The lesbians of “Stonewall”

Continuing the conversation

Happy Birthday, Marsha is a forthcoming film about trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (who is not in Stonewall), but many are furious that the wide-release feature film relegates the trans women and people of color to “props,” staging educational protests and some encouraging a boycott. 

“Seeing the film in its entirety was disappointing in how once again white gay men reduce trans women of color down to historical, social and political props, further highlighting issues of classism, trans-misogyny, anti-blackness, Hollywood trans-face casting, misgendering, identity appropriation and transparent propaganda,” Ashley Love, an activist and organizer, told The New York Times. And other publications have followed suit, giving honest reviews of the film’s focusing on the white gay teen and his use of Ray and Marsha when he’s desperate. They also provide a bit of “comic relief,” BuzzFeed’s trans-identified reviwer notes, not taken as seriously as the main coming out story for the gay, white, cisgender lead.

Marsha P. Johnsonmarsha-p-johnson-wikipedia

And what of the lesbians? I counted a handful throughout the film. Besides Sam and her femme lover, there were two other women visible in the background at Stonewall and a few women at the Mattachine Meeting Danny attends. In that scene, legendary gay activist Frank Kameny isn’t shown in the most flattering way, angering Danny in his buttoned-up approach to achieving civil rights by having civilized conversation. This struggle between the different community ideals would have proved more exciting to delve into, including Barbara Gittings and partner Kay Tobin‘s pre and post-Stonewall advocacy. Interestingly, production notes include a thank you to Kay for her manuscripts and archives available from the New York Public Library.

Another lesbian figure who was witness to the Stonewall riots themselves, however, was Daughters of Bilitis member Martha Shelley. The then-26-year-old left Gianni’s the night of the uprising and spotted the “brick-and-bottle-throwing crowd.” She assumed it was an anti-war riot, but quickly realized it was her own community fighting back.

“I don’t know if you remember the Joan Baez song, ‘It isn’t nice to block the doorway, it isn’t nice to go to jail, there’re nicer ways to do it but the nice ways always fail,'” Martha said in the documentary Stonewall Uprising. “For the first time, we weren’t letting ourselves be carted off to jails, gay people were actually fighting back just the way people in the peace movement fought back.”

Perhaps how some people see lesbian women’s involvement in the events of Stonewall can be best summed up by the Berkly Barb’s report of the events in a July 1969 article “Gays Hit New York Cops.” The reporter writes:

“Ironically, it was a chick who gave the rallying cry to fight.” 

The irony, indeed.

Stonewall opens today.