This transgressive attitude against what I call the Brokaw mentality continues with Baitz’s strong screenplay for Roland Emmerich’s compelling new film, Stonewall. Baitz treats the Stonewall riots, a seminal event in what was then called gay liberation, with some understandable liberties seen through the haze of almost a half century and a generation of gay men who met untimely deaths from AIDS starting some dozen plus years later afterwards. Like hundreds of historically-based films, Stonewall is a mixture of real-life figures and fictional ones. Note, too, that terminology widely used in many quarters of today’s GLBT community was far from prevalent then (e.g. transgender, cisgender, GLBT, LGBT, pre-op, and countless others). An intersex person was commonly referred to as a hermaphrodite. Some ’60s intellectuals even still used the general term The Third Sex which connoted general sexual and gender otherness as handed down from the Magnus Hirschfeld era. “Sexual deviance” was a commonly used term for any and all who fell within the rubric of what we now call GLBT.
Until 1973 if you were suspected of or found to be one such “deviant” you could be officially classified as mentally ill, could lose your job, be disowned by your family, irreparably destroy your employment record, be imprisoned, lose any standing whatsoever in the community you lived in or moved to, and could be battered or killed with little to no hope of justice. If you were ever caught in a sexual act with a consenting adult of your own gender, you were toast. You were stigmatized, no matter how professionally skilled, no matter what family you were born to, and no matter how physically attractive you were. In Hollywood, we now know how such Adonises as Rock Hudson, George Nader, and George Maharis, among numerous others were sternly pressured and ruthlessly marginalized.
Baitz and Emmerich have boldly transgressed a strongly held liberal ethos of recent years that attractive masculine gay youth who come from rural areas are less worthy of understanding and empathy than other people.* This rationalization holds that because they are handsome and masculine they must be ignorant “himbos” unscathed by homophobia or poverty. This de-sensitized view holds that they’ve never known suffering, because of what’s coined as masculine privilege. There is a refusal by many to accept that masculine gay men are “fully gay” and that they must surely be incapable of being touched by stigma. This is not true now and of course and it wasn’t true 46 years ago.
Stonewall is seen through the eyes of Danny Winters (an endearingly superb Jeremy Irvine), a white 18-year-old high school jock whose father coaches the football team. David Cubitt’s portrayal of Coach Winters is a terrifying performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. It nails the thunderous pyshic brutality of the hysterical homophobia implicit within the World War II/Korean War generation. His rejection of his son is chilling. Karl Glusman delivers a heartbreaking performance as Danny’s athletic and internally self-hating teen boyfriend. When the two are caught by class mates in a sexual act, Danny takes the hit. He is ostracized by students and driven from home.
However, it is Puerto Rican Jonny Beauchamp who gives an Oscar-winning caliber performance as gender nonconforming Ramona/Ray. Thanks to Baitz’s richly written role, Beauchamp emanates a marvelous variation of emotional colors and levels ranging from despair sprung from a hellacious rape and beating, to yearning for Danny, to brazen street-savvy, to possessiveness, to unrequited love, to despair about his economic opportunity, and more. It is light years superior to Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning trans portrayal in Dallas Buyers Club a few years back and reminiscent of the plight of the characters in the landmark musical, Rent.
Ramona/Ray contrasted with Danny equals a splendidly balanced overview of urban and small town mentalities. Both actors capture the beautiful wonder of two beings who come to bond despite their radically different backgrounds. Both actors are beautifully vulnerable. This shows Emmerich’s sensitivity that he demonstrated so well in The Day After Tomorrow between Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid which still ranks among the most sweetly rendered son/father character portrayals in American cinema. Even when dealing with an action sci-fi disaster script, Emmerich elicits delicacy. In Stonewall he blends emotional delicacy with a great deal of content that both includes and borders on violence. He is utterly masterful with actors.
Emmerich perhaps draws from memories and feelings of his own small city youth in the post-war years. It was a time when what was then West Germany was grappling with racist and ideological shame sprung from its persecution of Jews, gypsies, communists, and GLBT persons. Homophobic ostracism has also been true in Germany, notwithstanding standard American generalizations that are largely metropolitan-based about Europe being more tolerant of sexual otherness than the U.S.
The town where Danny was brought up is in Indiana, a state which then, as now, is among the most fiercely conservative red states in the U.S. and, in recent years, its fiercely homophobic attitudes have been in the news (e.g. the Religious Freedom Restoration Act). Therefore, we can be certain that its attitudes on gayness 46 years ago when you were classified as insane were even more awful than today. Bear in mind that, 46 years ago, even liberal states like Minnesota and New York were far from serene bastions of queerness and that those state’s biggest police forces were known to entrap and brutalize systematically.
Indiana’s Ku Klux Klan infiltration is a well-documented reality and be assured that in the eyes of the Klan, being involved in homosexual activity, no matter who you were in the 1960s, made you a candidate for murder. As an 18- and 19-year-old in a small New Mexico city in the late 1970s, I generally passed for masculine, though a few years earlier that wasn’t the case. When I made my first forays into the nearby El Paso, Texas gay scene, an older gay man from my home town who did not pass as masculine and suspiciously unmarried, warned me that if anyone from my town saw me and word got around, that I could become “a candidate for murder.” He knew what he was talking about. And those of us who passed and those of us who were more fluid in our gender watched each other’s backs.
In Stonewall, the June 1969 Christopher Street vicinity is rightly shown as the sort of place where young gay men and gender nonconformers were drawn. Poor youth from impoverished urban areas, middle class urban youth, and those from rural and small towns well beyond New York City, saw it as a refuge and “watched each others back.” Despite differences, one shed them in the face of cops and the mob. All of these nonheterosexual persons would have officially been deemed as mentally ill, and by and large were potential candidates for murder in the places from which they fled. This section of Lower Manhattan was one of the very, very few parts of the entire nation in which young queer folk had heard that you could be yourself. Unfortunately, poverty and sadistic police brutality, both of which the film conveys powerfully, could be overwhelming. Emmerich’s Stonewall is especially attuned to what was then and still is the problem of queer youth homelessness. Those marginalized clearly range from urban to small town backgrounds in the film as they were in real life.
Stonewall‘s narrative structure moves between Danny’s hometown parochialism and the dizzying ragged milieu of Christopher Street. It vividly contrasts the countrified world congealed in hateful homophobia and the metropolitan underworld where Baitz and Emmerich forcefully remind us of the mob influence of the gay club scene and its degrading effects on the Stonewall gay bar customers who could be shuttled away in a paddy wagon at a moment’s notice. The term “gay ghetto” was commonly used in those days for places like the Christopher Street area and that implicitly referred to lesbians and what we now think of as gender non-conformers. San Francisco’s Castro Street area and Minneapolis’ Loring Park area were referred to as such in that era and beyond. Straight friends of the community who happened to be at the Stonewall bar were also included in the regular police sweeps.
The naive Danny is compelled to sell his penis for the first time. This scene, as played by Irvine, is a wrenching view of a young person’s humiliation and relinquishing of what he holds sacred: his sexuality. Whether you are pro-sex work or not, you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved my this scene. It implies that economics can drive one to such humiliation.
Danny lives in squalor in a culturally diverse, drug-infested one-room unit with several other young people who are also compelled to sell their bodies, even if it means getting paid for being beaten up. In many ways, the film is reminiscent of Midnight Cowboy, which was actually released in 1969. That said, that film’s arrogant protagonist, Joe Buck played by Jon Voight, is straight and, though emotionally ravaged by his experiences, I would submit that the humble Danny is more emotionally wounded. Of course, that’s a whole conversation in itself. And it would be immoral to say that Joe Buck deserves the indignities he suffers.
Another Stonewall virtue is its design. From automobiles, to storefronts, to music selection, it recaptures the era. We suffer in contemporary America from media outlets, both corporate and alternative, that have long given the false impression that in the 1960s pacifism, marijuana, protests, and the ethos of Bob Dylan ruled the decade. The Vietnam War continued into the ’70s with far more public support than many like to think about and The Sound of Music was the ’60s decade’s most profitable film. What we have come to think of as the Leave it to Beaver-style ’50s was still the measure by which most of the country hewed to. Or what I prefer to call the Brokaw style. Stonewall reflects that.
*Embedded in this is a metrocentric tendency entrenched in the GLBT movement. This has ironically transpired despite the greatest breakthrough in gay film representations which happened in 2005. Brokeback Mountain, set in the early ’60s, exemplifies the isolation of gay and bisexual men and its romantic duo is a physically well-built, masculine one. But as the film credibly shows us, their lives, despite their physical attractiveness, were miserable and defined by alienation. That was the reality all GLBT people were compelled to endure then. Thankfully, and ironically, the positive images revisionist thought police of the previous generation’s gay movement were no longer at the wheel, so Ang Lee’s masterpiece starring two straight men was not ridiculed by activists so much. I began writing when that previous generation was in power nationally and whose Thou Shalt Show ONLY Positive Images of Gay Men and Lesbians grated as a misguided platitude. It also held that no straight persons should ever be allowed to act or direct work regarding gay characters. Thank goodness that mentality was put aside as Brokeback Mountain‘s handsome hunks, whether we like it or not, did more to make the masses identify with the plight of being gay or bisexual than any film in history. In the ten years since then, marriage equality has become a reality and many in the trans community have put forth their concerns with great support from gays and lesbians. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis