Lee Daniels: The Stonewall Rioters Are American Heroes and Should Be in History Books, Like Martin Luther King
Director Lee Daniels on Stonewall 50: ‘Know this history, be appreciative of the rights we have, and the people who literally died to let us have the rights we have right now.’
In this special series, LGBT celebrities and public figures talk to Tim Teeman about the Stonewall Riots and their legacy—see more here.
Lee Daniels is a multi-award winning and Oscar-nominated director, producer, writer, and co-creator of Empire.
When and how did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots? What did you make of them?
I heard about them in my early twenties in the ether. It was sort of historical information given to me as young gay man from friends. It wasn’t until I did personal research that I found out there were people of color there. That was a surprise to now much older me. I just thought they were a group of white men that just sort of stood up to these straight people. That had been instilled into my head as a young 20-year-old.
Not until you dig under the surface do you know about Marsha [P. Johnson], Stormé [DeLarverie], and Sylvia [Rivera]. Stonewall has been sanitized, as has our whole history, of people of color. That struck me, and it made me think of other forgotten heroes—the hundreds and thousands of gay men who died of AIDS, for example—the younger generation is unaware of.
What is the significance of the Stonewall Riots now?
I think the people who took part should be honored because they are American heroes, and be in history books just like we know about Martin Luther King—and they’re not. If I had to dig and surface and learn and do my own research, it’s safe to say the current culture doesn’t know who these people are. Young people barely know about the Stonewall Riots. They have to be educated.
Everybody millennial seems to be into ‘our right to have.’ I think we should learn the history that will make us appreciate the rights that we have as we move forward to ask for more rights. We should do our homework. Know this history, be appreciative of the rights we have, and the people who died literally to let us have the rights we have right now. (Laughs) Says a 60-year-old jaded queen from Philadelphia.
How far have LGBT people come since 1969?
Oh my God, I think leaps and bounds. How far has the world come with LGBTQ? Not as fast as we would like for it to be, especially around transgender equality and the terrible situations LGBTQ people face around the world.
That we’re in this environment today is unthinkable, but the strides we have taken are still not enough. Kids still need to know. They need to understand and appreciate what the Stonewall Riots meant. It should be taught and explained, but who is there to teach it?
What would you like to see in the next 50 years?
Just that Stonewall and the AIDS epidemic and what they meant were taught in schools. They need to know early on, just as with the Holocaust and civil rights movement.