Greenwich Village, the area that comprises a good portion of lower Manhattan, while now known for its gourmet restaurants and high-end boutiques, used to be a refuge for New York’s social outcasts. Ethnic minorities, members of the LGBTQA+ community, sex workers, homeless youth, and anyone else who did not conform to the city’s White, straight, cisgender, wealthy standard of “normal” called this neighbourhood “home” from the 1920’s onward. As the population of gay, lesbian, bi and pansexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals in the Village grew, the area became New York’s first gay centre and, while many businesses chose not to serve LGBT individuals, gay bars and inns acted as safe havens for the marginalised and prosecuted up until the 1960’s.
Stonewall Inn, still in operation today, was a well-known hotel, bar, and restaurant that housed and fed drag queens, trans people, homosexuals, bisexuals, prostitutes, and homeless youth and fell victim to a police raid on June 28th, 1969. Raids were not uncommon at this time, however, procedure ordered that the employees of the establishment must be notified beforehand and then police would generally arrive earlier in the night, check the identification of the patrons, and female officers would take any female-identifying individuals to the bathroom and verify their sex.
However, when officers arrived unannounced that night, past 1:00am, they announced “Police! We’re taking the place!” and forced the 205 patrons to line up and began frisking them without legal cause – reports claimed that male police officers groped many of the women inappropriately during the searches. As fear and confusion mounted, the police barred the door, illegally locking the patrons inside of the bar. After 15 minutes, many individuals were arrested for no other reason than being gay or trans and those that were released congregated outside, drawing a crowd from bystanders and local residents. As hostility grew, the group began to chant “Gay power!” and sing protest songs, which prompted the police to react aggressively, arresting people despite their right to peaceful protest.
Stormé Delarverie, a bi-racial, butch lesbian, was one of the first to be arrested. Delarverie was famous in Greenwich Village and known as the “Guardian of the Lesbians” because she would regularly patrol the streets with a baseball bat ready to protect gay women from brutality and harassment. While she was being detained, Delarverie yelled at the crowd for its inaction and complained that her handcuffs were too tight. Police responded by hitting her in the head with a baton.
The crowd realised thereafter that they were going to be prosecuted for their beliefs and identities whether they physically fought against the police or not. That night, hundreds of gay, lesbian, and transgender activists were arrested and the incident sparked a series of protests known as the Stonewall Riots, which is now regarded as one of the biggest moments and catalysts for the Gay Rights Movement in the United States.
In addition to Stormé Delarverie, several names are associated with the Riots. Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, a Black, trans sex worker was the first to instigate a fight by throwing a shot glass at police while being imprisoned in the bar. Raymond Castro, a Latino, gay man was the first to resist arrest that night and, after being physically attacked by an officer, was held as a martyr against police brutality. Sylvia Rivera, a Latina, trans sex worker was the first to throw a brick and, in turn, begin the riot. And these gay and trans men and women of colour are not only remembered for the Stonewall Riots, Johnson and Rivera went on to found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), one of the major organisations that combated discrimination and helped to house and rehabilitate homeless LGBTQA+ youth for the next several decades.
Nevertheless, the film “Stonewall”, due to be released later this year, does not pay these individuals, or any trans people or POC, credit or respect for their integral roles in the Gay Rights Movement. The film, while “based on a true story” stars white, gay, cisgender Danny Winters, played by Jeremy Irvine, a young man kicked out of his home in the Midwest who flees to New York in search of acceptance. The trailer shows aesthetically conventional “Danny” throwing the first brick and instigating the riot when that action should be credited to Sylvia Rivera and, while the film’s IMDb credits Marsha P. Johnson, her name is never mentioned in the movie, nor are the names of any trans or non-White activists present during the riots.
The complete lack of anyone but White, cisgender men in leading roles in a film dedicated to the actions of trans women of colour (TWOC) sparked an uproar on the Internet. The hashtag #NotOurStonewall trended worldwide as many people claimed the film to be sexist, transmisogynistic, racist, and yet another example of trans, Black, and Latin@ erasure in the media.
Erasure, while offensive on its own, has a much larger social impact. By not normalising and giving credit to TWOC, it leads to ignorance and, in turn, discrimination, disrespect, and violence by the general population – a transgender person is murdered every 29 hours (though they make up less than 1% of the world’s population) and at least 17 trans women have already been killed in the United States in 2015 [x]. Similarly, like how getting trans people like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner in the mainstream encouraged thousands of young trans men and women to come out, erasing trans people from their own history disregards the existence of powerful and proud individuals who could provide strength and hope for trans youth, the most common victims of depression and suicidal tendencies.
However, LGBTQA+ individuals are no strangers to being silenced. In the 1980’s, the AIDS crisis hit the United States and gay and trans people in particular were dying by the thousands. Despite the massive death toll, the conservative American government gave little attention to the victims due to their gender identities and sexualities and, instead, blocked many people from receiving AIDS treatment [x]. Ronald Reagan, who refused to even say the word “AIDS”, was a main proponent that the condition was a “gay disease”, an idea that’s incredibly dangerous because it paints LGBT people as unclean, disgusting “sinners” deserving of a literal plague and it further dehumanised and demonised an already marginalised group.
One of the most concentrated areas of AIDS victims in the country was Greenwich Village and, while people were dying every day, the real estate business in the neighbourhood boomed. If a gay person’s partner died of AIDS and they were unable to pay the rent, landlords didn’t hesitate to leave them homeless, whether or not they were also suffering from the disease, because it allowed them to raise the rent and lease the apartment to one of the thousands of upper-middle-class, White, straight people flocking to the area for the real estate opportunities.
As the situation worsened and demand for downtown apartments grew, building staff reportedly turned off the heat in the winter and whether this forced tenants to move out, worsened their condition, or killed them was a non-issue. As increasingly more apartments came onto the market, landlords practised outright discrimination and refused to house LGBTQA+ individuals and catered to straight, cis buyers, regardless of income, in order to make Greenwich Village more marketable.
In response to the health crisis and the increasing number of low-income gay and trans AIDS victims on the streets, ACT-UP NYC, aided by Stonewall hero Marsha P. Johnson, smuggled medication to the LGBT community and set up clinics to nurse the sick. However, as more and more upper-middle-class individuals invaded the Village, much of the gay, trans, Black, and Latin@ population was ousted.
Today, Greenwich Village is almost unrecognisable. While Greenwich and Christopher Streets remain decorated with rainbow flags, the neighbourhood was been, unmistakably, gentrified. The apartments in the area are some of the most expensive in New York, averaging $1,627,500 a piece, 37.92% higher than the average for the city, and, now, the streets are only home to designer shops and high-end restaurants. While some remnants of Greenwich’s history still remain, the neighbourhood now caters to yoga moms and the likes of Anna Wintour. St. Vincent’s, the hospital to open the first AIDS ward on the East Coast, has since been demolished and replaced with luxury condos. An area once home to a community united against the privileged treatment of the very wealthy and socially conventional, a haven for the mistreated, the hated, and the ignored, has now become a family-friendly area for upper-middle-class businessmen and women.
However, #NotOurStonewall has incited a bit of the neighbourhood’s old fight. Residents of Greenwich Village awoke last week to the re-design of two white statues in the Christopher Street Gay Liberation monument. Two Black, gender-nonconforming activists painted the statues brown and added wigs and bras to represent Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and put up a sign that read “Black / Latina trans women led the riots, stop the whitewashing”.
The activists claimed to be inspired by Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a Black, trans Stonewall veteran who was assaulted and arrested during the riots and who continued to fight for the rights of TWOC, who, in response to the film “Stonewall” and the white statues, told Autostraddle in an interview:
“It’s absolutely absurd — you know, young people today aren’t stupid. They can read the history; they know that this is not the way it happened. These people can’t let it go! Everybody can’t be white! This is a country of different colours and people and thoughts and attitudes and feelings, and they try to make all of those the same for some reason.
Not like it’s going to work, but damn if they don’t stop trying. It’s bad enough that across the street from Stonewall, they have statues up to commemorate that night. That’s cute, but there’s not a black statue there! The statues look like they’re made from flour and sugar! What is this? Why can’t one of the girls go up and throw up a little makeup on one of these bitches?”
However, whitewashing is not a new concept, nor is it exclusive to Stonewall or the “Stonewall” film. Many movies use civil rights as an emotional and familiar plot line but cast a white, cisgender (usually straight male) protagonist, so events that once focused on POC and LGBTQA+ individuals can be re-watched through a self-gratifying, White perspective, relying on the “White saviour trope”. Other films, like “Stonewall”, that fall into this category are “Dances With Wolves” (1990), “The Help” (2011), and “Django Unchained” (2012). Films that rely on this trope disguise themselves as advocating for civil rights but they’re actually made to cater to a White audience and capitalise on the struggles of marginalised peoples.
While whitewashing the civil rights movements of the 20th century seems to pervade modern media, replacing POC with Whites extends farther than Stonewall or Selma. The media regularly re-writes older history, the most recent example of this has been “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014), which starred a White cast to play ancient Egyptians. While Egypt is in North Africa and native Egyptians are either Brown or Black, pretending like advanced civilisations of the past were headed by White individuals plays into the White supremacist idea that Whites are the only race capable of organised society, technological innovation, advanced systems of government, and gaining political and economic prominence.
Beyond the media, American culture is so saturated in whitewashing that it affects the way we view our own history and how said history is taught in schools. Thousands of schools conveniently leave out Native American genocide, teach that Native culture was primitive, while Native American nations actually had thriving cities, and that the White man was a benevolent teacher of technology and “civilised” ways, when most European immigrants at the time were unable to find food, stave off disease, build shelter, keep up proper hygiene, or stay alive for long without the help of Native Americans or Native practises.
Throughout the United States, slavery is downplayed in Civil War history and, in some states, like Texas, more importance is given to Moses in Civil War history lessons than the fact that millions of Black Americans were enslaved, oppressed, and dehumanised. This may seem ludicrous, but think of the person most famously associated with emancipation – it’s Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is represented by the American system of education as being the fore father of civil rights and saviour of the slaves (sound familiar?). However, Lincoln was actually an incredibly racist man who only freed African Americans to end the War for political reasons. The president is quoted saying, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery” and “there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favour of having the superior position assigned to the White race”. Despite his personal motivations, every American has heard Lincoln’s name associated with ending slavery but very few are familiar with Black Civil War heroes like John Lawson or Robert Smalls.
While whitewashing generally goes unnoticed because it’s a very sneaky kind of racism, activists are not letting “Stonewall” go down in history as a triumph of LGBTQA+ rights. The petition to boycott the film already has over 23,000 signatures and the YouTube video of the trailer has thousands more “dislikes” than it does “likes”. However, many people are complaining that, by boycotting “Stonewall”, the public will not give a piece on Gay Rights the attention it needs, however, these woes are unjustified. A movie by the same man as “The Day After Tomorrow” may not do the Riots justice, but “Happy Birthday, Marsha”, an independent film focusing on Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera during the Stonewall Riots is in post-production.
More in the mainstream is “About Ray”, a movie that focuses on the female-to-male transition of a trans boy named Ray, played by Elle Fanning. While the film has received criticism for not having cast a trans actor as the lead, these comments are unfounded. A good portion of the film takes place before Ray’s full transition and it can be extremely damaging and can trigger dysphoria to ask a trans person to play an untransitioned individual. It’s for this reason that Laverne Cox’s character on “Orange Is the New Black”, Sophia, is played by Cox’s twin brother in scenes before transitioning. “About Ray” is being praised by trans people across the globe by being one of the first mainstream films to star a trans character and discuss transition and transmisogyny so intimately.
So, instead of focusing your attention and spending your money on a for-profit production that capitalises on the actions of TWOC but glorifies yet another White, cisgender male, support media created by trans people and/or that give trans people much needed representation in the media. Give “Happy Birthday, Marsha” your time instead of “Stonewall”, go see “About Ray” in theatres, and, next time you’re bored, watch a Netflix programme like “Orange Is the New Black” or “Sense8” that feature extremely diverse and well-developed characters. What people tend to ignore is that, nowadays, racism and transphobia are no longer represented by men in white hoods yelling slurs and threats at the top of their lungs, the ways White, straight, cis men tell everyone they’re more important than others has become much more subtle than that. As our society has evolved, so has patriarchy, and internalised concepts of inequality still haunt us all, sometimes on levels so deep we don’t know they exist. Every time a woman apologises for no reason, every time a POC wishes they had blue eyes, every time a gay person hides their sexuality for a job interview, every time a trans person equates their beauty to how well they “pass”, it proves that our society is much less than equal. While media has the power to change minds, people have the power to change the media. Vote with your dollar this year and support what truly matters.