During a 1971 rally in Cape Town, a young black activist defied the brutal system of apartheid in South Africa with these words, "The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." By this, Steve Biko called for downtrodden blacks to reclaim their minds, and not to fall prey to images—visual or linguistic-- intended to keep them powerless.
In the United States of 2015, fortunately, we are not burdened with the universal, systematic mental destruction of indigenous Africans that the apartheid system was meant to achieve. But the ongoing cultural wars pose their own set of challenges to our country. Whether through moving imagery or textbooks, there are some who seek to distort historical narratives in ways that rob peoples of color of their roles as mighty agents of change through time.
We find ourselves here in Burbank today faced with yet another challenge to preserving the history of trans people. The Roland Emmerich film, "Stonewall," to be released by Warner Brothers studios on September 25, is part of a tradition in some circles to downplay (and sometimes eliminate) Latina and African American trans women from historical narratives. Although the film has yet to be released, some of the ways it strays from an accurate past can already be examined. A full list of the cast and crew, as posted on IMDB, appears to show the problem. Marsha P. Johnson (played by Otoja Abit) is the only real-life, major trans woman of color to be represented in this latest retelling of the event. Instead, the film focuses on Danny, a fictitious white character who becomes radicalized in New York City.
But in reality, trans women of color were neither add-ons nor tokens to the Stonewall Rising. Nor did their active opposition to oppressive laws begin in 1969. Let the record show that trans women of color generated the spark and much of the energy of Stonewall, the seminal event upon which the broad-based LGBT movement was born. More broadly, trans women participated significantly in the melee at Cooper's Donuts (Los Angeles) in 1959 and in San Francisco's Compton's Cafeteria action in 1966.
Jeremy Irvine (who plays Danny) has tried to calm the widespread furor over this film. In a recent Facebook post and on Guardian.com, he mentioned the presence of a minor, fictitious black trans character. In a nearly verbatim quote, Irvine states, "it is a fictional black transvestite character played by the very talented Vladimir Alexis who pulls out the first brick in the riot scenes." But Irvine's comment does NOT address the complete absence of actors to portray Sylvia Rivera or Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, two important figures during the Stonewall Rising.
Two earlier projects have also omitted the important black and Latina trans participants, thereby dishonoring them. In the trailer for the 1995 film, "Stonewall," one sees numerous trans characters. But the real-life catalysts don't show up in the full list of cast and crew. The whitewashing and gaywashing of history continued in 2011 when PBS aired "Stonewall Uprising," part of "The American Experience" documentary series. The full transcript of this special revealed only a few passing mentions of "drag queens," all the more disappointing because materials on Johnson, Rivera and others were readily available to the filmmakers by then.
We think it fair and reasonable to expect directors, screenwriters, and others to consult trans people whenever our stories are slated to the screen, both big and small. Studio executives, likewise, need to be consistently mindful of the impact of projects--to which they commit--on the general well-being and heritage of trans people. Through meaningful partnership with trans people, you will find we help build finished cultural projects that are rich in historical detail, vibrant in narrative, and richly current in trending topics. Our contributions, in essence, can enhance business and artistry.
Let me be crystal clear. The trans community cannot and will not accept any finished project that exalts commercial and artistic considerations but relegates trans people (in this case, historical trans women of color) to mere footnotes at best, or to utter oblivion, in the extreme. Whether in films or other media, therefore, we must reject and agitate against all forms of historical revisionism that obscure and shatter accounts of trans women of color as potent agents of social change. To those willing to listen to and work with us, we TRULY welcome your partnership!! But to those who turn a deaf ear to our critique, know that we are a determined lot and will not be denied! As we move forward to protect our trans heritage against exploitation, let’s be fortified by the words of the poet extraordinaire, the late Dr. Maya Angelou:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.