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Where we come from

Coming of Age with Stonewall

My generation didn’t start the Stonewall Revolution. That honor goes to brave souls a bit older than we were, by a decade or two, or maybe less, those slightly ahead of the Boomers who were just in college or high school (like me) or younger. The vanguard were the customers in the Stonewall Inn that night when the police barged in. Such raids were not unusual; there was a long-established routine of official police harassment, in New York and most other major American cities, of any known or suspected gathering place for homosexuals. The only crime involved was being homosexual.

What made that night in June 1969 different, however, was that the customers of the Stonewall—sometimes described as “drag queens” and “street people”—decided to fight back. This was unprecedented. They resisted arrest, sometimes defending themselves from the police with high-heeled shoes. As the ruckus spilled from the bar and paddy wagon into Christopher Street, locals in the heart of the counter-culture took note. A small riot ensued. But the cops prevailed, and the Stonewallers were booked. Weirdly, by some stretch of macho logic, the police returned the next night for a repeat performance. This time, the crowd was larger (modern social networking has nothing over the speed of the old gay grapevine) and the confrontation more violent. Then a third night, louder and uglier, and attended by many of the creative class of Greenwich Village. By this time, city officials were embarrassed by the whole situation; constituents were asking what’s the point? The police were reined in. The streets calmed. And a chasm had opened in the earth. Fight back.

For those well-versed in gay history: my apologies for the quick recap of an oft-told tale. But, in my experience, we can never tell the story often enough. I remember being on the train back to New York after the 1993 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. I struck up a conversation with some young people (we all still boldly wore our rainbows and pink triangles and other paraphernalia), still excited by the gathering and the sense of empowerment gained when so many convene for a common cause. They had heard much talk at the rallies about the plans for major events the following summer in New York to mark the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. I was shocked when one of them asked me, in all earnestness, “So what was Stonewall?” And right there, between the cars of a rattling Northeast Corridor train, I conducted something akin to a teach-in of yore: an ever-larger group of 20-somethings, listening and asking pointed questions of the old guy (I was already 40—but a pretty well-preserved 40, I should say), trying to understand where we came from, how we got to here, and where we might go next. I never had that opportunity. I was glad to do it.

But my generation didn’t start the Stonewall Revolution. It took more seasoned hands to seize the moment of riot and resistance, and fan the spark into a full-burn movement. There were hippies already steeped in the counter-culture of the 60s. There were experienced activists from the anti-war movement (the Vietnam War was still escalating), well-versed in the tactics of resistance. There were veterans of civil rights and anti-defamation struggles. It was these folk who struggled to create new organizations (like the GAA and GLF), new places (like the Firehouse), new messages (“Gay is good”). None of these early efforts survived—except for an annual march every June that would soon make Stonewall immortal. And a whole new way of thinking. Hell, I had barely turned 16 when the Stonewall Riots erupted. I was a good boy, confused and fearful. (I didn’t know until years later that some of my classmates in Jesuit prep school were already cruising the subways. Call me slow.) I never got to the Firehouse, or to any of those early groups. I never knew what to make of the rare news reports about “radical” homosexuals, or their demonstrations. But when I was ready, I was provided with an entirely new environment not available to men born even a decade before me: I would not allow myself to be persecuted, or prosecuted, because of who I am; I would not be bullied or intimidated; I would not be forced to live a lie.

My generation didn’t start the Stonewall Revolution. It was a gift to us. Our job would be to make it stick.

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