history, go figure”
  • “the imaginary ‪#‎whitesavior‬ hero took up so much space in the movie they had to make Sylvia Rivera and Ray Castro into one person. you don’t need to watch that bullshit to smell it.”
  • “All you have to do is look at the top billed cast on imdb to know this shit is a lie. You don’t hit a visible person of color until 13 people down. Marsha P Johnson’s character comes in at a whopping 21 people down. There is one vaguely butch looking actress at 14. Mostly white men tho. This. Is. Total. Fuckery.”
  • “Marsha P Johnson’s character is played by a cis male actor. AGAIN.”
  • “Stormé DeLarverie couldn’t make it either I guess.”
  • “Stormé DeLarverie was NOT a white girl.”

Framing the movie solely as a gay rights saga ignores the fact that gender identity and gender-diverse people of color were a large part of the catalyst of the events. The police were raiding to arrest “queer” people, which included transgender and genderqueer people, not just gay and lesbian people, and people of color were always suspected of wrong doing.

Indiana’s Boycott Stonewall event: PROTEST STONEWALL 2015: End the whitewashing of LGBT history!

Online Petition asking people to boycott this movie from GSA Network: BOYCOTT 2015 “STONEWALL” MOVIE

Better things to do with your money that see this movie:

More reading about this issue:

BOOK: Stonewall
by Martin Bauml Duberman (Author)

Transgriot: Soon To Be Released Stonewall Movie Is Whitewashing And Erasing Trans History

Huffington Post: What to Do About That New Stonewall Movie

Quartz: The new “Stonewall” movie continues a proud Hollywood tradition of erasing key minorities from history

MTV: Should We Boycott The New ‘Stonewall’ Movie? ‘Decoded’ Explains

Daily Dot: The LGBT community is not happy about the new whitewashed Stonewall movie

Towleroad: Director Roland Emmerich Addresses ‘Stonewall’ Trailer Controversy

Out Magazine: 10 Years Before Stonewall, There Was the Cooper’s Donuts Riot
Transgender women were fighting back against gender policing laws long before Stonewall.

IMDB: Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria
Another instance of transgender women rising up in response to gender policing laws.

Comments are closed.