27 June 2009

Stonewall, 40 Years On

Some years ago, one of my godsons was assigned to write an essay on someone he knew who had been discriminated against. He chose me as his subject.

I was surprised by this, since I’m not in the habit of thinking of myself as a victim — at least, not in matters of civil rights. Nevertheless, Will laid out the case: I could not marry my boyfriend,* who had no right to visit me in the hospital if I were sick; in many parts of the country, I could be denied certain employment, and I could not speak or move openly without fearing for my physical safety; and so on. It was an uncomfortable list, all the more so because it had been compiled with the clear vision of a child.

Yet it was a demonstration of the wisdom that lies at the core of “coming out”: “They can’t hate us if they know us,” as Harvey Milk said, and in the forty years since the Stonewall riots, a couple of generations of openly gay Americans succeeded in making my godchildren’s generation more accepting than any that has preceded it. My godson and his sister have been active in their high school’s Gay–Straight Alliance — an organization I can’t even imagine having existed in my school.

That’s part of what’s being celebrated this weekend in Paris and in New York. We’ve come a long way. Too many of us are still discriminated against, too many of our civil rights are still denied us. Some other countries are more progressive than America (or France), while others lag far behind — most often excusing bigotry as God’s will. And yet the world is already a better place, just because some New York drag queens started to fight back, forty years ago.

Tree at (and on) the Stonewall bar

The Stonewall is my bar of choice in New York, though less for its historic significance than for the presence of Fredd Tree, my friend who tends bar there on weekends. Tree is a Stonewall veteran, arrested the first night of the riots (though he slipped free of the cops), and he knows many other veterans. Stroll around Greenwich Village with him, or hang out with him at a bar, and you’ll meet them, too.

They’re old now, most of them, and yet the stories they tell seem to come from an era much older than they, of lives that seem like fictions, impossible to believe, of places that seem like another world. They tell of violence and loneliness and pain. They tell of constant struggles but also of connections, both fleeting and enduring, and of community born of identity.

In 1969, I wasn’t aware of the Stonewall riots, and not really aware of homosexuality.** It took me a long time to understand that the gay rights movement might have anything to do with me — that it wasn’t limited to the fantastical creatures on parade but that its purpose embraced everybody, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and straight. The benefits of a more just society must also fall to those who already had benefits to begin with.

It took me even longer to understand the significance of “Pride,” and to this day, the best I can do is grasp that it’s the opposite of shame. We are not ashamed. We will not be treated shamefully. While I accept this concept collectively, I’m still having trouble understanding it with respect to myself. Too much of my life is still spent in timidity or outright fear, too much of my behavior still stems from shame. Not all of this has to do with my sexual identity — but a lot of it does. I grew up in a different time, and it shows. That I have the luxury even to reflect upon such personal matters, and to do so openly, is another sign that the society in which I live has evolved: I can navel-gaze because I am not more occupied by fears of blackmail, beatings, and arrest.

My friends and I are free now to build lasting relationships, to take the energy that once would have gone to secrecy and stealth, repression and denial, and to channel it into open, productive behavior. To buy a house together, as Eric and Dan just did. To celebrate a partnership of 29 years, as Darren and Steven just did. To work side by side, as Wash and Richard do. To marry, as David and David did. To love and to live, to make our own choices — with pride — as I am trying to do.

Get used to it.

*He would not have considered marriage to me to be an attractive prospect. I drove him crazy. But it might have been salutary to know we had the option.

**TV in those days offered a few gay icons — Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, Tiny Tim — but I didn’t understand them as gay. I just thought they were silly.


Michael Leddy said...

Bill, I'm glad that I stumbled onto your blog. You're a terrific writer.

I watched Milk a few weeks ago, thinking "That [Bryant, Briggs, etc.] was only thirty years ago" — the same sort of feeling as re-realizing that Jim Crow was around in my lifetime. I'm happy to see a younger generation coming up for whom the idea of discrimination on the basis of sexual identity is largely unthinkable.

William V. Madison said...

Another sign of the times: this morning's correspondence announces that the friend of a friend was gay-bashed last night -- in New York City. He is now in the hospital, having waited hours for police to take note of him.

Some politicians will tell you that we don't need protection, which is why we get no legislation. And the beatings go on.

This isn't over yet.

Michael Leddy said...

"This isn't over yet."

I'm with you on that. I didn't mean to suggest that the passing of time alone is sufficient, only that there are welcome changes in attitude across generations.

William V. Madison said...

I didn't misunderstand you, Michael, and indeed the comment was intended not as a reflection on your message but as an update -- a news item, if you will. Last night's bashing doesn't diminish the change you (and I) welcome, so much as it reminds us all how much is yet to be accomplished.

Michael Leddy said...

I guess I misunderstood your comment, Bill. Thanks for not misunderstanding mine. : )

Anonymous said...

Arguably the riot helped to define the homosexual population as something outside of, and in conflict with, the social mainstream. The whole issue of homosexuality might be less contentious if people realized that it has always been around, that gays have coexisted more or less harmoniously with the rest of society in many if not all countries throughout history. It is hard to see how a riot helps anyone understand this.

I am not leaving comments here to contradict everything you say, but rather out of respectful disagreement.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

I appreciate the comment and I respect your point of view, too, Rick. To some extent, I think even the earliest gay libbers would agree with one point you raise: after all, they stopped staging riots.

But when one considers the status quo at the time, it's hard to imagine the gentler scenario you depict. "Mainstream" gays were so deep in the closet, so hidden from view, that widespread consciousness-raising simply wasn't possible.

It took a handful of folks outside the mainstream -- drag queens, street kids, marginals, extremists -- to start making a little noise. Only then did it become clear to America that gays existed as anything other than swishy comedians or mentally ill (which is what we were officially considered, by the way) criminals.

Had the earliest gay libbers not stood up, how long would it have taken for me to enjoy the relative liberty I do today?

Personally, I don't think it would have happened in my lifetime. But in any case -- how long should one have to wait, to be oneself?

Anonymous said...

There is a direct line between Stonewall and the type of militants who go around saying "We will sodomize your sons" and other things clearly intended to upset traditional Middle Americans. I'm not saying that everyone who participated in Stonewall is a militant of that nature, but rather that some gay activism did develop in that direction in the years since Stonewall, and that is one reason some people are not as accepting as they could be when it comes to gays in general. There are many ways, some confrontational and some not at all, to "raise consciousness" and appeal for one's rights.
I think the legacy of Stonewall must be understood to include more than one kind.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Never having encountered (or even heard about, prior to your comment) such a militant, I can't really vouch for the validity of your observation, Rick. Maybe you're right.

However, having encountered PLENTY of Americans who are uncomfortable (at best) with homosexuality, I have seen that many really latch onto any excuse they can find in order to confirm and to retain their prejudices. (The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah wasn't same-sex love, it was inhospitality. But try telling that to people, and see how far you get.) If the Stonewall rebellion and subsequent militancy had been supplanted by an episode of Will & Grace, some people wouldn't have been persuaded. Some people were offended by Rosa Parks, too.

I'm still of the opinion that America needed a kind of jolt, just to recognize the existence of its gay sons and daughters. That may have been distasteful to a lot of people, and for my part, I'd have been utterly incapable of joining in. But such is the nature of social change. It always starts out messy.

Anonymous said...

My basic point still stands: Excessive militancy has made it harder, not easier, for gays to gain acceptance. For an example of what I'm talking about, please read the following. -- Rick

"Gay Revolutionary." Reprinted from The Congressional Record. First printed in Gay Community News, February 15-21 1987

"We shall sodomize your sons, emblems of your feeble masculinity, of your shallow dreams and vulgar lies.... Your sons shall become our minions and do our bidding. They will be recast in our image. They will come to crave and adore us.

All laws banning homosexual activity will be revoked. Instead, legislation shall be passed which engenders love between men....

If you dare to cry faggot, fairy, queer, at us, we will stab you in your cowardly hearts and defile your dead, puny bodies....

Our writers and artists will make love between men fashionable and de rigueur, and we will succeed because we are adept at setting styles. We will eliminate heterosexual liaisons through usage of the devices of wit and ridicule, devices which we are skilled in employing.

There will be no compromises. We are not middle-class weaklings. Highly intelligent, we are the natural aristocrats of the human race, and steely-minded aristocrats never settle for less. Those who oppose us will be exiled.

The family unit--spawning ground of lies, betrayals, mediocrity, hypocrisy and violence--will be abolished....

All churches who condemn us will be closed. Our only gods are handsome young men....

Any man contaminated with heterosexual lust will be automatically barred from a position of influence. All males who insist on remaining stupidly heterosexual will be tried in homosexual courts of justice and will become invisible men.

We shall rewrite history, history filled and debased with your heterosexual lies and distortions. We shall portray the homosexuality of the great leaders and thinkers who have shaped the world....

Tremble, hetero swine, when we appear before you without our masks."

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for sharing, Rick. (I don't really know how else to respond!)

Considering that I was in the process of coming out myself at the time this was published (nearly 20 years after the riots), and yet I never heard a peep of it or anything like it, I'm inclined to believe it was less than a potent factor in public resistance to gay rights.

Were there other statements like it, earlier and better publicized, and ultimately influential? Maybe so. But a reader would have to be pretty firmly entrenched in her own ideas to see this manifesto as anything other than the work of a crank. (The prose doesn't even possess the stylistic brio of Valerie Soldana's.)

It may help to remember the historical context: the AIDS epidemic was in full cry at this time, unleashing unprecedented and not always reasonable emotion (and rhetoric) in my community. The manifesto is interesting as a document, then, but kinda off-topic. Gays had traveled a long road already by 1987, and I thought we were talking about where that road began, and how.

Any Stonewall veterans I've known who offered to sodomize anyone's sons, did so in the kindest spirit imaginable; and very often, the offer was accepted gladly.

Meanwhile, Rick, I wonder whether you've thought about starting your own blog. You write well, and you've got plenty to say.