Her Stonewall Legend: The Fictionalization of Sylvia Rivera in Nigel Finch's Stonewall.
Questions over who is in charge of representing and who is being represented in mainstream versions of LGBT history have similarly mediated the reception of another film about the queer past, Netflix's documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017), a self-proclaimed "celebration" of Rivera and Johnson directed by the renowned, openly gay documentarian David France (Public Square Films 2017). Notably, hours after France's documentary debuted on Netflix (the wildly popular and wealthy streaming platform) in October 2017, black transgender filmmaker and activist Reina Gossett took to social media, publicly accusing France of plagiarizing her idea for the film and "ripp[ing] off decades of [...] archival research" (Juzwiak 2017). While the nuances and dimensions of Gossett's accusations are beyond the scope of this piece, I see the two filmmakers' back-and-forth over France's inclusion of rare footage of Sylvia Rivera (featuring Rivera's infamous speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally, in which she is booed offstage after denouncing the rampant transphobia among the gay members of the audience) as indicative of the issues of representation and archive-building that emerge when the stories and histories of radical trans and queer historical figures are filtered through the lens of mainstream, commercial modes of filmmaking, even when these figures are the primary narrative focus of the text at hand. (3) For Gossett, who posted the clip online back in 2012 (without official permission, as she has publicly stated) to make it freely available to other trans folk, France's decision to include the clip constitutes an instance of appropriation and commodification of trans history by an affluent, reputable, white, cis gay man--especially since she received an official notice of copyright infringement ordering her to take down the clip in the eve of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson's premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival (Ennis 2018). For his part, France denies having anything to do with the removal of the videos even as he continues to reaffirm his legal and financial right to incorporate the clip in his film, having paid for the licensing fees associated with reproducing the footage; more troublesome is the fact that the documentarian has repeatedly posited Gosett as nothing more than a delusional, entitled, and envious artist (Ennis 2018; Juzwiak 2017). (4)
In dismissing Gossett's claims of ownership of the footage of Rivera and the history of transgender activism and discrimination embodied by both Rivera and Johnson through a reassertion of his (upper-class, white, cis, male) privilege, France--echoing Emmerich--has inadvertently positioned himself as the rightful owner of Rivera and Johnson's history. In contrast, Gossett has astutely moved beyond the confines of the law, choosing instead to contextualize her criticisms against France's documentary in relationship to the current trend of increased visual representation of stories about trans folk in popular media. Gossett argues that this trend has privileged the on screen depiction of trans characters, actors, and narratives without incorporating the perspective of trans creators and filmmakers behind the camera, resulting in a dominant mode of media representation that has allowed for "transness" to become "misused, sanitized, and extracted for the gain of others" (2017--emphasis added). Gossett invites audiences to consider the potential ways in which depictions of trans stories and bodies often privilege the perspective of normative subjects, limiting the agency of trans folk in the process.
That Emmerich and France have felt compelled to describe images of trans and queer people of color as corruptive, unreliable, and deceitful while excising them from LGBT history and historiography is hardly surprising given the imperialist commodification and dejection that has allowed for the marginalization of Otherness within dominant discourses of LGBT rights and representation. This cycle of appropriation and disavowal is key to understanding the history of trans and queer Puerto Rican and Latinx characters and performers in modern western queer cinema. The rich work of scholars like Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, Frances Negron-Muntaner, and Hiram Perez, for instance, has uncovered the crucial role that trans New York Puerto Rican performers Holly Woodlawn and Mario Montez played in the emergence of the underground queer film aesthetics of venerated 1960s and 1970s queer artists like Paul Morrissey, Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol. Influenced by widely circulated discourses of Puerto Rican culture as inherently queer, these filmmakers developed a signature aesthetic that depended on the on-screen appropriation, hypersexualization, and humiliation of Montez and Woodlawn. As these artists' films earned the reputation of being authentic and subversive, the directors gained cultural and financial capital. For their part, not only did Woodlawn and Montez receive little-to-no financial compensation for their work in these films, they were also discarded once these artists saw no use for them; with the credit for their original (often completely improvised) performances going to their more prestigious and reputable directors, Woodlawn and Montez struggled to continue their careers as actors in an industry that saw little value in their work away from the directors who claimed to turn them into stars (La Fountain-Stokes 2009; Negron-Muntaner 2004; Perez 2015). Decades later, when gay-themed mainstream Hollywood films gained prominence in the 1990s, queer Puerto Rican and Latinx subjects were similarly deployed to validate normative values that served to subjugate these subjects' agency. Films such as Philadelphia (Demme 1993) and The Birdcage (Nichols 1996) feature subsidiary gay Latinx characters whose narrative purpose is to legitimize neoliberal homonormativity--or what Hiram Perez refers to as gay cosmopolitanism (2015)--either by humanizing the homonormative gay male protagonist (Philadelphia) or by serving as the inappropriately hypersexual counterpart to the normalized--if safely irreverent--gay family unit (The Birdcage). Through this history, it seems that the marginalization of trans and queer Puerto Rican and Latinx figures like Rivera in contemporary queer films is a natural continuation of a gay cinematic tradition built on the subjugation and regulation of trans and queer brown bodies.
To date, the limited but indispensable scholarship that has considered Sylvia Rivera's life and legacy through the lens of Puerto Rican and Latinx studies has similarly focused on the process of commemorating and archiving Rivera within traditional LGBT historiography. Jessi Gan (2007) and Tim Retzloff (2007) argue that this memorialization has depended on the simultaneous appropriation and subjugation of Rivera's transgressive cultural, gendered, sexual, and political expression as a Puerto Rican and Venezuelan loca--a Latin American term that I further develop later in this paper to describe radical, unruly trans Puerto Rican and Latinx subjects. My research expands on Gan's and Retzloff's respective studies by paying attention to the specific ways in which filmic representations of the past have contributed to the imperialist, regulatory avowal and disavowal of the Sylvia Rivera persona. Accordingly, this article examines the critically overlooked 1995 film Stonewall directed by the late British gay filmmaker Nigel Finch. Adapted from Martin Duberman's foundational 1993 book of the same name, 1995's Stonewall interests me as the very first and one of the few popular texts to engage with Sylvia Rivera's legacy and Stonewall mythology through the process of fictionalization. Specifically, the film invokes Rivera through the prominent character of La Miranda, a self-identified drag queen based on Rivera's first-hand testimony as it appears in (and is mediated by) Duberman's chronology of the riots. (5) As an independent film with commercial prospects, Finch's Stonewall awkwardly relies on Hollywood genre tropes and western cinematic conventions that attempt to translate Rivera's unruly Puerto Rican trans subjectivity for a mass audience. Through this regulatory process, Rivera becomes a way for the film to bolster and uphold teleological, neoliberal constructs of Stonewall and LGBT history as vibrant, authentic, and properly multicultural. Yet, in its attempt to produce a sympathetic portrayal of Rivera, Finch's Stonewall gains a level of complexity that has often been ignored by scholars.
On one hand, I argue that the film's portrayal of Sylvia Rivera replicates the United States' colonial marginalization of Puerto Rican subjects by valorizing Rivera's legacy insofar as it upholds and bolsters the needs and desires of a cosmopolitan white gay male subject. On the other hand, I argue that in positioning a radical Puerto Rican trans character as an integral component of LGBT history, the film inadvertently points to the political potential of Rivera and other Stonewall-era Puerto Rican celebrity locas, like Woodlawn and Montez, whose unapologetically queer Puerto Rican public personae insist on a radical authorship of the self that disrupts the imperialist dynamics through which locas' bodies are consumed and regulated. As such, Finch's Stonewall speaks to the ways in which the United States' history of imperialism in Puerto Rico informs the marginalization of locas as well as it produces sites of resistance against such imperialist regulation. Ultimately, I propose that in light of the recent controversial portrayals of Sylvia Rivera, critical recoveries of films such as Finch's Stonewall open up sites to recontextualize locas' agency within hegemonic systems of representation and visibility.
Contemporary LGBT Categorizations and Citizenship
Given my focus on the memorialization of Stonewall and Stonewall-era locas in this study, it is important to contextualize my use of terms like transgender, gay, LGBT, and queer within dominant discourses of LGBT citizenship that emerged in the aftermath of the riots and other forms of queer resistance that took place in the united States over the mid-to-late 1960s. The post-1969 gay liberation movement, predominantly led by middle-class, white cisgender homosexual men, invested in a definition of the word gay that exclusively revolved around sexual orientation and was altogether divorced from gender (Wilchins 2004). Trans studies scholar Riki Wilchins explains that the disassociation of the word gay from non-normative modes of gender identification and expression over the 1970s and 1980s stems from a sociopolitical context in which "Americans were prepared to debate some degree of rights for gays" even as they considered "anything that smacked of genderqueerness" to be "unpalatable" (2004, 16). As the leaders of the gay liberation movement prioritized a "respectable" version of gay visibility that, above all, sought gay people's "inclusion in capitalism and state institutions" and representation in mainstream media (Nothing 2013, 6), the public image of the ideal gay male citizen-subject became one from which "cross-dressers, transsexuals, drag queens, intersexuals, and stone butches" were excised (Wilchins 2004, 22). In turn, the word transgender necessarily emerged as "an umbrella term for anyone who crossed gender lines" (Wilchins 2004, 26--emphasis in the original).
Based on this history, I have chosen to use the term gay to describe subjects who identify or are coded as homosexual. Instead of seeing the categories transgender and gay as mutually exclusive, I use transgender to refer to "any and all kinds of variation from gender norms and expectations" (Stryker 2008, 19). Such a definition not only incorporates "those who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned to at birth" (Stryker 2008, 19), but it also takes into account effeminate gay men, fairies, and drag queens as well as locas and street queens (Wilchins 2004). Moreover, based on queer Puerto Rican critic Salvador Vidal-Ortiz's understanding of queer in the collection Queer Brown Voices, the term queer in this essay sometimes functions "as shorthand for LGBT," while also serving as a way to describe non-normative modes of gender and sexual identification and expression resistant to "homonormative forms of being gay (and of living gayness)" (2015, 14). Finally, it is important to note that when I write about an official, mainstream, hegemonic, dominant, or contemporary LGBT movement, I do not seek to ignore the continued institutionalized marginalization of gender and sexual minorities in the united States and the world at large, nor do I embrace the notion of a monolithic LGBT community. Rather, I aim to highlight the set of politics, organizations, and cultural productions that have come to constitute the prevalent image of the LGBT movement in the public consciousness today.
Numerous queer studies scholars have contextualized the emergence of a nationally sanctioned LGBT movement in relationship to widespread discourses of citizenship rooted in neoliberalism and globalization. Queer of color critic David Eng, for instance, argues that the united States' emphasis on a neoliberal mode of citizenship led to the transformation of a once-radical queer politics "into an interest group and niche market [...] in which [LGBT folk] are liberated precisely by proving that they can be proper U.S. citizen-subjects of the nation-state" (2010, 30). To ground my use of the term citizenship, I turn to cultural critic Toby Miller, who writes that, in the modern age, citizenship consists of three dimensions: the political, the economic, and the cultural (2007, 35). Political citizenship refers to an individual's legal rights (such as voting); economic citizenship refers to an individual's right to earn capital through labor or other legally sanctioned means; and cultural citizenship refers to an individual's right to be acknowledged as members of the nation-state through political and cultural representation (2007, 35). Eng's writing points to a contemporary cultural moment in which LGBT people's pursuit of political citizenship (i.e., legal rights) depends on their ability to embody nationalist ideals of economic citizenship (i.e., participation in the consumer market, upward mobility) in order to gain cultural citizenship (i.e., representation and acknowledgment in the popular consciousness). Transgender law scholar Dean Spade similarly writes about the ways in which the LGBT movement left behind "its roots in bottle-throwing resistance to police brutality and the claiming of queer sexual public space" in favor of "the quest for inclusion in and recognition by dominant US institutions" (2015, 20). For Spade, contemporary LGBT politics fails to challenge "racism, transphobia, sexism, ableism, and homophobia," choosing instead to uphold "norms that produce ideas about types of people and proper ways to be" (2015, 52). Eng and Spade's incisive critiques illustrate how entering the public consciousness as legitimate members of the nation-state is only an option to the most privileged segments of the LGBT population. In other words, queer subjects who do not neatly fit into these nationalist concepts of citizenship are considered a threat to the viability of LGBT citizenship in the public sphere; as such, they must be managed, regulated, and disavowed through discourses of bad citizenship.
While Eng and Spade address the influence of neoliberalism and globalization on the development of LGBT citizenship, it is important to note that the deliberate exclusion of unruly queer Others from political and cultural forms of LGBT representation and citizenship has been a major component of the gay liberation movement that emerged in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots of 1969. I do not subscribe to the idea of Stonewall as the teleological birthplace of the LGBT movement, a hegemonic approach to the history of queer rights and visibility that has elided other impactful forms of queer activism and resistance that took place within and beyond the context of 1969 New York (Stein 2005). Rather, I see Stonewall as a symbol that has allowed LGBT people to locate a place in history that--for better or worse--marked a shift in the way they decided to portray themselves politically and culturally in the public sphere. Whereas queer communities and organizations in the 1950s and 1960s were mainly clandestine and insular, the Stonewall riots became a catalyst for the establishment of national, organized, and official gay rights organizations that absorbed various queer groups into an ostensibly unified movement (Yoshino 2006). Traditional LGBT historiography has often rendered this shift in positive terms as even those scholars who are critical of the contemporary LGBT movement nostalgically characterize early-1970s gay rights organizations as militant and radical (Patton 1994; Spade 2015; Yoshino 2006). Despite the militancy of these early organizations, the foundation of the contemporary LGBT movement was built on a political strategy that sought the public recognition of gay people as national subjects, a strategy that quickly led the leaders and most vocal members of these groups to inadvertently adopt nationalist discourses of citizenship as a way to decide which types of subjects would represent the movement.
A Madwoman on the Loose: The Controversial Biography of Sylvia Rivera
Sylvia Rivera stands as a particularly relevant figure to interrogate the LGBT movement's relationship to unruly trans and queer Puerto Rican subjects across modern history, especially given the tensions between her biography and her public persona in official LGBT historiography. Born in New York City in 1952 and assigned male at birth, Rivera was the daughter of a dark-skinned Puerto Rican man she only met once and her U.S.-born Venezuelan mother who, herself, was raised by a single mother--Viejita, a Venezuelan immigrant living in New York. (6) When Rivera was three years old, her mother committed suicide, forcing Rivera to live with her maternal grandmother Viejita, whose disdain toward Puerto Ricans and black people caused her to treat Rivera with open hostility (Rivera 2002). That a presumably assimilated, working-class Venezuelan immigrant would attempt to distance herself from her racialized Puerto Rican grandchild is not surprising. Puerto Rican critic Arnaldo Cruz-Malave historicizes immigrants' anxieties over Puerto Ricans' "peculiar mix of ethnicity and race" during the first half of the twentieth century, explaining that as far as the late 1920s, immigrants in New York "aspired to leave behind their ethnic roots, which symbolically racialized them, and assimilate into American society by becoming simply 'white'" (2007b, 125-126). Viejita likely perceived her responsibility as the guardian of a dark-skinned Puerto Rican child as a threat to the ostensible stability she had achieved as a first-generation immigrant. In fact, Viejita went to great lengths to force Rivera to assimilate into U.S. culture, enrolling her in an all-white Catholic school and scolding her whenever she spoke Spanish (Rivera 2002). The irony of Viejita, a Venezuelan immigrant, going through such lengths to make Sylvia Rivera, a U.S. citizen by birth, appear "American" speaks to the ways in which the visibility of Puerto Ricans in the public consciousness was imagined as antithetical to other immigrants' presumed agency within the nation-state, thus foreshadowing the consitency with which Rivera's body would go on to be read as Puerto Rican--not Venezuelan or white American--and disciplined as such.
At age eleven, Rivera left her grandmother's home to live in the streets of New York and make a living as a prostitute. I read Rivera's full-time transition from Viejita's home into the streets of New York as a key moment in her biography that signals her entrance into the community of locas and street queens (other trans women who lived and worked on the streets) that were a visible component of New York's Stonewall-era queer culture. La Fountain-Stokes reminds us that the meaning and connotation of the word loca depends on the context in which the word is being invoked (2011). As such, for purposes of this paper, I engage with the figure of the loca vis-a-vis the best known aspects of Rivera's life and legacy. Here, I use loca--which translates to "madwoman"--to refer to Puerto Rican and Latinx transgender subjects who were initially assigned male at birth and whose public expression of queerness "refuse[s] to accept the binary system" of gender, sexuality, race, and class that allows for the subordination of non-normative, transgressive forms of queer Latinx expression (Cruz-Malave 2007b, 170). While "good" LGBT national subjects willingly adopt and replicate hegemonic nationalist values and practices, Stonewall-era locas "would rather prowl the streets in flamboyant, self-advertising outfits, displaying their desire in public, making their claim both to the visibility of their desire and to public space" (Cruz-Malave 2007b, 170). Based on this public and unapologetic display of queerness, locas are typically seen as vulgar, excessive, shameless and shameful, violent, and deeply entitled (Asencio 2011; Palaversich and Allatson 2002). Consequently, far from being upwardly mobile or model citizens, locas are often associated with a "lack of mainstream jobs, stability, or social advancement" (Asencio 2011, 346).
Sylvia Rivera's recorded testimony illustrates locas' radical, public insistence on an authorship of the self. Speaking to Duberman about her queer identity, Rivera explained that she liked to "throw on some female attire, a blouse or whatever--not complete drag--paint on a little makeup--and hit the streets" (qtd in Duberman 1993, 126). While wearing "female attire" and "a little makeup" are significant to her appearance, she also makes a point to establish that she is not interested in presenting herself in "complete drag." In so doing, Rivera points to locas' public refusal to adhere to the "more palatable and more gender-normative" forms of queer expression and visibility privileged in today's hegemonic U.S. culture (Wilchins 2004, 17). The marginalization and subversion that emerges as a result is evident in Rivera's rebuttal of criticisms she faced from lesbians in the official gay rights organizations founded in the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall riots in New York, who claimed that transgender women "were offensive to women because [they] liked to wear makeup and [...] miniskirts" (Rivera 2007, 121). Addressing these critiques at a 2001 talk for the Latino Gay Men of New York, Rivera stated, "Everybody thinks we want to be out on them street corner [....] We don't want to be out there sucking dick and getting fucked up the ass. But that's the only alternative [...] because the laws do not give us the right to go and get a job the way we feel comfortable" (2007, 121). Here, Rivera connects her physical appearance to her work as a prostitute, both of which she frames in relationship to the institutionalized disenfranchisement of trans bodies who are expected to present themselves as gender-normative before they can join the workforce. (7) Instead of succumbing to this demand, Rivera reinforces her right to be and look in a way that makes her, not mainstream culture, "comfortable." Hence, Rivera enacts and embodies what Spade refers to as "critical trans politics," an expression of trans resistance that "demands more than legal recognition and inclusion, seeking instead to transform current logics of state, civil society security, and social equality" (2015, 1).
As prostitutes, habitual drug users, and cross-dressers who worked and lived on the streets of New York, locas were constantly targeted by the New York City police force. (7) In turn, the predominantly middle-class, white gay male clientele at the Stonewall Inn--the underground gay bar illegally run by the Mafia that would go on to become the site of the eponymous iconic riots--saw locas' legal troubles as a liability to what was already an unstable space, leading the bar's patrons and owners to treat them with unabashed hostility (Duberman 1993; Rivera 2002). Following the Stonewall riots, Rivera joined the early gay rights organizations founded in New York in the early 1970s. The hostile treatment to which the gay and lesbian leaders and other vocal members of these organizations subjected Sylvia Rivera--a continuation of her marginalization at the Stonewall Inn--illustrates how even during these early days, the gay liberation movement all too willingly replicated exclusionary, nationalist notions of good citizenship. Martin Duberman's book Stonewall highlights the general perception of Rivera as a political liability when she joined these groups:
By her mere presence, she was likely to trespass against some encoded middleclass white script ... If someone was not shunning her darker skin or sniggering at her passionate, fractured English, they were deploring her rude anarchism as inimical to order or denouncing her sashaying way as offensive to womanhood. (1993, 236).
The tensions between Rivera and leaders and members of the early gay rights movement through the rhetoric of order and respectability cannot be separated from discourses about Puerto Ricans' sexual and gendered practices that gained prominence in the United States throughout the 1960s. The increasing visibility of Puerto Ricans in New York after World War II engendered a series of social science studies that sought to "explain" Puerto Ricans' socioeconomic status. Mirroring the rhetoric of locas as "inimical to order" (Duberman 1993, 236), these studies advanced the idea of a Puerto Rican "culture of poverty" that could only be explained through "the tale of a mostly female, disordered sexuality whose 'pathological' results (free unions, unstable marriages, high rates of illegitimacy, and matrifocal households) were perpetuated culturally" (Cruz-Malave 2007b, 101). This rhetoric allowed the United States to cast the blame for Puerto Ricans' lack of financial resources and limited employment opportunities away from the country's colonial ownership of the island and onto Puerto Ricans' imagined "disorderly" gendered and sexual practices. Convincing the U.S. public of this idea required little effort given that, going back to debates about the United States' invasion and acquisition of Puerto Rico during and after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Puerto Ricans were portrayed in the national imagination as culturally incapable of embodying U.S. citizenship due to their perceived lack of masculinity and immoral sexual behavior (Cruz-Malave 2007a; Negron-Muntaner 2004).
If the exclusion of Rivera in the early 1970s can be understood through then-contemporary discourses of Puerto Rican gender and sexuality, her eventual recovery twenty years later--propelled by her prominent presence in Martin Duberman's 1993 book Stonewall--must be understood in connection to the rise of neoliberalism and globalization in the 1990s. The "multiculturalism boom" of the 1990s (Ward 2008, 9), which reframed (racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual) inclusivity as a key component of capitalism, teleological progress, and cosmopolitanism, presented the LGBT movement with the tools to safely incorporate Sylvia Rivera as a queer icon without acknowledging the "white supremacist and capitalist logics that had constructed her raced and classed otherness" (Gan 2007, 128). To be clear, Sylvia Rivera, the person and activist, was still considered persona non grata by prevalent gay rights organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, but Sylvia Rivera, the symbol, was widely commemorated in Pride parades and Stonewall anniversary celebrations worldwide (Highleyman 2009; Rivera 2007). Retzloff and Gan both show how Rivera's recovery through the iconography of Stonewall, gay pride, and trans rights depended on the simultaneous valorization and erasure of her Puerto Rican and Venezuelan background. For Retzloff, these recovery projects honored Rivera's "ties to [...] gay and queer communities [...] in lieu of [her] ethnic heritage" (2007, 143), whereas Gan argues that emerging trans scholars and activists of the time turned to Rivera to lend "a multicultural 'diversity' and historical authenticity to the young, racially unmarked coalitional identity, 'genderqueer,' that had emerged out of middle-class college settings" (2007, 128). Thus, both authors illustrate how the construction of Sylvia Rivera as a symbol of transgender rights, gay pride, and queer liberation in general depended not only on the subjugation of her Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage, but also on the subjugation of her unruly gender and sexual expression.
Stonewall (1995): Production and Reception
While the limited but foundational scholarship on Sylvia Rivera as a Puerto Rican and Latinx figure has focused on her memorialization in queer historiography at large, scholarly critiques of Rivera's fictionalization in western gay cinema are virtually nonexistent. In this paper, I argue for a reading of narrative films about Rivera as critically rich texts that allow for the interrogation of the processes through which locas, as unruly trans Puerto Rican subjects, are allowed to enter celebratory discourses of queerness (for instance, through an erasure of Rivera's Venezuelan back ground), as well as the ways in which these processes respond to specific temporal moments. I am equally interested in Finch's Stonewall as a fictional retelling of the past, which is allowed "a greater imaginative distance from historical accuracy" away from many of the constraints attached to history books or similarly rigorous representations of history (Bravmann 1996, 493). This "imaginative distance" highlights the deliberate creative process involved in the deployment of Sylvia Rivera as a crucial character in Finch's reconstruction of the gay past.
In the 1990s, the prolific representation of gay people in transnational cinema served to expand queerness into a globalized identity by countering "negative" film portrayals of gay people as sexually promiscuous in the 1970s and 1980s with "positive" images of gayness (Seidman 2005). As a director and producer, the openly gay British filmmaker Nigel Finch was part of a larger group of gay and lesbian directors responsible for the emergence of transnational cinematic representations of queerness in the last decade of the twentieth century. In addition to helming the TV film adaptation of U.S. gay author David Leavitt's The Lost Language of Cranes for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Finch served as the executive producer of Jennie Livingston's landmark 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning about the modern community of drag queens of color in New York City. Finch's role as a producer in Paris Is Burning is indicative of his interest in urban drag queens, who had come to signify "an emblem of the past" in gay-themed films (Mennel 2012, 62). At the same time, accusations of Paris Is Burning as the product of a white female filmmaker's appropriation of drag queens of color foreshadow Finch's own well-intentioned but limited portrayal of New York City's 1960s street queen culture five years later.
With Stonewall, Finch continued to engage in a transnational mode of production clearly influenced by globalization and prevalent notions of multiculturalism in the 1990s. The film was co-produced by BBC and the New York-based production company Killer Films, with Christine Vachon and Ruth Caleb serving as producers. Vachon, in particular, was essential to the film's completion since she had to oversee the postproduction process once Finch became deadly ill due to AIDS-related complications (unfortunately, the director died prior to the film's debut) (Howe 1996). Black gay British author and performer Rikki Beadle-Blair developed the screenplay, which is billed in the opening credits as a "fictionalization based on the book by Martin Duberman" (Finch 2008). The principal cast consisted of then-unknown American actors from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Openly gay Cuban-American actor Guillermo Diaz stars as La Miranda and Louisiana-born actor Frederick Weller plays Matty, a fictional character, with other black and Latinx actors cast in both large and small parts. Curiously, the only non-American performer in a principal role is Irish actor Brendan Corbalis, who plays the bourgeois gay activist Ethan, La Miranda's rival for Matty's affection.
Though Stonewall features multiple storylines, the main plot revolves around the romance between La Miranda and Matty Dean, a rich, gay, "all American" country boy who arrives to New York in search of a metropolitan gay community. The two first meet at the Stonewall Inn after La Miranda helps Matty get in; later that evening, they are both arrested when Matty tries to defend La Miranda during a police raid. This initial bonding experience eventually turns into a romantic relationship between the two characters; however, their romance comes under threat when Matty meets Ethan, the type of stock New York gay intellectual who namedrops his Columbia degree in their first conversation. As Matty is initially seduced by Ethan's bourgeois lifestyle and his involvement in New York's gay cosmopolitan scene, he begins to see La Miranda's public trans identity, her lack of education, and her abject poverty as embarrassing and regressive. Though Matty leaves La Miranda to be with Ethan in the third act of the movie, he soon becomes disillusioned with his new lover's elitist and assimilationist notion of gay politics and public visibility. Only after Matty and La Miranda reunite does the film dedicate its remaining 10 minutes to depicting the eponymous riots.
At the time of its 1995 theatrical debut in the U.K. and its subsequent 1996 release in the U.S., Stonewall was welcomed with little fanfare. Its low-budget production value, lack of bankable stars, and muted critical response along with strong competition from more prominent queer-themed films relegated Stonewall to the festival circuit and the arthouse crowd in niche gay urban markets (Hadleigh 2001; McKinnon 2016). The majority of U.S. movie critics took issue with the film's didactic political message and its reliance on conventional genre tropes like melodrama and romance to narrativize a radical uprising (Ebert 1996; Hinson 1996; Holden 1996; Obejas 1996). Still, Stephen Holden's New York Times review singles out Guillermo Diaz's "wrenching" performance, adding that when La Miranda and Bostonian (a black drag queen) are on screen, Stonewall "swivels glitteringly to life" (1996). Similarly, notable Cuban-American lesbian author Achy Obejas's film review for The Chicago Tribune praises Diaz's "riveting performance," framing the dramatic relevance of queer characters of color in the film as "something of a breakthrough" (1996). Ultimately, Finch's Stonewall grossed $692,400 domestically (Box Office Mojo 2018a) and was mostly forgotten until Emmerich's Stonewall reminded some that it was possible to make a watchable narrative feature about the riots.
"I Want to Be Sylvia Rivera": La Miranda's Narrative Authority
Stonewall's ambivalence toward Sylvia Rivera's legacy is evident in the contradictions between a framing device that confidently (though deceptively) positions the film as La Miranda's subjective and autobiographical retelling of Stonewall and the film's increasing prioritization of Matty Dean's story. The opening shot boldly features an extreme close-up of La Miranda's lips as she reapplies her lipstick, with the vibrant red makeup on her lips standing in contrast with the surrounding visible stubble. In her essay "Skirt Chasers: Why the Media Depicts the Trans Revolution in High Heels and Lipstick" seminal trans studies scholar Julia Serano argues that popular media depictions of trans women repeatedly seek "to capture trans women in the act of putting on lipstick, dresses, and high heels" to reassure audiences "that the trans woman's femaleness is an artificial mask or costume" (2007, 41--emphasis in the original). However, rather than reproducing media depictions of trans women in which "the underlying assumption is that the trans woman wants to achieve a stereotypically feminine appearance" (Serano 2007, 41), Finch's Stonewall--for the most part--attempts to capture locas' subversion of the gender binary. In the prologue, La Miranda is neither a trans woman struggling to "appear" feminine nor a stereotypically gendered figure. Rather, this opening image simultaneously accentuates La Miranda's femininity (the red lipstick), masculinity (facial hair), and brown skin, suggesting Finch's refusal to ease (queer and nonqueer) audiences into his "gay movie" through a more normative or palatable image.
Stonewall's prologue also engages with La Miranda's role as the author and owner of her own version of Stonewall in complex and exciting--if unrealized--ways. The opening shot transitions into a montage of archival news footage crosscut with talking heads featuring Stonewall veterans and queer activists offering a Rashomonlike portrait of the riots and their legacy. Directly after the montage, Finch returns to the shot of La Miranda's lips as she comments on the talking heads by breaking the fourth wall: "See? There's as many Stonewall stories as there's gay queens in New York ... this is my legend, honey, okay?" (Finch 2008--emphasis added). Finch then cuts from La Miranda's lips to a close-up of La Miranda in drag; looking straight at the camera, she finishes her soliloquy by defiantly proclaiming once more, "My Stonewall legend" (Finch 2008). While she demands to be seen, La Miranda refuses to be simply consumed by the white gay male gaze; rather, she takes advantage of the camera to insert herself into a cultural consciousness that has too often refused to avow her body and story. Yes, she is being looked at and knows it, but in looking back she demands to be acknowledged, not consumed. As La Miranda establishes herself as the rightful author of her own story, she simultaneously interrogates the validity of all Stonewall stories. Thus, the film works against hegemonic approaches to first-person trans narratives that privilege official records, such as medical reports, government statistics, and library collections, while dismissing autobiographical accounts by trans folk as "thoroughly unreliable" (Stone 2014, 5). Furthermore, the suggestion that the film constitutes La Miranda's fictionalized autobiographical account of Stonewall-era queer communities in New York invokes Latinx and Nuyorican authors' radical deployment of the personal narrative to "actively shape imaginative spaces of communal belonging" and "mark their estrangement from hegemonic (i.e., white, male, heterosexual) subjectivity" (Vazquez 2011, 8-9). Hence, La Miranda's authorship of the self recalls the "'imaginative" or 'fictional' reworking of autobiography by Nuyorican writers" of the 1960s (Cruz-Malave 1988, 297), including Jesus Colon's 1961 book A Puerto Rican in New York, and Other Sketches (1975) and Piri Thomas's 1967 autobiographical novel Down These Mean Streets (1968), as well as popular and literary queer Latinx and Puerto Rican autobiographies, including Holly Woodlawn's memoir A Low Life in High Heels: The Holly Woodlawn Story (1991) and gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas's Antes que anochezca (1992).
Unfortunately, the rest of Stonewall is unable to realize the potentiality of its bold, ambitious prologue, with La Miranda becoming increasingly irrelevant to the plot in favor of Matty's dynamic storyline. Film blogger Julius Kassendorf renders La Miranda's marginalization particularly clear when he points out that, "for half an hour of a 95-minute movie, La Miranda disappears while Matt goes off with the generic white dude" in the last third of the movie (2015). If the events in Stonewall are supposed to depict the intertwined stories of Stonewall-era New York and La Miranda as narrated by the latter, the character's diminishing presence and her omission from a third of the movie have the unintended effect of making La Miranda complicit in her own erasure. Finch's framing device inadvertently replicates 1960s sociological discourses that blamed Puerto Ricans, as opposed to U.S. hegemony and imperialism, for their own exclusion and abjection as citizen-subjects of the nation-state. In so doing, the film replicates the trajectory of the colonial power's relation to the colonized subject that trans scholar Sandy Stone identifies in "The Empire Strikes Back." As Stone explains, this trajectory begins with a "fascination with the exotic" that gives way to a "denial of subjectivity and lack of access to the dominant discourse" (2014, 12).
The film's erasure of La Miranda's narrative divests the brief epilogue at the end of the film of the agency and power suggested in the prologue. In this epilogue, La Miranda reaffirms her claim that this is her Stonewall legend, admitting that she "maybe didn't get exactly every detail down perfect." She ends the movie by declaring that drag queens are "as American as apple pie" (Finch 2008). As a coda to this particular narrative, the epilogue inserts La Miranda and drag queens into a hegemonic idea of the nation-state. Imagining La Miranda's (and Sylvia Rivera's) story as one of triumph based on both her ability to gain the validation of a more normative gay subject--by winning Matty back and participating in the riots that facilitated hegemonic gay men's entrance into the national consciousness as good citizens--prioritizes reductive celebrations of U.S. exceptionalism and teleological progress over an acknowledgment of the discrimination to which locas, street queens, and trans women of color continued to be subjected long after the riots.
Curiously, the few scholars who have written about Nigel Finch's Stonewall over the decades tend to focus on La Miranda's narration exclusively as a signifier of the film's subversive approach to LGBT historiography; unsurprisingly, these studies seldom take into account (or even acknowledge) the character's ethnicity and race. Queer studies scholar Scott Bravmann's essay on Stonewall criticizes the film for shuffling the chronological order of real-life events depicted in the movie, a decision he believes "masks crucial instabilities and ruptures in queer social, cultural, and political practices" (1996, 495). Though he recognizes Finch's inability to tap into the nuanced racial dynamics that inform Matty and La Miranda's interracial romance, Bravmann turns to La Miranda's narration to rescue Stonewall's artistic merit, arguing that "by positioning the film and La Miranda's role in it as partial, the soliloquies remind us that even 'objective' attempts to assess history are also rhetorical constructions" (Bravmann 1996, 499). Jude Davies and Carol R. Smith spend more time on La Miranda than any other scholarly essays about Stonewall; even so, the authors simply see La Miranda as a reason to celebrate the film's neoliberal politics, going as far as reading La Miranda's invocation of national identity in the epilogue as a subversive moment that "connect[s] audience members personally through their stories to the communal movement" (1997, 124). Nearly twenty years later, Scott McKinnon similarly focuses on La Miranda's role as a narrator as a reason to praise the film for "encouraging the audience to question the very nature of memory itself" (2016, 230). Queer of color critic Hiram Perez argues that the deployment of the queer brown body in scholarly discussions of the queer past is a crucial component of traditional academic queer theory, which often sees race and ethnicity as unworthy or irrelevant to the discipline. Specifically, Perez takes established queer scholar Douglas Crimp to task for "[recruiting] the brown body" as a way to "authenticate" his idealized version of "New York City queer culture of the 1960s" (2015, 102). Along the same lines, La Miranda's cultural background serves to legitimize these scholars' reading of Stonewall's subversive representation of history even as their work can only superficially engage with the film's racial and ethnic politics.
The Taming of the Loca: Reading the Romance
Despite its seemingly good intentions, Nigel Finch's Stonewall subjugates Sylvia Rivera's radical subjectivity by turning La Miranda into an agent of change for Matty. In framing La Miranda's narrative purpose around Matty's coming-of-age storyline, the film relies on cinematic genre tropes rooted in the tradition of the Hollywood romance that serve to regulate the least palatable aspects of Rivera's gender and sexual expression. Despite its R rating, the film can only address La Miranda's sexuality through coded images and dialogue that allude to her experience as a homeless Puerto Rican prostitute and sexually experienced loca without ever engaging with the messiest implications of this aspect of the character's backstory. Instead, the film treats prostitution and sexual promiscuity as a way to justify La Miranda's initial reluctance to fall for Matty and an easy obstacle for Matty to overcome early in the film as he romances La Miranda into monogamy.
Given the prominence of the romance as one of the primary genres around which the main narrative of the film is structured, the film's conservative sexual politics play a crucial role in the characterization of La Miranda. This regulatory, imperialist approach to the character's sexuality as a Puerto Rican loca is perhaps never more evident than in an implausibly cliched exchange between La Miranda and her fellow street queens the evening after Matty first spends the night at La Miranda's place. As the queens stand around the street waiting for Matty to arrive, Helen Wheels (an African American queen) subjects La Miranda to a series of questions about her new lover: "Does he kiss? Is he hung like an ox or a chipmunk? Is he a bull dagger in man drag? Come on!" (Finch 2008). In response, La Miranda answers in an uncharacteristically virginal and giddy tone, sheepishly admitting that the two "never really did nothing yet," before she briefly elaborates: "Well, we almost kissed this morning. And it was, you know, scary but nice. Last night, we just talked all night, and he helped me cook breakfast" (Finch 2008). This exchange sets up Helen Wheels as the black funny, hypersexual counterpart to La Miranda, who is no longer able to engage in such filthy talk about her new beau. At this point, western audiences who are even remotely familiar with movie romances are supposed to gather that what La Miranda actually wants is domesticity and the seeming respectability that comes with the real (i.e., unmoored by sexual promiscuity) romance that Matty represents. To put it bluntly, unlike Helen Wheels, our heroine realizes that what she cares about is cooking breakfast, not the size of Matty's cock; in fact, La Miranda shoots down Helen Wheels's attempts to sexualize Matty, ensuring that the normative white cis male body remains idealized in the interactions between the trans women of color in the film. This exchange also sets up Matty's and La Miranda's parallel narrative journeys. Whereas La Miranda allows Matty to transform from a small-town homosexual boy into a cosmopolitan, politicized, sexually experienced gay man, Matty allows La Miranda to "grow out" of her sexual promiscuity and provides her with the presumed stability of a monogamous romance. Matty is liberated; La Miranda is tamed and disciplined.
Stonewall's regulation of locas' unruly queerness through the trope of romance recalls another much better-known film about an interracial love affair between a young Puerto Rican woman and a white boy set in 1960s New York: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins's iconic movie musical West Side Story (1961). On the surface, Stonewall could not be more different from West Side Story, and yet the latter's focus on a Puerto Rican girl in New York who becomes an American(ized) woman after falling in love with an all-American boy points to the inescapable legacy of West Side Story in media portrayals of Puerto Ricans in New York. Negron-Muntaner reads West Side Story as a film that "incorporates Puerto Ricans into American culture" (2004, 63); similarly, Stonewall seeks to incorporate the trans Puerto Rican subject into a multicultural gay (not necessarily LGBT or queer) American culture. Building on Negron-Muntaner's reading of West Side Story, Cruz-Malave argues that the film's incorporation of Puerto Ricans into U.S. culture is dependent on the depiction of "Puerto Rican racial difference" as something that "can be transcended and redeemed through the poetics of love" (2007b, 107). Romance is a key component of this process since the genre functions as "a disciplining tool [...] that channels improper sexualities into proper, modern, heterosexual unions" (2007b, 107). Though the love affair in Finch's Stonewall does not celebrate heterosexuality, the exchange between Helen Wheels and La Miranda illustrates how romance acts as a "disciplining tool" through which Finch regulates Sylvia Rivera's ostensibly excessive sexuality and unruly gendered expression by situating La Miranda as the traditionally feminine half of a monogamous love affair between two gay men. At the same time, Finch's Stonewall replicates a larger western cinematic tradition that can only represent Puerto Rican culture as an obstacle for the Puerto Rican lead to overcome before entering the U.S. national consciousness.
And still, there are moments in Finch's Stonewall that are indicative of a far more subversive film about La Miranda, Sylvia Rivera, and locas. For instance, an early scene at the Stonewall Inn advances a critical depiction of police brutality against trans racialized bodies that never veers into a fetishization of the violence to which La Miranda is subjected. In this scene, the camera consistently privileges La Miranda's subjectivity as it depicts a group of cops torturing her by forcing her head into a bucket of dirty water. In one of the film's most striking shots, the camera shows a close-up of La Miranda's face from inside the bucket as she struggles to breathe underwater. Apart from its technical proficiency, the shot captures the prevailing sense that while the customary raids at the Stonewall Inn limited the freedom and comfort of the bar's white gay male patrons, these raids significantly threatened the very survival of locas and street queens of color, infusing the film with a sense of urgency that is notably lacking from its portrayal of the riots at the end. What makes this early sequence even more impressive is Finch's decision to foreground La Miranda's defiant dignity and entitlement to her self-expression. When the cops release La Miranda from the bucket, the camera follows the character in an uninterrupted tracking shot as she walks back to her seat drenched in dirty water. Once she sits down, the long take continues, with Finch framing the shot so that La Miranda is right in the center; it doesn't take long for the cops to invade the shot, surrounding La Miranda from all corners of the frame and demanding to see her ID. The long take ends with La Miranda grabbing her purse, taking out her lipstick (not her ID), and reapplying her makeup as she looks straight into the camera. Here, Finch cuts to Princess Ernestine (the bar's black drag queen bartender), who asks La Miranda, "Why do you always put yourself through this?" As the camera returns to the shot of La Miranda reapplying her lipstick and looking at the camera, she replies, "Why, Princess Ernestine, just for the sheer, irresistible, goddamn glamour of it all," before the cops start beating her (Finch 2008).
A moment that could have easily fetishized the humiliation of La Miranda emerges as a showcase for La Miranda's radical manifestation of pride. Like the prologue, the technique of having Guillermo Diaz look into the camera as his character reapplies her makeup highlights La Miranda's queer radical self-appreciation even when she knows she will be brutalized and arrested. The return of the vibrant red lipstick that appears in a similarly defiant moment in the prologue is representative of Finch's larger interest in relying on color as a signifier of pride and self-appreciation. Thus, color in the film recalls the late gay experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman's subversive use of color to make "visible the inherently invisible" (Burns 2011, 46). In Finch's Stonewall, the presence of color (characters of color as well as the vibrant colors that become associated with these characters through the film's formal elements--i.e., cinematography, art direction, costumes) disrupts the compulsory, normativity of hegemonic American culture, allowing for the emergence of Rivera's radical politics through La Miranda's insistence on an authorship and valorization of the self.
Conclusion: (Still) Looking for Rivera
In spite of the major ideological and artistic limitations of Nigel Finch's Stonewall, I confess that over the five years that have transpired since I first encountered it I have come to develop an odd sense of appreciation for its ambitious but clumsy attempt to commemorate Sylvia Rivera. Revisiting the film nearly three years after the release of Emmerich's tone-deaf and artistically bankrupt version and only months following the debut of David France's ethically dubious documentary about Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, I continue to be fascinated by the fleeting subversive elements and missed opportunities that constitute Finch's Stonewall. To be clear, it is imperative that in critically revisiting under-examined films like this one, queer of color critics do not lose sight of the issues of authorship and accessibility that continue to plague queer cinema, an established art form that has yet to create a space for trans artists of color to access the resources necessary to develop, produce, market, and release a cinematic piece that speaks to the multiplicity and complexity of the realities, fictions, and histories of trans folk. Yet, as a gay Venezuelan immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen--and with a full understanding that "The here and now is a prison house" (Munoz 2009, 1)--I am deeply invested in identifying ways to challenge the current presidential administration's nationalist, racist, xenophobic, transphobic, queerphobic, ableist, classist, misogynistic rhetoric and policies. As such, my study of Finch's Stonewall attempts to develop a stronger understanding of the strategies through which deeply disenfranchised subjects like Sylvia Rivera insist on negotiating their agency within systems that seem impenetrable at first glance.
I am forever grateful to my infallible mentor Tace Hedrick for pushing me to consider the scholarly relevance of Finch's seemingly trivial film. Thank you to Efrain Barradas, Amy Ongiri, and Kim Emery for challenging me to engage with Rivera's legacy with specificity and nuance. With the support of the Consortium for Faculty Diversity's postdoctoral fellowship and Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, I was able to access the resources I needed to develop this piece. I want to express my boundless gratitude to CENTRO Journal's three anonymous reviewers, whose feedback was simultaneously insightful, rigorous, and encouraging. Finally, I would like to thank Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes and Xavier Totti for their unwavering support and patience as I completed this manuscript.
(1) Apart from the troublesome conflation of Rivera's and Castro's widely different backgrounds (cultural and otherwise) and modes of gender and sexual expression into a single homogenized queer Puerto Rican subject, the claim that Ray/Ramona is based on the two figures is a dubious one. While Rivera's biography serves as a glaring foundation for the characterization of Ray/Ramona, Castro's influence remains vague at best. The decision to use Castro in a descriptions of the role mostly seems to excuse the film's subjugation of the character's trans identity.
(2) In this way, Emmerich reflects historian David Carter's approach to Sylvia Rivera's Stonewall narrative in his 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. Though Carter refuses to mention Rivera by name in the book, he nonetheless invokes her presence by alluding to "false testimony" and "inaccurate" and "spurious accounts ... that do not withstand careful scrutiny" (Carter 2004, 269; Retzloff 2007).
(3) The historical significance of Rivera's speech at the rally (and, therefore, of the footage itself) and the unnerving hostility with which she was met cannot be understated. For Rivera, the events of the rally, where she was booed and forced off the stage, forever changed her relationship to the gay liberation movement. Gossett's circulation of this footage, which had been used in earlier documentaries (such as the 1995 PBS documentary The Question of Equality: Out Rage '69), exposed other transgender folk to a lesser-known event in trans (and LGBT) history (Ennis 2018).
(4) Lesbians Organized for Video Experience (L.O.V.E.) Collective, which holds the rights to the footage of Rivera at the rally, has publicly stated that France "had nothing to do" with the removal of the video from Gossett's social media account though a spokesperson admitted having discussed "illegal uploads of L.O.V.E. property with France" (Juzwiak 2017).
(5) While I engage with Sylvia Rivera's Venezuelan cultural background in future projects, I primarily write about her as a Puerto Rican figure throughout this manuscript since La Miranda is coded as such in Finch's film.
(6) While the name "Viejita" only appears in Martin Duberman's account of Rivera's biography in Stonewall, Gan concludes that this is an adequate substitute for the unknown name of Rivera's maternal grandmother considering that Duberman "interviewed [Rivera] extensively for the book" (2007, 138).
(7) Here I make the point to specifically refer to locas as "cross-dressers" given the fact that it was the action of cross-dressing--as opposed to identifying as transgender--that was considered illegal per the New York Penal Code, resulting in the constant arrest of locas for not wearing the minimum items of clothing corresponding to their assigned sex required by law (Carter 2004).
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The author (email@example.com) earned his PhD in English from the university of Florida in 2016. His dissertation focused on the representation of New York-based Puerto Rican locas in U.S. LGBT popular media. He is currently developing a book manuscript about the Nuyorican cultural aesthetics of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical Hamilton. He is a visiting assistant professor of Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies and American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College.
Caption: The opening shot of Nigel Finch's Stonewall (1995).
Caption: La Miranda looks straight at the camera in the film's prologue.
Caption: La Miranda is brutalized by the police at the Stonewall Inn.
Caption: The camera never loses sight of La Miranda as she is being tortured.
Caption: La Miranda, surrounded by cops, defiantly reapplies her lipstick.
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|Publication:||CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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