‘Stonewall’s’ Unpleasant Depictions of Gay Sex Reveal Everything That’s Wrong With the Film

Given that we’re discussing Roland Emmerich’s tepid, sexless, and white-revisionist Stonewall, it’s probably best to be crass. Thus: Stonewall rioters, and the gay liberation movement the riot engendered, were defending their right to fuck. Queerly! “Our particular struggle is for sexual self-determination, the abolition of sex-role stereotypes and the human right to the use of one’s body without interference from the legal and social institutions of the state,” stated an oft-cited pamphlet written by the Gay Liberation Front of Chicago, not long after Stonewall.

This, then, is also the right purportedly defended within Emmerich’s anti-funhouse distortion of Stonewall. However, were you an alien — let’s say from Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day — who didn’t know what sex was and your first exposure to it were Stonewall, you’d be baffled as to what these people were fighting for.

It is good (this will be the one place, perhaps in film criticism history, where “good” appears near a mention of Stonewall) to an extent that the film depicts sex ending in turmoil: turmoil was, after all, what the oppressive forces desired to make of queer pleasure. Physical expression was being literally beaten down both in public and in private. And the film rightly depicts queer sex constantly truncated and exploited by hegemonic forces — be they straight high school peers, or police, or wealthy closeted men who have the means to both pay for sex and pay for it to never be acknowledged.

But the problem is that sex never seems to begin in pleasure. Despite being made by an openly gay director, not once in the entire film is sex shown as anything other emotionally and/or physically ugly. The one moment it almost is, the camera cuts away.

It thus seems necessary to give a rundown of the film’s often implied depictions of sex, because the sex in question seems to become synonymous with “the worst thing ever; it will literally almost kill you.” These moments also betray just about everything else that’s wrong with the film — from its white-centrism to its masc-centrism, and of course, to its prudishness seemingly used to appease that straight audience from the ’90s who thought they were coming to see The Birdcage. 

Still, it begins pleasantly enough:

1. A muscled butt in a high school gym! (This is the one time we really see much of anything, as though the film were providing a very brief glossary of a young gay man’s desires. So, straight people, be informed by this butt: butt is what’s desired.).

Now that that’s out of the way:

2. Our hero Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) fellates his high-school love interest, the owner of said butt — who is depicted as more cowardly/less emotionally open than Danny and will very predictably sell him out. When they’re spotted mid-ominous-blowie, the scene ends in a fevered getaway.

3. After Danny arrives in the Big Apple and reluctantly befriends a group of street-dwelling sex workers, who are predominantly femme and trans, one gender-fluid Puerto Rican — Ray/Ramona (Jonny Beauchamp) — helps him out and all-too-quickly falls in love with him. They spoon in bed, with Danny turned away, because, as he’ll later proclaim, he “can’t love Ray.” This isn’t so much a sex-scene as it is the denial of a sex scene for the unrequited lover. The scene’s subtext seems to be “Silly gender-fluid person of color, Danny is being saved for the other character straight-acting gays and straight-acting straights can fantasize about.” (This is not, unfortunately, an unrealistic dynamic, but it’s posited in this film as, simply, the way things are, without interrogating the dynamic. Ray is ultimately thankful just to have Danny be his friend!)

4. A meatpacking district bacchanalia, which is only showed as the cops are breaking/beating it up.

5. More scenes in the hotel, where numerous gay men sleep alongside each other, in their underwear, and do not have sex. It’s as though we’re watching some Disney depiction of a Dickensian orphanage.

6. Danny is convinced to besmirch his rural innocence and prostitute himself. As an older man fellates him against some unromantic New York shrubs and scattered garbage, Danny winces — and we’re meant to feel the weight of the extra tragedy of it happening to someone so-damn-aryanHe’s going to Columbia, for crying out loud!

7. Danny finally gets to have good sex with the B-list celebrity who’d attach himself to this film. We do not see this much of this sex, outside of a glimpse of Jonathan Rhys Meyers licking a Danny-nipple for long enough that those sought-after straights think, “That was brave for a straight-acting straight actor, right?”

8. Danny is forced to prostitute himself once again, and to paradigmatize degradation, he does it for a basset-houndish old transvestite.

9. Ray has sex. We do not see him having sex. Rather, we see him afterwards, his face trying to peer out beneath the gashes inflicted by his John.

And there you have it! As seen in this Series of Unfortunate Fucks, the film never strikes a balance between sex as an act against oppression and sex as the catalyst for it. Rather, the film exploits the act to dramatize the lives of both the lead and the supporting characters, without ever explaining its necessity as an expression of pleasure, intimacy, or even protest.

The connotations of the fucking during the real-life Stonewall era were of course the fuckers’ business — whether it meant loving someone and having sex with them, or living with someone and having sex with them, or not knowing someone at all and having sex with them. And under the thick blanket of heteronormative enmity — a mix of aversions from the manneristic to sartorial to, of course, sexual — it was the “sex” part that’d lead to the shock-therapy, chemical castrations and police-performed pavlovian beatings meant to diminish queer desire.

It was a moral and geometric aversion to queer sex that was synecdochically used to sum up all the more abstract aversions to everything else affiliated with queer identity. (And, since it wasn’t long past the ’50s, there was also a residual revulsion towards even the most curdled-vanilla-pudding sex at play — among those who were not part of the hippie revolution, at least.) Queer sex was therefore one of the most radical things to engage in at the time — barring an actual, and eventual, riot.

But for a group whose sexual liberation would, a decade later, eventually be blamed (after it was ignored) by one of the next (nonfictional!) LGBT leaders for the spread of AIDS, the Stonewallers sure seem to have very little interest in sex here. It exists only as a form of demeaning last-resource pragmatism or a way to facilitate drama for a directionless director.

Happily, the real queer insurrection of the late ’60s was fighting for more than allowing for Jonathan Rhys Meyers to not-so-titillatingly lick a white-teat-of-desire before a camera panned away. The femme men who fought in the insurrection would doubtless be aghast that the emotional climax of a movie titularly representing them would center around a fictitious “straight-acting” Midwestern-transplant white boy who simply could not find it in himself to anoint them with the societally approved semen from his ideal-nuclear-family-descended dick.

It’s best they didn’t know that the sex they were fighting for the right to have would one day be represented through bruises, grimaces, moments of public shame, and one — yes, one — scene where non-traumatic sex happens… offscreen. And no, the Independence Day alien would not understand at all why the hell these people stood behind a brick-wielding Zac Efron doppelgänger screaming “gay power,” as though that famous brick were, itself, ejaculated from within him in the film’s only onscreen climax.