Will “Stonewall” and “Suffragette” leave queer women out of history?

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Two upcoming films premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival are ones LGBT women should be excited about, but could end up as disappointments if the trailers are any indication of its lesbian and bi-less content. Stonewall, opening in theaters September 25, and Suffragette, following closely in October, have both been highly-anticipated stories of historic moments in civil rights.

Stonewall stars Jeremy Irvine as “Danny, a fictional young man caught up during the 1969 Stonewall Riots.” And while the description of the film notes that “the entire community of young gays, lesbians and drag queens who populate the Stonewall Inn…erupts in a storm of anger,” nary a woman is seen in the newly released trailer.

When I inquired with a publicist, they told me the “the central characters are a fictional group of homeless gay youths who turn to hustling, but the lesbian community is certainly a part of the film.” But according to IMDB, the movie (written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Roland Emmerich) does not seem to have a role for Stormé DeLarverie, who is known as the butch lesbian who threw the first punch at the police during the riot; nor is there one for bisexual activist Brenda Howard, who organized the first-ever Pride parade following the events that took place at the Stonewall Inn. The few women listed include Danny’s younger sister, Phoebe (Joey King), trans pioneer Marsha P. Johnson and some other fictional characters: Sam, Sam’s girlfriend, Sarah and Joyce. (No telling on if the final two are LGB-identified.)

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Out actress Joanne Vannicola plays one of those women, Sam, and wrote on her personal blog about the experience:

…I did manage to play a small part in a movie about the Stonewall riots in the summer of 2014, shot in Montreal by Roland Emmerich. Mr. Emmerich does great big Hollywood blockbusters, but Stonewall was his heart project about a group of young men who try to escape their struggles in the homophobic America of the 60s. A lot of people don’t even know about Stonewall and the riots and I think it’s a timely movie. It’s important for us never to forget our history, and of course, to teach it to those who do not know about it.

From a female perspective I hope we will write more movies about Stonewall and more books and tell more and more of the truth of that time so that lesbian and women of the era have greater visibility, but for me as an actor it was a privilege to be the woman at the heart of the riot who screamed at her brothers and sisters on Christopher street in New York to, “Do something….” But you will have to see the movie to know more. 

 There are not many other lesbians in the film as it follows the personal life of a few gay boys in their 20s, but I am most probably the most prominent lesbian,” Joanne told me.

 

 

#stonewallthemovie it’s coming out soon!

A photo posted by Joanne Vannicola. (@joannevannicola) on

Suffragette stars Meryl Streep as the very real Emmeline Pankhurst, a British activist leader who fought for the women’s right to vote in Britain during early 1900s. The film co-stars Carey Mulligan as Maud, “a working wife and mother whose life is forever changed when she is secretly recruited to join the U.K.’s growing suffragette movement.” Suffragette is helmed by four women: Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) wrote the script and Sarah Gavron served as director with Alison Owen and Faye Ward as producers.

In 2000, the diaries of a suffragette named Mary Blathwayt revealed that Emmeline Pankhurst had “a close relationship with the lesbian composer Ethel Smyth for many years following the death of her husband Richard in 1898.” Considering the film is set right before and during the year that the suffragists were fighting for women’s rights (1918), it seems odd that Ethel does not appear to be a character in Suffragette, despite having written the movement’s theme song: “The March of the Women.”

Songsheet of 'The March of the Women', 1911. Artist: Margaret Morris

Ethel went onto fall for Virginia Woolf and have a romantic relationship with musician Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, who also inspired Radclyffe Hall to pen a book of erotic poems in her honor. The 2005 opera Violet included Ethel and Violet’s romance.

Ethel Smith, 1901Ethel Mary Smyth

Emeline’s daughter, Christabel, was also involved with the suffragettes and reportedly had her own same-sex relationships with the diarist herself, Mary Blathwayt, and Grace Roe. Christabel does not appear to be a character (or, at least, a major one) in Suffragette.

Emmaline and ChristabelEmmeline Pankhurst, British suffragette, and her daughter Christabel, early 20th century (1956).

“Biographers, while acknowledging a small lesbian element in the movement, have all skirted around the issue,” biographer and Professor Martin Pugh told The Guardian. But June Purvis, who penned a biography about Emmeline, found Pugh’s claims too erroneous on the basis of assuming the women did not become “lovers in any physical sense,” writing:

What Pugh does not cite is Ethel’s own documented statement that she fled to Egypt in order to escape the power of her feelings for Emmeline. It is highly unlikely that Emmeline and Ethel were lovers in any physical sense. Emmeline was too much the politician to risk scandal and Ethel often developed unreciprocated passions for women (and men). Pugh is forced to conclude that the evidence for Christabel’s lesbianism “is inconclusive”. So why bother to speculate if not to denigrate separatist feminists?

Clearly some would prefer to see history from a strictly heterosexual lens; that any kind of sexual fluidity among feminists of any era is insulting to them. June Purvis’s Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography is almost insultingly homophobic, with one reviewer noting:

Considering Purvis’ radical feminist viewpoint, her discussion of lesbianism within the WSPU is strange to say the least. Masculinist historians’ intimations have, indeed, been both misogynistic and puerile, particularly Martin Pugh’s conjecture upon the supposed ‘lesbian love trysts’ of several prominent suffragettes. However, such curiosity about the sexual orientations of well-known feminists is hardly new, and this does not explain why Purvis is so upset and indignant about these speculations: is it because Pugh and others have got the story wrong, or because they are discussing the possibility of homosexuality within the suffragette ranks?

Even if Emmeline wasn’t a lesbian, queer women like her good friend Ethel were a proven part of the suffragette movement, and leaving them out of a film that aims to fictionalize a very important time in feminist history.

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Without having seen either of these films, I am hoping to be wrong, and that both Stonewall and Suffragette do not erase lesbian, bisexual and queer women from their significant times in history. Sadly, this is not new for Hollywood. The 1995 biopic Carryington, starring Emma Thompson as the bisexual painter, her romantic relationships with women were left out of the film. More recently, films like The Normal Heart and Milk have left out queer women and their involvement in their respective movements.

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Considering the new films are being written and directed by gay men (Stonewall) and heterosexual women (Suffragette), it’s a clear indication that lesbian, bisexual and queer women writers, directors and producers are still desperately needed to tell our own stories. Ellen Page‘s pushing for Freeheld to get made, Christine Vachon‘s tireless efforts in creating great films with queer themes and Dee Rees‘s work on both Pariah and Bessie are only a small part of a huge industry that is in need of the kind of diversity that has shifted into television in more recent years. (Case in point: Bessie aired on HBO and not in theaters.)

So what will it take to have historical films that don’t erase queer women? It looks like it will take us. Out film producers like Megan Ellison and Nina Jacobson, directors Phyllida Lloyd, Jamie Babbit, Patricia Rozema and Kimberly Peirce and screenwriters Jane Anderson and Natalia Leite will hopefully help usher in a more inclusive landscape for LGBT women to see themselves on the big screen. And when they do, the rest of us should hit the theaters in droves on opening weekend, because we are an audience not only worthy of representation, but one that demands it.