QUEER VOICES
08/11/2015 02:52 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2015

Stonewall Riot Veterans Address New Film's Controversial Trailer

"They’re burying us in the ground so when they step off of us, there’s no proof that we were even there.”

When blockbuster director Roland Emmerich decided to make a movie about the Stonewall riots -- the series of 1969 protests widely credited with starting the modern gay rights movement -- he may have thought that LGBT Americans would embrace the film. At first, they seemed to. Months before the trailer was even released, GLAAD acknowledged the film in an award to Emmerich for his work “in promoting equality.”

“Millions of moviegoers all across the world will see the harms of anti-LGBT discrimination and learn about the historic riots that forever changed equality in America,” GLAAD’s CEO told Variety.

Then, last week, the trailer was released.

Since then, more than 22,000 people have signed a petition vowing not to see Emmerich's film -- not because they object to LGBT rights, but because they believe the movie is going to present a version of history that focuses on white cisgender men to the exclusion of everyone else. The petition's creator is Pat Cordova-Goff, an 18-year-old college student who identifies as a transwomyn of color.

The "Stonewall" trailer (tagline: "Where pride began") focuses on a fictional blond man from Kansas, played by the English actor Jeremy Irvine, who moves to New York City and discovers the Stonewall Inn. Soon after, the man is throwing bricks through windows and climbing on cop cars.

Emmerich, who is openly gay and best known for apocalyptic blockbusters like "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow," has described the film as “a labor of love.” But critics say they believe Emmerich's movie, which comes out Sept. 25, is going to whitewash history and erase the contributions of the transgender activists, drag queens and people of color who were there at the beginning of the riots.

"To all considering watching the newest whitewashed version of queer history,” Cordova-Goff's petition says, “it is time that black and brown transwomyn and drag queens are recognized for their efforts in the riots throughout the nation.”

A full copy of the film is not yet available, and Emmerich’s publicist declined The Huffington Post’s request for an interview. Emmerich wrote on Facebook last week that once the film is released, “audiences will see that it deeply honors the real-life activists who were there,” including the people of color, the trans activists and the drag queens.

Some high-profile gay activists -- mainly white men -- have voiced support for Emmerich and the film. The playwright Larry Kramer, who has taken plenty of friendly fire from the LGBT community over the decades for his depictions of gay history, urged Emmerich not to “listen to the crazies.”

“For some reason there is a group of 'activists' that insists on maintaining their prime importance and participation during this riot,” Kramer wrote in a Facebook comment beneath Emmerich’s post. “Unfortunately there seems [to be] no one left alive to say 'it wasn't that way at all,' or 'who are or where the fuck were you.'"

Miss Major, a 73-year-old trans activist who participated in the riots, didn’t even make it through the full two minutes and 20 seconds of the trailer before she turned it off. “It was too much to watch,” she told HuffPost. “It’s just, ugh, they’re whitewashing it again. They’re burying us in the ground so when they step off of us, there’s no proof that we were even there.”

Many say that Emmerich’s decision to cast a handsome white man in the film's lead role is part of a long history of the mainstream gay rights movement ignoring trans issues and the concerns of people of color in favor of causes like marriage equality and the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell."

“So now they can get married, now they’re as good as straight people,” said Miss Major. “Progress for us has been minimal.”

When she thinks back on the riots, she said, she remembers her black and brown trans friends in the streets. “The only white faces were across the street screaming.”

The historian Martin Duberman, author of a history of Stonewall, says that trans women and drag queens were instrumental in the riots, but so were the many white gay men who frequented the bar, including himself. “Stonewall was my own bar of choice," he said, "which means I was there at least a couple of nights a week, because it was the one place in New York that you could dance slow. So I’m familiar with the customers, and a lot of the claims on all sides are suspect.”

Duberman has not watched the "Stonewall" trailer, but after hearing a description of it, he said, “Any movie [about Stonewall] that features a gay white man as the hero is historically inaccurate, and to say as much is not to be crazy.” But Duberman also disputed the idea that any one person or group can claim leadership or ownership of those wild days and nights after a police raid of the bar set the riots in motion.

“So many things are happening simultaneously that it's absurd to say one particular incident, person or gesture started the whole conflagration,” he said. “Lots of people were doing lots of different things, and they all came together in an explosion. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the best way to describe the Stonewall riots.”

Today, there aren't many living Stonewall veterans of any race or gender, but trans women of color who participated in the riots are far scarcer than white gay men who were there. That may be part of the reason why critics of Emmerich’s trailer have been so passionate.

“I think that's why this is so traumatizing for people who have an idea that what [Emmerich’s] telling is not what went on,” Miss Major said. “To at least acknowledge the people who were there who didn’t live to make it to today. I would love it if there were 10 of us and we could all get together, but we’re so scattered and so protective of ourselves and so many of us are dead.”

In his Facebook post, Emmerich tried to reassure critics that the film would in fact acknowledge the drag queens and trans protesters who are no longer alive:

I understand that following the release of our trailer there have been initial concerns about how this character’s involvement is portrayed, but when this film -- which is truly a labor of love for me -- finally comes to theaters, audiences will see that it deeply honors the real-life activists who were there -- including Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Ray Castro -- and all the brave people who sparked the civil rights movement which continues to this day.

But Emmerich's comment did little to placate those who say any film about Stonewall ought to put trans activists and drag queens front and center.

“We’ve been erased from so many events,” said Reina Gossett, a black trans woman who is co-directing her own movie about Stonewall, "Happy Birthday Marsha!" Gossett's film tells the story of the trans artist and activist Marsha Johnson, and her life in the hours before the riots began. Johnson is sometimes credited with having actually thrown the first brick that night. (Miss Major consulted on the film.)

“Marsha and many other people were really pushed out of the lesbian and gay movement in order to secure narrow demands,” said Sasha Wortzel, Gossett’s collaborator on the movie.

Another petition, this one with more than 21,000 signatures, urges the owners of Manhattan's Landmark Theatres to "commit to screening an alternate film that's more historically accurate" if they also screen "Stonewall." The petition's author suggests the 1990 documentary "Paris is Burning."

This week, after months of fundraising for their film, Wortzel and Gossett have found themselves unexpectedly in the spotlight, and donations for their project have ballooned.

“I think people are saying, enough is enough," said Gossett. "No story about us without us."

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