It’s come to this: Students at Colorado College are demanding that the film studies department refrain from screening Stonewall because the movie—a very, very pro-gay movie from a gay director about the beginnings of the gay rights movement—is deeply offensive to their views.
Actually, it’s more serious than that. You see, screening the movie on campus would represent a literal act of violence against them, the outraged students claimed.
“This film is discursively violent,” read a student petition for a boycott of the film. “It is reinforcing a hierarchy of oppression…”
Just who are these intolerant students who believe their very safety is threatened by a fictionalized recounting of the struggle for gay liberation in 1960s New York City? You might assume they are social conservatives feigning oppression while raising bigoted objections to the film’s unabashedly gay-affirming message. You might be tempted to say these young Republicans are hateful extremists who need to get over their squeamishness about gay people and join the 21st century already.
And you would be wrong—very, very wrong—because the students hell-bent on stopping the Stonewall screening aren’t Republicans, and they certainly aren’t conservatives. No, they are members of the campus’s queer group: the LGBTQIA+. The students desperate to censor Stonewall aren’t right-wingers—they are left-wingers who think the movie doesn’t go far enough toward validating their worldview.
What, specifically, is wrong with Stonewall? Critics panned it for deviating from actual history, failing to employ a suitably diverse cast, and for just generally being formulaic. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri complained that “the film’s placement of a hunky white boy at the center of events that were often driven by trans women of color, drag queens, butch lesbians, and others is troublesome, to say the least.”
The film’s director, Roland Emmerich, disputed this characterization. “We have drag queens, lesbians, we have everything in the film because we wanted to portray a broader image of what ‘gay’ means,” he said in an interview.
Does Stonewall minimize the role non-white gays played in the riots that birthed a movement? Perhaps, but the best way to find out for certain is probably just to watch the film and then have a discussion about it. In fact, this is exactly what the people organizing the screening at Colorado College had in mind. The Catalyst, CC’s independent student newspaper, reported that the Film and Media Studies Department invited one of Stonewall’s producers to the screening, and planned to give students an opportunity to challenge the alleged whitewashing.
This seems like exactly the sort of discussion a college’s film department should facilitate. After all, if film students aren’t learning to engage and criticize works of art they find problematic, what are they learning? There’s a great debate to be had about whether filmmakers have a responsibility to stick to the facts when they tell a story with roots in actual history, and film students should be participating in that debate.
But Colorado College’s LGBTQIA+ had no interest in such a debate. They reacted to the idea of a Stonewall screening as if they were being forced to watch a film version of Mein Kampf. (And while we’re on the subject, let’s keep in mind that practically every intro-to-film class shows students Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda picture commissioned by the Third Reich.)
“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. 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.”
“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.”
Identity? Safety? No one’s safety is remotely threatened by the screening of a movie, least of all a movie as tame as Stonewall. Whatever its faults, the film does not put trans students—or anyone else—in danger by the mere fact of its existence. And even if the film did have an extremely anti-trans agenda, that would be all the more reason to screen it and let students pick it apart. There is no danger in letting evil ideas be openly discussed and debated so long as we are confident in our own ability to use reason to defeat them.
Sadly, all-too-many students at all-too-many college campuses are like the anti-Stonewall crowd at CC: they have decided that all political matters are already decided and the only valid opinions are their own.
Any viewpoint, or speaker, or work of art that is insufficiently aligned with those opinions—be it a little, or a lot—is not only wrong, but dangerous. A shockingly high number of students believe the act of giving offense is tantamount to violence; for them, there is no difference between expressing an irritating idea and punching someone in the face. And, the thinking goes, just as it is necessary and proper for authority figures to outlaw violence, it is necessary and proper for college administrators to pro-actively censor offensive ideas.
A recent poll of students’ attitudes conducted by McLaughlin & Associates bears this out. A majority of surveyed students said universities should regulate speech and that people with a history of hateful statements should be banned from campus. A sizeable minority of students incorrectly believed the Constitution did not protect “hate speech,” and that, in ay case, the First Amendment was outdated. Half of the respondents thought their university should crack down on cartoons that criticize religious or ethnic groups, and a whopping 72 percent agreed with the following statement: “Any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive should be subject to disciplinary action.”
These attitudes—now held by a majority of students—represent the complete unraveling of the university as an institution of higher learning. It’s simply impossible to teach or be taught when all ideas that clash with the politically-correct left are deemed unsafe for public consideration.
Indeed, PC students reject the notion that campus is a place where different worldviews are deliberately brought into conflict for educational purposes; instead, they see campus as a “safe space” that exists to shield them from conflict entirely. No student’s long-term mental health is well served by this process of mental bubble wrapping, but the movement to crush all intellectual dissent on campus is thriving everywhere.
At least at Colorado College, administrators eventually decided to screen Stonewall anyway after briefly cancelling the event. Thank goodness. Giving in to the safe-spacers would have meant depriving film students of the chance to debate an alleged example of historical revisionism.
It also would have been quite an insult to the Stonewall rioters, who faced real danger in their quest for equal rights. With that actually dangerous struggle in mind, watching an imperfect movie about the riots seems comparatively safe.