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.
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.