The lesbians of “Stonewall”

History is a tricky thing. Say what you will about today’s incessant use of iPhones and cameras, but their ability to capture moments for later proof and investigation of a particular moment in time might have proven helpful during something like the Stonewall Riots. As one of the most important happenings in LGBT history, the night of June 27, 1969 has been discussed, celebrated and heavily debated, as there is little footage of the events, and bystander’s commentary isn’t as reliable with differing opinions and interpretations of what spawned the uprising.

Forty-six years later after that sticky night in New York City, the details are being called into question because of a new feature film, Stonewall, Roland Emmerich‘s fictional retelling of the riots. (Although it only features the first night, when ultimately reports say the rioting continued for four days.) Roland, an out filmmaker whose work includes Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and The Patriot, based his story around Danny (Jeremy Irvine), a 17-year-old from Indiana who heads to Christopher Street after his parents kick him out for being gay. The bulk of the film is about Danny’s befriending of a group of hustlers who hole up together, sharing a single floor and few blankets in a run-down room on the same block of the Stonewall Inn.

stonewall

The riots don’t begin until the climax of the film, although they are most of what has given way to criticism before most have been able to see Stonewall. (Now that reviewers have, however, the reviews focus on other facets they find unwatchable, including shaky story and melodramatic dialogue.) Because the movie highlights the white, gay male lead’s experience at the riots, the focus is less on the trans women, people of color and lesbians that were also involved. Interestingly, mosts of the discussions that have been had seem to even leave out the lesbians altogether.

The Stonewall Lesbian(s)

A rather tough lesbian was busted in the bar and when she came out of the bar she was fighting the cops and trying to get away. And the harder she fought, the more the cops were beating her up and the madder the crowd got. And I ran into Howard Smith on the street, The Village Voice was right there. And Howard said, “Boy there’s like a riot gonna happen here,” and I said, “yeah.” And the police were showing up.- Lucian Truscott, IV, Reporter, The Village Voice, (Stonewall Uprising)

In 1969, it was illegal not only to having any same sex relationships, but for people to cross dress. Lesbians would be arrested if they weren’t wearing at least three items of women’s clothing, which is why many butch dykes would be thrown into jail after police raids on the underground gay bars, such as the Stonewall. In the film, out Toronto-based actress Joanne Vannicola plays the singular lesbian character with lines. In an early scene, she is thrown into a paddy wagon for donning menswear, alongside trans activist Marsha P. Johnson and another one of the film’s stars, Jonny Beauchamp as Ray/Ramona who were also violating the masquerading law. This happens just minutes after Joanne (playing a character named Sam) can be spotted in the background of a scene inside the bar, slow dancing and kissing a femme.

“My first day [on set], you won’t see much of it because it was edited down,” Joanne said, “but there was a big sort of jail scene where we were all thrown into jail prior to the Stonewall riots. You see a quick clip of my face at one point—we were all put in the paddy wagon and thrown into jail. There was a lot of lip locking with a lady, too, you just don’t see it on film. I had three to four hours of kissing! You just see like five seconds.”

Joanne on set with two co-starsIMG_7781

Sam is a fictional character, which is based off of the real lesbian who has been cited by several sources as inciting the riot on the night of June 27. At the time, a lesbian bar called Gianni’s was where most of the women went, but some still populated the Stonewall, as all of the gay bars were own and operated by the mob and faced the same scrutiny from cops. So when two female cops went to the Stonewall undercover as lesbians that night, they weren’t out of place. They were on the lookout for “homosexuals who were selling or using drugs.” But when Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine and his men busted into the bar, it wasn’t just another night of putting up with police brutality. Lillian Faderman writes in her new book, The Gay Revolution

A small knot of lesbian patrons were also signaled out for special attention when a couple of them got feisty, back-talking to the officers, yelling “We have a right to be here!”

…The real turning point … came after several policeman dragged a butch lesbian out of the bar. They’d handcuffed her because she’d struggled with them. The paddy wagon was full, so the officers pushed the hefty, dark-haired woman who was wearing a man’s dress suit into one of the squad cars that were lined up on the street. But she wouldn’t stay put. Three times she slid out the driver’s-side back door and tried to run back intot hte Stonewall, perhaps to a lover still being questioned. The last time, as a beefy policeman wrestled her back toward the squad car, she yelled to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?”