Why LGBTQ Activists Are Boycotting The Chicago Premier Of 'Stonewall'

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 17, 2015 7:11PM

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Still from 'Stonewall,' via Reeling Film Fest

By Rebecca Kling

Anyone with a political mindset who pays at least a little attention to Hollywood is aware that the film industry has a problem when it comes to representing anyone other than straight, white, men.

Of the top 600 grossing films from 2007 to 2013, only 1.9 percent were directed by women. In the past decade or so, over three-fourths of all speaking roles in movies went to white characters. Depictions of LGBT characters in film are scarce and often offensive, and main character roles are even scarcer.

So it seems like Roland Emmerich’s film Stonewall should be cause for celebration The soon-to-be-released movie is a fictionalized retelling of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, where gays, lesbians, drag kings and queens and transgender people fought back against a police crackdown at the Stonewall Inn.

The Stonewall Riots are often called the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement, and they absolutely deserve to be depicted on film. And the movie has a great ad campaign. The poster has a pink backdrop, six people (most of them white and none of them visibly transgender) approach the viewer with giant grins and arms draped over each others’ shoulders, and a giant slogan takes up the top two-thirds: WHERE PRIDE BEGAN. Who wouldn’t want to support that movie?

Lots of trans people (this author included), lots of people of color and our allies are refusing to support the movie.

That's because Stonewall (the movie) centers around a fictional white, cisgender (that is, not-transgender) gay character. Stonewall (the riot) centered around people of color, trans people, and building solidarity among the entire community. Stonewall (the movie) has no people of color in leading roles, and no transgender main characters. Three of the most historically relevant people at Stonewall (the riot) were Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major, all trans women of color. Of the three, only Marsha P. Johnson makes any appearance in the film, and is played by a cis actor.

And while the national trend of Pride Parades can undeniably be traced back to Stonewall, to claim that Pride began in 1969 ignores the Compton Cafeteria Riots (Those riots happened in 1966, when police were harassing the mostly transgender customers at Compton Cafeteria in L.A.), Mattachine Midwest (in 1965, when Mattachine Midwest protested the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times’ refusal to print stories about the growing gay rights movement), the Whitehall Street Induction Center picketing (in 1964, activists protested the draft board for violating the confidentiality of gay men’s draft records in New York City), and more.

None of this is to take away from the significance of Stonewall (the riot). The 1960s was a decade of change and Stonewall was an important, catalytic moment in the gay rights movement. Yet, understandably, many people - trans people, people of color, and white and cisgender allies - are upset by Stonewall, the movie.

It was then doubly disappointing to find that Reeling, the Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival, was featuring Stonewall as its “Festival Centerpiece” this weekend. Reeling “prides itself on showcasing the best LGBTQ+ films and videos each year.” Yet, when viewed from the perspective of historical accuracy and inclusion of the entire LGBTQ+ community, Stonewall cannot be one of the best LGBTQ+ films of the year, regardless of how good the acting, directing, or cinematography may turn out to be.

Likewise, Reeling makes the intentional choice to describe themselves in their mission statement as an LGBTQ+ film festival. That is, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and more. This appears to be a wide net Reeling is attempting to cast, with inclusive and intersectional goals. There, too, Stonewall falls short as a selection for Festival Centerpiece. I was one of many people upset by Reeling’s decision to highlight the film in such a prominent way.

Then I spoke with Sarah Rubin, the Marketing Fundraising Manager at Chicago Filmmakers (and, by extension, Reeling) on Wednesday morning, four days out from the screening of Stonewall. She told me that, when Reeling decided to showcase Stonewall, there hadn’t been a trailer and it wasn’t clear to Reeling how problematic the film might turn out to be.

What is now clear is that Reeling is taking concerns about the film seriously. They’ve offered space for activists to flyer, promote other films about Stonewall (visit http://www.missmajorfilm.com/ and http://www.happybirthdaymarsha.com/ to learn more about those films), and provide information on why Stonewall is getting so much flack. Rubin also said that purchasing a ticket to Stonewall at Reeling doesn’t actually financially support the film; ticket sales go back to funding Chicago Filmmakers, an arts organization that “serves the independent film community.” The group was just awarded a grant to support LGBTQ youth making digital media, which is pretty cool.

Queer activists are often skeptical of organizations that claim to support trans people or people of color. There’s a long history of large organizations saying “We support you!” one day and failing to live up to that support when push comes to shove. But - from their history of screening films about trans people and queer people of color, and funding projects by those same groups - it seems like Reeling is trying to do right by these often-overlooked communities.

My phone call with Rubin also brought up a legitimate frustration of hers: Reeling schedules movies about trans people and people of color, year after year, and no one shows up. We talked about the possibly of a true compromise, wherein Reeling finds ways to improve and the Chicago trans community tries to better support the films we say we want to see. (Of course, I don’t speak for all trans people, but I love the idea of trying to go see more movies about trans people and people of color, and of pushing others to do the same.)

This isn’t a free pass for Reeling. They messed up: When it became clear how white-washing and cis-washing Stonewall turned out to be, they should have - at the very least - changed their language and focus around the film, and moved from simply screening it to presenting it in the context of Hollywood’s long history of rewriting history to be more palatable to middle-class white movie-goers. But I’m tentatively hopeful that Reeling is learning from this mistake, and will use Sunday’s screening to at least open up those conversations and expose their audience (almost undoubtedly consisting mostly of older, white, cis, gay men) to a different perspective.

To be honest, this isn’t how I expected things to turn out. It’s a lot simpler to paint organizations that mess up as universally flawed, rather than made up of humans who sometimes make mistakes. Likewise, it’s a lot more fun to just get angry and write people off, rather than work together to find common ground. Often, there truly isn’t space for compromise or common ground, when so many people are hostile to the very existence of trans people or the equal rights and treatment of people of color.

Likewise, I still fully support the call, coming from activists around the country, to boycott Stonewall’s theatrical release. I don’t plan to give money to this type of revisionist history, and hope you won’t either. But maybe I’ll see you at Reeling on Sunday. I’ll be there, handing out flyers and talking about Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major.


Rebecca Kling is a transgender artist and educator as well as Program Manager at TransTech Social Enterprises.