Although I grew up over 2,000 miles from New York City and was born more than 20 years after the Stonewall uprising, this moment in history has profoundly influenced my understanding of what it means to be queer.
I come from small-town Southern Alberta, the type of place where cattle-branding parties are eagerly anticipated social gatherings, and getting stuck behind a slow-moving tractor is a perfectly reasonable excuse to be late for school. Gayness was seen as an exotic urban sensation rather than a universal human reality. So, when I realized I was gay in ninth grade, the queer world seemed an almost mythical place, a far away land. The Stonewall riots, with their pantheon of queer heroes and ensemble of repressive villains, represented the most compelling story of that distant gay world.
Whenever I had time alone, I would flick on the family computer and read about the heroes of those tumultuous six nights in the summer of 1969. I learned about legends: Stormé DeLarverie, the butch lesbian who goaded the angry crowd by fighting off a crowd of baton-wielding policemen; Sylvia Rivera, the Puerto Rican trans woman who threw one of the first bottles to protest the cops' physical abuse of the arrested drag queens; Marsha P. Johnson, the African-American street queen who led a crowd of queers and misfits into clashes against the police. These and many other tired, angry, and frustrated queers who eschewed respectability in the name of a greater responsibility, spat in the face of mainstream society, and showed me that it's possible to be queer, proud, and strong.
But when I finally visited the site of the riots for the first time last June, I was underwhelmed.
I had just begun my ethnographic research on queer youth homelessness in New York City, and had managed to persuade one of my research participants, a 25-year-old black trans woman named Jessie*, to take me to the site of the original Stonewall Inn. Together, we sat on one of the bony wooden benches in Christopher Park, silently studying the pale acrylic statues that commemorated the riots of 1969. And I felt empty. The site communicated none of the rage, frustration, and passion I envisioned when I thought of Stonewall. It recognized none of the uprising's real-life heroes, instead exuding a sense of decorum that masked the riots' intensity. In fact, if I hadn't known better, I might have assumed that Stonewall had been nothing more than a quiet, peaceful protest. After several minutes Jessie shuffled her feet awkwardly and looked at me.
"I don't know why you wanted to see it."
Now, much as Christopher Park has sanitized the memory of Stonewall with its lily white statues and bland commemoration, Roland Emmerich's upcoming film Stonewall has replaced the riots' trans, lesbian, female, black, and Latina heroes with a gay, white, male protagonist from Kansas named Danny. Sections of the queer community have responded with outrage, accusations of trans erasure and racism, and calls for a boycott -- and for good reason. After all, this is the functional equivalent of buying tickets to Selma only to find that Martin Luther King, Jr. is played by Robert Downey, Jr. Replacing the real heroes of Stonewall with a cis, white, gay guy doesn't only erase the contributions trans women of color, butch lesbians, and street queens to the queer liberation fight. It also erases the unequal distribution of risk and privilege in the queer community and contributes to the harmful narrative that, as Emmerich puts it, "we are all the same in our struggle for acceptance."
In reality, we never were, and still are not, all the same in our struggle for acceptance.
Stonewall is often seen as the night the gay liberation movement began and the moment America's queer community "came out" of its societal closet. According to gay author Eric Marcus, "Before Stonewall, there was no such thing as coming out or being out. The very idea of being out, it was ludicrous. People talk about being in or out now, there was no out, there was only in."
However, while this may have been true for white, middle-class gay people, it certainly was not the case for the trans women, drag queens, homeless youths and other misfits who fought for queer rights at Stonewall. After all, unlike middle and upper class gays and lesbians, these radicals didn't -- or couldn't -- hide their orientations, work respectable jobs, and blend into the mainstream in the years prior to Stonewall. As Stonewall veteran Miss Major Griffen-Gracey bluntly put it, "I'm six feet and two inches tall, wearing three inch heels and platinum blonde hair and the lowest-cut blouse and shortest skirt I can find, I'm not assimilating into anything!"
As upper and middle-class gays blended into heterosexual societies as ostensibly reputable teachers, nurses, lawyers, bankers, and countless other professions, it was the misfits -- the transgender people, the drag queens, the butch lesbians and the homeless youths -- who were living openly, defying societal expectations, and bearing the risks of gay life. They were the ones who faced the police batons, anti-gay vigilantes and societal hate. They were the ones who -- after years of repression -- finally snapped on that hot summer night and struck back against the anti-queer structures of oppression.
While middle-class white gays and lesbians picketed the White House wearing suits and skirts, trans women of color threw their heels at police officers and taunted the cops by forming kick-lines and singing raunchy songs.
While assimilation-oriented gays pleaded with the queer community for peace in Greenwich Village, enraged queers used parking meters as battering rams to break down the door of the Stonewall Inn and reclaim their safe space from the mob and the police.
And while homophile movements across the United States tried to show mainstream society that queers weren't dangerous, the screaming queens of Stonewall perhaps illustrated something else: that they would neither accept the status quo nor assimilate meekly into the mainstream, even if that meant accepting danger and risk. They sought to reshape society such that queer people could be accepted on queer peoples' terms.
Replacing the real heroes of Stonewall with the fictional Kansan, Danny, expunges this history. It delegitimizes the unequal burden of risk within the LGBT community in the years prior to and immediately after Stonewall. And perhaps most dangerously, it minimizes the very real differences in privilege that still afflict the community today.
One night as my research in New York was coming to an end, one of the queer homeless youths I had been working with throughout the summer turned to me with a simple question that has lingered in my conscience for the past year.
"So what are you gonna do now that you're finished with us? I bet you must have this nice cushy job all lined up, on Wall Street or something, where you can go, drink your coffee every morning, read the newspaper, dress all fancy..."
Although his speculation was said in jest, it had a stinging truth to it. As a middle-class, white, gay guy, I would go on to graduate from an elite college. I could choose to find a conventional middle-class job, blend into conventional middle-class society, and never think about those queer people who don't have the same opportunities as me. Indeed, if I'd been alive 45 years ago, I could very well have been one of those white, middle-class gays who carefully hid their sexual orientation, worked in the city from nine to five every day, and went home to their houses with a white picket fence in the suburbs every night.
But luckily, I'm not. I can be open about who I am and whom I love. And I have transgender people, butch lesbians, queer youths of color, and angry drag queens who rejected the status quo to and fought to revolutionize society to thank for that -- not a cute boy from Kansas named Danny. Not a boy like me.