Several months ago, we became aware of an upcoming film by out director Roland Emmerich about the legendary Stonewall Riots. Back then all we had was an IMDB page, but looking at it, we could see that there was a white, cis main character; Marsha P. Johnson as played by a male actor; and a complete lack of many of the legendary women of color who played integral roles including Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie and Miss Major Griffen-Gracy. Then, last week, we finally saw a preview for it and all of our worst fears were realized. Here was our history, a history made real by Black and Brown trans women and lesbians, but it was a false, whitewashed and ciswashed version, a version that the establishment could find respectable enough to be a mainstream story. This was an insult.
It’s an especially deep cut because there are still people alive today who were there, and people alive who were close with people who were there. We know what really happened and who really did the work, but this movie is spitting in the truth’s face. Emmerich’s version of Stonewall, with its sanitized cis, white male main character, is an insult to both the legends who are still here and the ones who died in the fight for not just trans rights, but for the rights of the entire LGBTQ community. I reached out to one of those legends, Miss Major, to talk to her about what Stonewall was really like and why this new movie dishonors her and all the women of color, both trans and cis, who worked so hard to get us where we are today. Because if you’re making a movie about a real moment in history involving real people, you might want to talk to someone who was actually there.
Miss Major is a Black trans woman, activist and elder. She’s a former sex worker and community leader, she survived being incarcerated and participated in the Stonewall Riots. She’s a legend and has helped countless trans women of color over the last 40 years.
Mey: It’s great to talk to you, first of all, have you heard about the new Stonewall movie?
Miss Major: It’s so disappointing. They keep doing this! My first thought is: how dare they attempt to do this again? A few years ago they did another Stonewall movie, and I swear if I saw a black person, it had to be a shadow running against the face of somebody who was white!
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 colors 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? And I’m sorry, but the last time I checked, the only gay people I saw hanging around there were across the street cheering. They were not the ones getting slugged or having stones thrown at them. It’s just aggravating. And hurtful! For all the girls who are no longer here who can’t say anything, this movie just acts like they didn’t exist.
And these were wonderful, marvelous, smart, intelligent girls. Yeah, we couldn’t get jobs making sixty thousand dollars a year, oh well. But we lived our true selves. We enjoyed our lives. We did what we had to do to survive. And we did! And now they’re acting like, “we’re so grateful that you did this and we’re going to take it from here because you stupid bitches don’t know how to do this.” Yeah, okay. Because I’m not white, I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale, and my parents don’t have money. What does any of that have to do with the facts? Nothing.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you remember happening leading up to the riots and the community that was there?
The thing about that is — I’m seventy-three. So of course my memory is full of whatever is going on in my head, but the thing that’s important is that this was a club the girls went to when we would do prostituting in the street uptown or over in the East Village. It was somewhere where we could sit with friends, talk about what had happened, celebrate the good things, work on the bad shit until we went home. It was the place where girls who did shows would come to after they did their show at some local club, where they would go and sit afterwards and have some peace of mind. To be around like-minded people. You know, people who are from your area, know who you are, share your same thoughts and feelings. A sense of belonging. We had that there.
It’s amazing that they wanted to take that away from us. And of course, authority and the government always want to do that. But they want to do it to everybody. We were just picked on more because even amongst the people who were on the outskirts of the legitimacy of the law, even with them we were at the bottom of that drudge of people. Because we were that one faction of folks that you could make fun of and abuse and ridicule and hurt and no one said a damn thing. Today that is still happening, but the degree to that is a little less because people are more aware of us now. They know that we didn’t start with Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. They know that for years we have been here. And we’re in the Bible, since they put so much credence in that. We are a being, a culture of people, and they can’t just override us like that. We’re not in the middle of a field like they can just ride through and trample us through the ground and go to the next village and rape and pillage all over again. It’s like that’s what they’re trying to do.
It was a matter of the police — as always — at that time. They used to go to whatever clubs they would work on at night, stick their sticks against the door jamb and the lights came on like it was last call, but you couldn’t get a drink! [laughter] Lights came on and you had to let go of Miss Thang and then parade out of the bar. And it was just one of those things that simply happened to happen.
You know, at this time in the 1960s, everybody was fighting for their own identity. Everyone was fighting for their sense of self-worth. Women wanted their piece, black people wanted their piece, it was supposed to be this “American dream” of sorts. And we weren’t any different. There were people trying to help gay and lesbian people assimilate into the real world. Okay, that’s fine, if that’s what you want to do. But I’m six feet and two inches tall, wearing three inch heels and platinum blonde hair and the lowest-cut blouse and the shortest skirt I can find, I’m not assimilating into anything! No one is saying: “look at that woman over there.” [laughter] So that was out of the question for most of us. We’re not exactly the most passable bunch of people, but we’ve got good hearts and we’re strong characters and we’re courageous people and we have a right to live and be here like everybody else does.
The best thing I can remember about that night is that when the girls decided, “no, we ain’t doing this,” some of the girls got out of the paddy wagon and came back, the police got so scared they backed into the club and locked the doors! I mean, if nothing else,that was the funniest thing to have in your mind watching it happen. And meanwhile across the street there are all these cute little white boys cheering us on, and saying “don’t hurt the girls!” and all this blah blah. They weren’t in the fight.
I learned years ago from being raised in Chicago that when you get in those kind of situations, the first thing you want to do is piss off whatever guard you’re fighting so much that they knock you completely out, then you’ll live another day. They won’t keep beating on you until you don’t live. So I got knocked out early, and the next thing I knew I woke up in the cell and we were let out the next day. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not a part of what’s going on.
A lot of stuff that went on about that simply amazes me because they don’t talk to the people who were involved, they don’t talk to Martha or Sylvia’s friends who might still be alive. I don’t know for sure who is still living because after that, it was so disappointing for me to watch the first gay parade because most of us don’t think of ourselves as gay. A lot of the community, the trans community, even within that there are degrees of colors and things that go on. And in those degrees, there’s the opportunity to flower and become your true self, with a deep, deep rich color, or something light and pastel and soft and demure — but they kept snatching that up and not allowing them to exist or acknowledge that they existed.
The fact that they’re doing this again. It’s just so hurtful. What about the lives of all these people, women and trans men and stuff. Who aren’t here to censor this? You know? For me, since I’m still here, I’m bitching and complaining about it at every opportunity I get. I will let these motherfuckers know in a heartbeat as far as I’m concerned that T should have been first. No way in the world we should have had to vote on whether to not to put the T in the GLBQT. Oh yeah I’m a part of that group,what group? The group with 27,000 letters up there, where are you? That’s so annoying.
They did this before. There was another movie out a few years ago about Stonewall that was whitewashed. They showed it here in San Francisco and I went to the theater and wanted to see the people who put it together. I sent them a note, who I was, I wanted to talk to them for a minute. No one even acknowledged the fact that I came. I know they just didn’t want to hear what I had to say. That’s fine. If you’re going to have the balls to lie like that then you need to have the balls to stand there and listen to someone call you out on it. This shit is bullshit. At least hear it! And they are not doing a damn thing about it, but you can at least hear it!
Now, you know there are more people who know what the hell happened. People are bitching about it. I am so ecstatic about that. This isn’t about me, this is about the younger people who are coming behind me. About the trans folks who don’t know that we have a culture. That we deserve to exist. That this bullying shit is wrong. We can’t live our lives the way somebody else thinks that we should. I’m sorry most of us trans women are not between 5’2 and 5’7, whoops. Most of us don’t wear a size 5/6 shoe. Darn. I’m sorry all of us don’t sound like we spit rose petals out of our mouths as we talk. This shit ain’t easy. You know, if they want to do something or want to make it better than you put on a dress and shit, go out and make money where you gotta pay rent and buy food to feed your children. Then you come talk to me how difficult it is. Until you do, you don’t know what the hell I’ve gone through to get here.
We can tell what they (the Mainstream Gay Communnity) have gone through because their shit is on TV and media, and paper, in magazines, in color. I’m so sick of seeing that. You see this everyday. People are trying to live in their authentic self. Figure out who they are. To be the best human being they can be. Not the obnoxious caricature what someone else thinks we should be because of what their concepts are about who we are, why we exist and what we should be doing. I know what we should be doing. Out there they even look at us and go, we are an abomination. You can’t even spell that bullshit. If I’m gonna be one, you need to spell it out for me. [laughter] I’m sorry I just go off. I just rant and rave. I hope I answered your question.
No, that was amazing! One final question. Instead of supporting this movie, what are some issues people should be paying attention to and some actions people should be taking?
See, you just warm my little heart up. What I would love to see happen not just not go see this thing. But you know that white people want to support white, and some people will go look at the cute little white actor! I want people to realize what actually happened and to do something about it. Let’s get together a group of people to redo those god damn statues across from the original Stonewall. Let’s have the building at least claim who the people were that were there, not these white people that they had on in the plaque in there. None of my girls were mentioned on that plaque, none of us. I went to New York three or four months ago and none of us are on that plaque. Okay, these people are the people you claim were at Stonewall? They must have been in the basement popping open beer bottles. I don’t know them! Even though most of us had different names then, still, something would have been recognizable. Two fags, two lesbians and some random person looking like they were walking into the Park are the statues that are there. Someone should smash those motherfuckers up and turn them into the white dust that they are and put a couple of statues of people of color and at least make one of them an overly obnoxious transgender woman 6’5″, three inch heels, blond/red hair, lashes, beads, feathers and put one of those fine white boys next to her, now that I can handle! [laughter] And let’s have two lesbians at the end with luggage because they’re moving in together! [laughter]
Let’s wake up, I mean, gosh, I know this is a serious thing but let’s keep some humor here. These people need to be acknowledged for the role they played. And that they existed! It’s so important that they at least realized that Marsha and Sylvia existed and that they did so much to help the community. And they tried to work with the [mainstream LGBTQ Community]. For me and the girls who lived Uptown, they did so much.
I hope a lot of people read this and get their heads out of their ass.
There are some other things that I would suggest people do if they want to support trans women of color like those who were the real heroes of the Stonewall Riots. People are talking about boycotting Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall film, and while that’s a good idea, you can do more. Instead of just not going, why not donate that $10 you would have spent on the movie ticket supporting TWOC? You can find trans fundraisers by searching tumblr or by reading articles written by trans women of color here on Autostraddle that focus on ways to help TWOC while we’re alive. You can also support films about TWOC history that are actually featuring and being made by trans women, such as Major! a documentary about Miss Major’s life, and Happy Birthday Marsha, a film about Marsha P. Johnson, that is currently in post-production and is raising money. We need to make sure that we not only remember names like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, but we also honor the work they’ve done by making sure that we pick up where they left off and support trans women of color who are struggling to live today.