There is a great deal of tongue clucking- and rightly so, over the new film "Stonewall." The reasons are many but center on the appropriation of the story of that pivotal night and the way in which Hollywood deforms the truth for commercial purposes. LGBTQI people are furious to see the tale told from the point of view of a white suburban male, and that a riot initiated by transgender women of color has seen them sidelined, while the history, and the honor, is colonized by gay white men.
In short: Truth is sanitized- revised to comport with a preset idea of how it was Way Back When. It is the same process by which the 60s are turned into an era of "peace love and flowers." The 60s did have an aspect of that idyllic ideal. I saw it. I was there. But the Summer of Love in 1967 was brief. And more to the point, the 60s was a decade in which great leaders were gunned down, (e.g., JFK, MLK, and RFK), and where heads were busted by cops and hardhats. Yet as seen through a rosy lens of hindsight, platitudes of "peace love and flowers" trump the hard-nosed reality of an era when the nation was being torn apart by a second civil war.
Not only as an activist, but as a writer, I'm familiar with the spite of Stalinist revisionists when it comes to upsetting cozy assumptions of a narrative they want enshrined. It makes sense: careers are built on 'owning' a socially approved angle on a profitable commodity, such as being a 60s radical, or vanguard 70s "gay liberationist." But the actuality of such eras is far different from the reductionist simplicities and certainties, which translate into easy acceptability at the expense of nuance.
In 2008, I published a memoir about my life in of San Francisco's "gay liberation" culture in which I was prominent as a poet and as the primary scriptwriter and star of the iconic free theater troupe, "the San Francisco Angels of Light." Shortly before official release, my book- FLIGHTS OF ANGELS- was scuttled by its publishers; put simply, they got me to pay for the publication, then abrogated the written contract, expecting me to pay more money in advance. I didn't. They retaliated by pulling the book. I don't mind and I don't regret it. Refusing to buckle to bullying is a simple matter of principle.
What happened next was revelatory. The book was hailed by many in the print media as a fascinating, no-holds barred tale of the 70s- the highs and the lows of a gorgeous and luminous vision, one which certainly existed. It was also a journey into the most idealistic and unusual underground in modern LGBT history- something which, at its best, was shining and radiant- a theater, which inspired Harvey Milk and gave utterance to the collective dreams of a people. But it would have been a rank lie to present the "Angels of Light" as pure flower children dancing in joy and innocence while creating beauty. Of course, that part is true... in part; and, where it existed, it existed in abundance.
But there was an underside of drug addiction, manipulation, sordid and psychotic depravity, which ran in tandem with the beauty, and which, ultimately, destroyed the group. Its locus was a drug dealer with a shrine to Hitler in her flat, one who opined, "Hitler failed. He didn't get enough Jews." It seems incredible that such a person could exist within a tribe or extended family of artists who worked for free for 12 years, to create free theater as a gift of love for their community. But such was the case.
Perhaps dichotomy is inevitable with great art? Perhaps there is always the light in striking contrast to dark? That which exalts in an existential battle with that which seeks to demolish and degrade? I don't know. I do know that, among a few shrill LGBT Stalinists, there was outrage that an insider- (me), would present the story of the "Angels of Light" and/or suggest that the cosmic force of gay light was counterbalanced and, indeed, ultimately demolished by centrifugal chaos and progressive damages as the 70s spun on to the threshold of AIDS and other forms of disintegration brought about, inevitably, by age and penury, the cost of addiction, and trying to sustain a dream despite a marginal existence.
The porno critic of a local newspaper took umbrage to my book. So did a self-anointed cultural critic who lived in SF during the first 6 years of the 70s but never did anything more engaged than having a walk on role in one "Angels" epic, a show, which I starred in and had the dominant role in scripting. Having stood by watching as the "gay revolution" took form, years later, he pronounced himself an expert. Now, along with the aforementioned porno critic- a friend of the Angel Dust dealer with a shrine to Hitler- he shared his outrage... in an anonymous review of the memoir, which was banned five times by amazon since it was so clearly the rant of an unbalanced observor.
My point isn't that hysterics masquerade as critics or that people with no actual knowledge of a scene present themselves as informed. My point is that any history requires honest accounting of what made an era great, as well as the human failings or mounting pressures, which combined to make it brief. It was true in the incandescent years of "the Angels of Light." Yet I saw inversion of truth in the two "critics" who attacked my book, which was a personal memoir, not a formal history.
Today, the film "Stonewall" panders to the commercial taste of a market, which wants historical testaments sanitized and doesn't mind shunting aside uncomfortable aspects which interfere with the Pablum of easily-digested maxims. The larger loss is that such a film repudiates complex- (dare I also say "thought provoking"?) paradoxes of how any outsiders work through their demons and psychological 'Shadow' as they progress towards maturity. And that robs the telling of greatness.
The trajectory of LGBT history was neither smooth nor easy. And the personal stories of those in the vanguard were often rocky. But how could it be otherwise? We're taking about people brought up to be self-hating and called 'sick.' Correcting that horrendous lie took years of concentrated effort by heroes, such as Frank Kameny. But I suggest that one hallmark of coming to the reality of wholeness and the appreciation of complex history is found in the willingness to face the diverse, contradictory and, sometimes, self-canceling aspects of our Past. That is how we grow. And keep evolving.
In the case of Stonewall- the event, not the film- we can now appreciate that it wasn't gay white men asserting a leading role; it was transgender women of color, such as Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. As such, the attempt by the film "Stonewall" to evade that fact not only deprives the picture of accuracy, it repeats the damage inflicted by a culture which wants history presented in bite-sized pieces instead of the often-difficult, painful and contradictory ways in which it actually occurred. But artistic value lies in facing facts as they are, not in how we'd like them to be in order to promote easy acceptance of ourselves, friends, or facile group-think. Or so say I.