"Before Stonewall, you took your life into your hands when you tried to be openly gay. Whenever we celebrate pride, a component of that pride should be that we are proud of our history & struggle & that we fought back against oppression & managed to have lives under that difficulty."
Martin Duberman, author of Stonewall
In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, a group of Hispanics, hippies, drag queens, & queers got fed up with being harassed by the police because they were gay. It’s hard to imagine police handcuffing, harassing, & arresting gay people for simply gathering in public, but that’s what happened, routinely, before Stonewall’s spontaneous uprising of gay men & lesbians in New York’s Greenwich Village. What happened then galvanized the gay rights movement? For younger people, who have grown up in a world with increasing legal protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, & transgender community, it’s hard to imagine that just 4 decades ago, gay people’s jobs, families, & homes were threatened, & their lives restricted or ruined if they were out of closet.
While not the first rebellion, the Stonewall riots are the most famous instance of homosexuals fighting back against government persecution. From all accounts, the riots were not pretty or organize. Stonewall was 6 nights of street riots with some of the least empowered elements of society: the closeted, fearful, & disenfranchised, fighting the police batons & pepper spray with what they had, mostly fists, signs, garbage cans, bottles, & shoes. For gay Boomers, the uprising is a defining moment to celebrate as we look back at how far we have come in four short decades & look ahead to the future. In 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn who refused to be intimidated by police oppression had no idea they were about to change history. They just wanted equality. In the 1950s, Rosa Parks had no idea she was about to change history when she refused to move to the back of the bus, either. As she famously recounted: "The reason that I did not move from my seat was that my feet were tired." Those queers at the Stonewall Inn were tired too. From such humble origins, movements ignite.
NY TIMES, June 29th, 1969
It was just 50 years ago, homosexuals were classified as subversives by the US Department of State; we were officially recognized as security risks to the country. The FBI kept lists of known homosexuals, as did the US Postal Service. The names of people arrested for public indecency & lewd behavior (men holding hands, women wearing suits) were published regularly in newspapers. Being queer was officially recognized as a psychopathic condition, & was a valid reason to be fired from your job. Gay men & women forced out of the government positions by the 1000s each year. If gay people regularly congregated together, the police department’s “Public Morals Squad” would be called in to intervene. Police brutality was commonplace. Hope for the future was pretty bleak; there were no substantial gay rights organizations. The only real community gay people had was in underground establishments, often maintained with help from the Mafia, or by bribing the police.
I wonder what we’ll imagine next for the older LGBT community? I wonder if those on the front lines of gay "out" aging will keep walking that line between activism & diplomacy. If the first 40+ years of our civil rights movement are any indication, will the next 40 take us into a future of greater equality, with more allies? Will the Stonewall legacy of fighting for being out & for equality motivate us to pave new trails for gays & lesbians at age 50+? Will DOMA be struck down? I think we owe that not only to ourselves & to the generations, but also to those who stood up for us at Stonewall.
For over a decade I needed to explain Stonewall to a group of 6 young people that I supervised, many of the group were gay, but even the straight kids went drinking & dancing at Portland's gay clubs. None of them had heard of Stonewall. I had to explain it to them, & they got quite an earful. I continue to reflect on all the things many "baby queers" just don't know about or care about:
People could be arrested for dancing with someone of the same sex ?
Gay bars were once hidden & "coded"?
Ralph Waldo Emerson?
Tales Of The City?
Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert?
Billie Jean King?
Billie Jean King?
Neil Patrick Harris?
A world with no Internet Hook-up sites?
A world with no GRNDR?
A world before HIV?
Post Apocalyptic Bohemia remembers our history & as long as this blog continues, I will attempt to get down that history & those individuals that played a part, in hopes that somebody cares.