What Have We Learned From Stonewall?

by sawamix


Back then, the national gay community still called themselves “homosexuals”, protested in an orderly fashion, the men in natty business suits with the requisite thin black ties, the woman in prim, knee-length skirts. And the only reason why the Stonewall Inn riots that began 40 years ago today aren’t better known is an accident of timing. Mere days after the last of the riots in Greenwich Village had been quelled, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. The month after, our attention and wider scope of posterity was diverted yet again to a little arts and music festival on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York.

On a somewhat more reduced yet no less significant scale, what we’re now witnessing in the streets of Tehran we’d seen on Christopher Street when the NYPD raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that was the only one in the city that allowed same sex dancing, for selling liquor without a license. During the countless preceding raids, the patrons allowed themselves to be loaded into the paddy wagons and waited to be booked and tried for the crime of being gay.

On the late night/early morning of June 27-28, 1969, all that changed.

By the time the police knew what had hit them, four of them were in the hospital, one with a broken wrist, and were chased by an enraged mob back into the gay bar from which they’d just emerged. Armed with nothing more than garbage, bricks appropriated from a nearby construction site and their bare hands, the gay community of Greenwich Village rose up in a screaming, quivering fury and said with one voice, “No more.” What seemed to set the crowd off were eyewitnesses who saw NYPD officers beat and tear the shirt off a lesbian patron.

What is most readily and easily forgotten, however, is that the riots were conducted not merely by white young gays but also straight sympathizers, lesbians, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and the middle-aged and even elderly as well as the young. The flash point, don’t forget, was the public molesting and assault of a young lesbian at the hands of the authorities, a thankfully nonfatal precursor to Neda Agha Soltani.

It’s safe to say that the Stonewall Inn riots became one of the widest and strongest columns of the ongoing gay rights movement for which it had been a catalytic and unifying influence. Since then, American voters have elected over 400 openly gay and lesbian public officials and we now have gay marriage in six states with New York expected to become the seventh. Yet in a way, it could be said that the still vibrant and potent LGBT community in our nation still lags behind virtually every other civil rights movement for any other wronged and oppressed American minority with the possible exception of Native Americans.

We ought to have at least seven states already that allow same sex marriage but on election day 2008, all that changed in what used to be the most progressive state. In several aspects, it seems as if the gay rights movement has taken one step forward and two steps back when one remembers the much later Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the Clinton era that was recently upheld in a despicable brief filed by the Obama-era Justice Department. In fact, the DOJ’s brief upholding DOMA was so heinous that it actually synonymized gay marriage with incest and pedophilia.

Somehow, that took all the warmth and fuzziness out of parallel State Department and White House decrees that same sex couples working for the federal government get the same perks and privileges as traditional married couples. I suspect I may not be alone in saying the gay rights movement makes me proud to be a liberal more than anything and the government’s genteel jihad against gay rights makes me ashamed more than anything to be a Democrat.

And, to go back to California and Proposition 8 for a minute, the gay rights movement practically had one of its columns kicked out from under it last November because it proved several things few if any of us expected. #1, that a small minority of evangelicals could sway seven million voters into denying a basic, inalienable right to people outside their community and #2, it marked the first time that gay marriage had been overturned in a state that had formerly allowed it.

In other words, a fringe minority had changed existing state law.

Same sex marriage is by far the most polarizing issue in the gay rights movement, perhaps for the simple reason that it throws on its ear the universal and fundamental human ritual of wedded union. We fear that which we do not understand, even if it does not threaten us.

To we liberals and progressives, the sight of two men or two women kissing passionately at a wedding altar is one of the most joyous, life-affirming and natural sights imaginable. But, unfortunately, it seems that perhaps we are as much in the minority as the evangelical propagandists who’d spent tens of millions of dollars telling people to tell people whom they can’t marry.

Granted, gay marriage in the Stonewall era wasn’t even a pipe dream except for a few radical dreamers and the rise of political leaders such as Harvey Milk and Barney Frank wouldn’t be for another decade or so. Yet we live in a nation in which it is no longer legal to discriminate or harass based on sexual orientation yet sweet young gay men like Matthew Shepard are beaten and left to die on barbed wire fences.

We are a nation in a painful state of transition in which Republicans and Democrats alike oppose gay marriage and liken it to sexual perversion while making mockeries of their own traditional marriage vows.

We have not have learned nearly as much from the Stonewall Inn riots of two generations ago as we may like to think. And the gay rights movement, while it may at times be shrill and militant, is deep down at heart just as scared and vulnerable as it was on that hot, humid, chaotic night 40 years ago today.