On Oct. 21, the campus screening of the controversial film ‘Stonewall, ‘a fictionalized account of one character’s experience during the 1969 Stonewall Riots, was indefinitely postponed. Colorado College’s decision to bring the film to campus sparked outrage among the LGBTQIA+. Despite a Butler Center-led discussion attempting to bring together interested students and the Film and Media Studies Department, the screening provoked tension between core concepts of diversity and free speech.
The film explores the Stonewall Riots, the violent clash in New York City that launched the modern movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Students on campus accused the film of “whitewashing” history, replacing key black trans* characters with white gay men. A group of concerned students called for a boycott of the screening and created a group, Radicals Against Institutional Damage (R.A.I.D.). The group sent a letter signed by nine to key administration on campus expressing their views.
“This film is discursively violent,” write the activists. “In a world where cisgender, white gay people have finally achieved “marriage equality” and many see the struggle as being over, it is reinforcing a hierarchy of oppression to invent someone who never existed and place them in a historically-based film with the express purpose of silencing more marginalized groups.”
The Film and Media Studies Department argued that their decision to screen the film does not condone its content. Rather it is an attempt to engage with the executive producer and possibly, an opportunity to question some of the decisions made in the film’s representation of minorities.
“For me as a scholar and queer person engaging with my environment it is essential to analyze and critique these representations in order to draw attention to what is at stake for queer folks and to engage with the stories that are being told and held as representative in mass media,” said Spanish and Portuguese Professor Naomi Wood.
Others argue that this critical discussion justification is a front.
“Critical discussion is simply a way of engaging in respectability politics,” said first-year Amelia Eskani. “I think Colorado College should cancel the screening because the safety and well-being of queer and trans* students surpasses the importance of a critical discussion.”
R.A.I.D. questions the legitimacy and effectiveness of any critical discussion following the film.
“Inevitably, some students will have the burden of informing other students as well as staff and faculty about the problematic aspects of the film,” R.A.I.D wrote. “The conversation will, yet again, put queer students in the position of having to teach to justify the validity of our feelings, which is emotionally draining, difficult, and frankly, not our job.”
The administration responded to these concerns.
“The Film and Media Studies Department did not anticipate the backlash that would emerge against the film, as it had been selected before the critiques of the film had really to gain salience culturally,” said an anonymous source within the administration.
They continue, “The administration was caught unprepared as the issue came to pit the college’s desire to uphold open discourse on campus with its commitment to traditionally-marginalized students. Its collective decision was to continue to show the film on campus but to create safe space for critical discussion of the film and student protest.”
The manifestation of this was an Open Forum on Oct. 19 to give CC community members an opportunity to voice their opinion in the public sphere.
“The Butler Center staff hoped that a safe and brave space would support diverse perspectives and opinions about the film screening being shared openly,” said Pearl Leonard-Rock, Associate Director of the Butler Center. “Additionally we hoped that understanding would replace the expressed confusion and hurt.”
A variety of opinions were voiced.
“By showing the movie on campus, we are accepting an inaccurate portrayal of the Stonewall Riots and creating a space of oppression for queer and trans* students on campus,” said Eskenazi.
“If CC is really as dedicated to diversity and inclusion,” said junior Grace Montesano, “They would never have agreed to screen a film that queer students have repeatedly stated is a threat to our identity and our safety.”
The Film and Media Studies Department argued that the basis of selection for their films is not personal opinion, and that their aim is to promote as many opportunities as possible to see and discuss films on campus. They also mentioned that the executive producer of the film, CC alum, and Board of Trustees member Adam Press himself is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and has a long history of activism on behalf of this cause. He fought against Proposition 8 and is on the Board of Directors for Freedom to Marry, the largest national organization for marriage equality.
Despite Press’s role as an LGBTQIA activist, certain CC students still voiced their opposition to the film and the college’s decision to screen the movie.
“The act of CC still insisting on showing the movie on this campus after student voices have actively spoken out against it is saying that Colorado College values donors more than its students,” said Eskenazi. She is referencing Adam Press’s significant financial contributions, notably the Adam F. Press Fitness Center.
R.A.I.D.’s letter furthered points brought up in the course of discussion, by writing, “It is fallacious to equate the rights of students to view a movie with the rights of students to exist free of violence.”
To some students, the focus is not on the content of the film, but broader issues.
“I’m concerned about some of the words that are being used to describe the Stonewall screening. Words like “abuse” do not line up in my mind with a film screening,” said junior Lydia Ballantine.
“I’m currently studying abroad in Senegal, a country where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by imprisonment. “Abuse” here means gay men having their fingernails pulled out, lesbians being “correctively raped” to make them straight, or LGBTQ individuals being forced to leave the country.”
She continues. “Abuse occurs in the U.S. as well, in the form of trans women being murdered or intimate partner violence, but not in the form of a controversial film being shown on a college campus, even if the film misrepresents and white-washes history. Using the same word to describe things which are worlds apart minimizes the real violence and abuse which many LGBTQA people still live with.”
Overall, the discussion reinforced the intensity of the controversy surrounding CC’s decision to screen the film. A day later, the film was postponed. Activists feel this was the only course forward.
Not all students see this as a victory. “In my understanding, activism is meant to raise awareness and understanding and bring more people into the struggle, to encourage discussion and to reach those who are not yet involved,” said Ballantine.
She continued, “But what seems to be happening is that some students have become highly concerned about being politically correct and creating ‘safe spaces,’ and in doing so are actually discouraging conversation and dialogue. I believe CC should be a safe space for people to be able to live their sexuality/gender identity freely, but it should also be a place where everyone feels comfortable discussing these issues.”
The administration echoed Ballantine’s beliefs on safe spaces at CC.
“The college administration really does have a duty to foster the space on campus where all viewpoints can be discussed because that is a necessary component of intellectual growth,” said an anonymous source within the administration. “The engagement of viewpoints that may offend is an important part of any education and prepares students to engage those viewpoints in the messy way that life forces on all of us. Canceling the film would be eliminating a forum for critical dialogue.”
The Stonewall controversy has impacted many students and facility.
“I’m afraid that while trying to promote equality and inclusivity, some activism has become exclusive and alienating, and is trying to make people conform to an ideal of reality which we do not live in yet,” said Ballantine.
“As we move forward from Monday’s conversation, there are many things I think we need to address,” said Dr. Heather Horton, Director of the Wellness Resource Center. “First among those is the immediate need to engage with communities and individuals to build our capacity to care for one another and ourselves. This kind of self-care and community-care is particularly important when we are engaged in activism.”