Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: On Stonewall and ‘the first brick’

Larry Kramer has always been my type of jackass.

The iconic gay curmudgeon came to mind during the progressive confusion and outrage over two Black Lives Matter activists storming the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally, commandeering the microphone from the speaker of honor, then chastising the liberal candidate and crowd for acquiescing to white supremacy. Regardless of the substance or merits of the BLM protest, the reaction of many liberals reminded me of the backlash directed toward Kramer and the organization he founded, ACT UP, during the height of the AIDS crisis.

Many upright LGBT Americans, along with heterosexual allies, objected to the rowdy and belligerent antics of ACT UP—protests that were decried as misguided, counterproductive and antagonistic.

Independently, many of these actions were absurd and ineffective, or sabotaged progress and repelled would-be sympathizers; but on the whole, they were critically necessary, and undoubtedly successful in saving gay lives and revolutionizing patient advocacy across health care.

I adore Sanders, who has an admirable record on equality matters, but also a dogmatic focus on class that dangerously mutes the impact of skin color (and sexual orientation) in such discussions. I believe he can sharpen his understanding of the unique experiences and obstacles minorities endure, just as the BLM demonstrators can more fully develop and hone their tactics.

While I was contemplating the similarities between BLM and ACT UP, Kramer descended from his throne of gay history to, with characteristic orneriness, chastise those who were threatening to boycott the movie “Stonewall” after the trailer showed a cisgender white boy throwing the first brick in the historic riots.

“Don't listen to the crazies,” Kramer wrote in a Facebook comment to “Stonewall” director Roland Emmerich. “As with so much history there is no way to 'prove' a lot of stuff, which allows artists such as yourself (and me I might add) to take essences and attempt to find and convey meaning and truth.”

At one point, Kramer asks those protesting the film “Where the fuck were you," an audaciously idiotic question from someone who himself wasn't at the Stonewall Riots. I consider Kramer a role model and hero, but his gay world, art and history have always been almost exclusively white, so it's no surprise that he would be indignant toward others demanding representation.

“All segments of the gay and lesbian community, including a strong representation of the more marginal elements, defined the Stonewall Inn as a special place,” wrote historian David Carter, who divided those who were present during the first night of rioting into two general categories: have and have nots.

Among the latter were white, black and Latino homeless youth, drag queens and other outcasts who had nothing to lose and were no longer willing to let the police take their dignity; the other group was composed of closeted professionals, most of whom were white men, who were willing to sacrifice their dignity to avoid jeopardizing their privilege. It was also a group of exclusively white gay men who urged “peaceful and quiet conduct” in lieu of the rioting that changed our world.

While there was no “first brick,” Carter credits a bull dyke who was “tall, stout, with a short, mannish haircut” with igniting the riot, while drag queens and street kids pelted law enforcement into a defensive position. The same artistic license that transformed this character into a pixie lesbian in the “Stonewall” trailer could have—and most certainly should have—been employed to capture the diverse “essence” of how that historic uprising began.