LGBT Stonewall Riots and the Controversial New Film [Video]

During the post-World War II era, the LGBT community was targeted as deviants who could not be trusted as patriotic Amercian citizens. Between 1950 and 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy relentlessly pushed allegations that there were communists within government agencies. Ervin Griswald, who served as dean of Harvard Law between 1946 and 1967, described McCarthy as, “Judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one.” Before McCarthy was done, homosexuals were considered to be ill-equipped to maintain the same emotional stability as normal people. It was thereby concluded that homosexuals constituted security risks to the U.S. because they were susceptible to blackmail.

Additionally, LGBT folks were included in the first publication of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which was published in 1952. Homosexuality was listed under the heading of Sexual Deviations. By 1951, there were homophile activist organizations emerging around the U.S., particularly in New York’s Greenwich Village, Los Angeles, and San Fransisco. It was 18 years before the Stonewall Riots occurred between police and the LGBT community and subsequently, in September 2015, the controversial new film, Stonewall was released.

Stonewall is a fictionalized accounting of the Stonewall Riots, and according to Entertainment Weekly, LGBT activist groups called for a boycott of this film in August 2015. A boycott petition was authored by Reuben Hayslett on MoveOn Petitions. The petition clearly states the movie is white-washing LGBT history. However, the boycott was called for based on the trailer, not the actual film. Not everyone in the gay community agrees with the boycott. Comments on Entertainment Weekly, are overwhelmingly critical of the petition. The most concise comment was, “Shouldn’t we wait to see the movie before freaking out about what may or may not be in the movie?” Since the film’s release on Sept. 25, 2015, the critics have published mixed reviews.


The concerns about fictionalizing a historical event are valid. When filmmakers neglect to accurately reenact historical events as important as the Stonewall Riots, they bring to the big screen fallacies that change the viewpoint of the actual occurrences. By doing so, people who are less informed about the historical data take away inaccuracies. This endangers the LGBT’s already tenuous standing in the U.S. As a community, queers in America are highly discriminated against and need to be accurately portrayed in the media.

The Stonewall Riots began on June 28, 1969. The police reports and eye-witness accounts vary, since alcohol, bigotry, and anti-police attitudes were present this makes sense. There is, however, enough for historians to have documented the events many times over. There are numerous books and at least three documentaries about the dawn of the LGBT rights movement. One cannot look at the riots without understanding how the queer community was treated in the decades prior to the uprising.

The documentary entitled, Before Stonewall; The making of Gay and Lesbian Community was released in 1984. The storyline discusses the decades leading up to the riots. Based on the cross-dressing laws, men and women were committing a crime by wearing opposite gender clothing. Drag queens, transsexuals, and butch women were often targets of police officers. As the law was interpreted, women broke the law if they were not wearing at least five articles of traditionally female clothing, such as a brassiere, underpants, and feminine shoes. This subset of the LGBT community was present in New York’s most popular gay bar on the first night of the Stonewall Riots, yet the trailer for the controversial new film has raised many eyebrows. There are no drag queens and very few female patrons shown in the trailer, whereas the historians indicate differently.

The Stonewall Bar, which is located in New York’s Greenwich Village, was opened by the mafia in 1966. As with most gay-friendly bars in that era, it was not owned by anyone within the queer community and was not managed by gays either. The bar was run-down, it had no running water and no emergency exits. There was no way to escape when the police raided the establishment. Raids were commonplace even though the police were paid bribes on a weekly basis. It was illegal for homosexuals to be served alcohol, as was cross-dressing, and being homosexual. During the raids, the patrons were lined up, their identification checked and those who appeared to be gender-bending were harassed, and often arrested. At the time activism was growing stronger among LGBT people. They were tired of the relentless persecution of the previous decades, which labeled them as mentally ill and outlaws.

The raid at the Stonewall Bar, in June 1969, incited anger due to the violent nature the police adopted to combat the rise in activism. The LGBT community had enough and fought back; police and civilians alike were injured during the Stonewall Riots. Perhaps this is why queers in America are critical of the controversial new movie’s trailer, and why a boycott of the film was sought. The bar and the riots, as depicted in the trailer, appeared to be an inaccurate account of the actual events and those involved. Forgotten were the drag queens, butch women, and transvestites, who stood alongside the gay men. After decades of blatant abuse, homosexuals stood their ground and had taken their first significant step toward unified gay pride.

Opinion by Cathy Milne
Edited by Leigh Haugh

United States Senate: Senate History 1941-1963 – “Have You No Sense of Decency?”
Entertainment Weekly: LGBT activists call for boycott of Stonewall over ‘whitewashing’
Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Cross-Dressing and the Criminal
Featured Photo Courtesy of Max Spaber’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Photo Courtesy of John March’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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