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If 'Stonewall' gets LGBT history wrong, who gets to make it right?




New York City's Stonewall Inn was the site of a riot in 1969 that's considered one of the most important historical moments the LGBT rights movement. L: an archival image of Stonewall in 1969. R: Jeremy Irvine stars as Danny, a fictionalized character in the movie
New York City's Stonewall Inn was the site of a riot in 1969 that's considered one of the most important historical moments the LGBT rights movement. L: an archival image of Stonewall in 1969. R: Jeremy Irvine stars as Danny, a fictionalized character in the movie "Stonewall" which dramatizes the events.
NY Public Library / Roadside Attractions
New York City's Stonewall Inn was the site of a riot in 1969 that's considered one of the most important historical moments the LGBT rights movement. L: an archival image of Stonewall in 1969. R: Jeremy Irvine stars as Danny, a fictionalized character in the movie
Hundreds of people took to the streets in February 1967. They were angry at the LAPD action against LGBT people at places like the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake.
ONE Archives at USC Libraries
New York City's Stonewall Inn was the site of a riot in 1969 that's considered one of the most important historical moments the LGBT rights movement. L: an archival image of Stonewall in 1969. R: Jeremy Irvine stars as Danny, a fictionalized character in the movie
The Black Cat Tavern is now a gastropub restaurant. Many archival photographs of the 1967 protest adorn the walls as a tribute to the location's history.
Leo Duran/KPCC
New York City's Stonewall Inn was the site of a riot in 1969 that's considered one of the most important historical moments the LGBT rights movement. L: an archival image of Stonewall in 1969. R: Jeremy Irvine stars as Danny, a fictionalized character in the movie
A plaque outside The Black Cat restaurant in Silverlake commemorates the site as an important historical landmark in the LGBT rights movement.
Leo Duran/KPCC
New York City's Stonewall Inn was the site of a riot in 1969 that's considered one of the most important historical moments the LGBT rights movement. L: an archival image of Stonewall in 1969. R: Jeremy Irvine stars as Danny, a fictionalized character in the movie
Patrons relax at the bar of the Black Cat, now a gastropub serving Silverlake's diverse community. In 1967, it was primarily a bar for the neighborhood's LGBT patrons who help protests against police harassment.
Leo Duran/KPCC


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Critics are hurling bricks at the new movie "Stonewall." White-washed, silly and disastrous are just some of the things they've said.

The movie is a fictional take on the 1969 riots at the New York City gay bar the Stonewall Inn. Many say the event is one of the most important historical moments in the history of the LGBT rights movement.

It's widely believed that most of the demonstrators there were transgender people, drag queens, homeless youths and people of color.

But when the trailer made it seem like a strapping, corn-fed white gay man led the demonstrations, people called for a boycott.

"A historically accurate film about the Stonewall Riots would center the stories of queer and gender-noncomforming people of color," reads one online petition.

Director Roland Emmerich, who is gay himself, believes he honored the history of Stonewall with his retelling.

When so many different people are a part of the LGBT community, who gets to tell that history? And who's left out?

Where the riots really began

The 1969 Stonewall Riots is the pivotal event most well-known to the LGBT community.

Less remembered are protests that came beforehand, many of them happening in Los Angeles.

In 1959, the first documented riot happened when LGBT people clashed with the police at Cooper's Donuts in downtown LA (now a parking garage on Main Street).

The first protest of a police raid on a gay bar also happened in Los Angeles at the Black Cat Tavern in Silverlake (the building still stands today, now as the gastropub The Black Cat).

But Mia Yamamoto, a criminal defense attorney and a transwoman, thinks the Stonewall Riots are most remembered because they followed the Civil Rights Movement.

"It looked so much like Selma, Alabama," she says. "It looked so much like the police overreacting and people fighting back. The image of it inspired a lot of people."

Stonewall also got much more coverage because of a population that lived close together to spread the word, and a sizable number of news outlets to cover the chaos.

There is no single narrator of the LGBT movement

Telling any one story of the LGBT rights movement is complicated because it's not a group that always sees eye-to-eye.

"Who is us?" wonders Marcus Anthony Hunter, professor at UCLA. "Who's madder when things go down that have impacted the community?"

"We are a group of people who are connection, by virtue, of only sexual orientation or gender identity, and we're different in virtually every other respect," adds Lorri Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

They concede making everyone happy with "Stonewall" is a tough proposition.

"It's a lot of people to talk about. It's a very hectic time," says Hunter. (Disclaimer: none of our guests had seen the film at the time of our interview.)

They all questioned the choice of telling the story of the Stonewall riots through a white gay male character, too.

Hunter suggested that he would've hoped for a story told through the eyes of Marsha P. Johnson, the drag queen and activist credited with starting the riot.

"But the commercial viability – always think about what it is," says trans activist Mia Yamamoto, aware of the Hollywood machine. "This is a black trans woman who was historically the first person to start the violence against the police. But her story is not commercial in the sense that they're not going to depict it unless there's a guarantee of a financial return."

Divisions also spring up in how to push the movement forward.

Lorri Jean says the Center, the first of its kind in 1969, was at the center of many battles among its members.

"There were times in the Center's history that all the people of color left because of feelings that the folks who were in power were racist," she says. "All the women marched out from feelings of sexism from the people who were in power."

Jean recalls when she was hired in the early 1990s, and two LGBT publications told the story in vastly different ways.

One said the Center was only filled with men and her hire was a cynical token gesture to women. Meanwhile, another said the Center was only filled with women and her coming on board was proof of that.

"Our community is a microcosm of society in general, and we experience a lot of the same -isms that everybody else faces: racism, ageism, anti-transgender bias," says Jean.

They all hope that this movie makes people curious to learn more about the Stonewall riots as well as other events in LGBT history. 

"But we put so many of our hopes and dreams in the few things that come out that it's almost asking too much," says Jean.