In June in cities around North America (including my hometown of Toronto), LGBT people from around the world will gather, celebrate, and march in recognition of the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising of June, 1969. Indeed, in just a few days, the “gaybourhood” area of Toronto (at the intersection of Church and Wellesley Streets) will be transformed into a veritable gong show of joyful, unfettered, and riotous partying. Soon after I write this, people will pour into town from all over Canada, the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, all ready to get down, to revel in the strength of community, and to remind the world that, in the old 1960s activist phrase, “Gay is Good”.
But, like most iconic 1960s moments, the Stonewall Uprising – a protracted series of street fights, protests, and demonstrations which arose following a raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City – needs to be put back into some perspective. Too often cited as “the beginning of the gay rights movement”, as if it were a sudden and unpredictable shock, Stonewall is more reasonably fitted into a long and complex history of gay activism.
While the spontaneity and disorganized passion of the Stonewall Uprising can’t be overstated, the tendency to neglect the decades of activism that led to the conditions that made Stonewall possible is regrettable. On the one hand it is plainly ahistorical, while on the other it forces Stonewall to carry too heavy a burden. It, as a symbol, collapses under the weight. For, how can one event – localized as it was – be said to have started such a massive, powerful, and effective political movement? As we should do with the oversimplification that Rosa Parks started the Civil Rights movement, let us problematize the assertion that Stonewall was the beginning of the LGBT coming out party.
Taking as its starting point the notion that “everybody has their own Stonewall story” and that “this is just one of them “, Nigel Finch’s 1996 fictionalization of the Uprising is a celebration of the mythology of the events. Employing just about the most ridiculously clichéd narrative imaginable – a corn-fed Iowa hunk moves to the big city with stars in his eyes, is shown the ropes by a click of fabulous Greenwich Village drag queens, falls into a relationship with a conflicted prostitute named La Miranda, and then they all participate in the riotous events of June, 1969 – Finch’s film is not trying too hard for verisimilitude. Instead, characters talk to cameras, there are random musical numbers – the Ronettes were apparently big in the scene in those days – and there are more than a few preposterous moments designed for amusement, not historical accuracy.
In short, this is a Stonewall film which has as much to say about the legacy of the Uprising as a clotheshorse as it does about the characters and situations it presents. Because Finch seems content with the idea that you can hang any situation, theme, or account on Stonewall, the film takes virtually every obvious and predictable route to the final showdown. If you came up with a checklist of every LGBT chestnut in the book, odds are you’ll find them all here.
Indeed, everyone in this film feels plastic and archetypal, every one of them a tired and superficial version of a real human being. Now, this may have been the point – that the Stonewall Riots have become so much a symbol that we cannot but remember them through the lens of such archetypal images, characters, and scenes – but, while this is interesting to discuss, it isn’t much fun to watch. The shallowness of the dialogue, and the ultimate staginess of the action – from the generally unsubtle performances to the obvious soundstage sets – conspire to rob the film of any engaging realism. Instead, it all seems like so much pageantry; I found it tough to relate to anyone or anything that passed onscreen, which is a fairly weird response to have to a film about something as inherently compelling as the Stonewall Uprising.
On the plus side, Finch (who died during post-production) made sure to explore the reality of gay identity as a site of multiple and shifting oppressions. Race, class, and gender are all folded into the film, while the myth that gay scenes are dominated by white, middle class, and otherwise closeted homosexuals is exploded almost immediately. Diversity (of thought, expression, ethnicity, background) is everywhere on display, even if the conversations between these diverse folks tend not to express too many competing viewpoints. However, the lack of any strong female characters is a missed opportunity to discuss the complex relationships between gay and lesbian communities in those (and these) years, and serves to minimize the role of lesbians in this apparently formative moment in LGBT history.