Sunday, June 28, 2009

40th Anniversary Of Stonewall

Photo from Counterlight's Peculiers.

From Frank Rich at the New York Times:

LIKE all students caught up in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, I was riveted by the violent confrontations between the police and protesters in Selma, 1965, and Chicago, 1968. But I never heard about the several days of riots that rocked Greenwich Village after the police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in the wee hours of June 28, 1969 — 40 years ago today.

Then again, I didn’t know a single person, student or teacher, male or female, in my entire Ivy League university who was openly identified as gay. And though my friends and I were obsessed with every iteration of the era’s political tumult, we somehow missed the Stonewall story. Not hard to do, really. The Times — which would not even permit the use of the word gay until 1987 — covered the riots in tiny, bowdlerized articles, one of them but three paragraphs long, buried successively on pages 33, 22 and 19.

I mostly missed the Stonewall stories, too, and when I read Counterlight's amazing series of posts on the history of the gay liberation movement, I received an education. I had only vague memories of hearing or reading about the riots.

The younger gay men — and scattered women — who acted up at the Stonewall on those early summer nights in 1969 had little in common with their contemporaries in the front-page political movements of the time. They often lived on the streets, having been thrown out of their blue-collar homes by their families before they finished high school. They migrated to the Village because they’d heard it was one American neighborhood where it was safe to be who they were.

After the gay liberation movement was born at Stonewall, this strand of history advanced haltingly until the 1980s. It took AIDS and the new wave of gay activism it engendered to fully awaken many, including me, to the gay people all around them. But that tardy and still embryonic national awareness did not save the lives of those whose abridged rights made them even more vulnerable during a rampaging plague.

The stories passed from my memory, too, until AIDS began to strike gay men down. My cousin, who was straight, so far as I know, had by-pass surgery in the early 1980s, received several units of blood, and contracted the disease. When he first got sick, my mother went to visit him in the hospital. When she asked him if he had a diagnosis, he said, "The doctors think I may have AIDS," and then he laughed as though it was impossible. She told me later, "I hope I don't catch it." He died a few years later, and his immediate family never said what he died of. They were so ashamed that they had a private funeral for him, but the extended family knew that he died of AIDS.

I read, The Boys in the Band in the late 1980s, an exposé of the government's failure to address the seriousness of AIDS. And then, in the 1990s, I saw Andrew Sullivan in an impressive interview on TV, Charlie Rose's show, maybe, pushing his book, Virtually Normal, which I purchased and read. Next came Maurice by E. M. Forster. I love Forster's novels, and I thought I had read all of them, but I'd missed the gay novel, which was published only after his death. I paid only sporadic attention to issues involving gays, and I was ashamed at how little I knew of the gay liberation movement when I read Counterlight's series of posts. I was ashamed, but I believe that Frank Rich and I had lots of company in ignorance amongst the citizenry of the US.

Then, Gene Robinson was elected bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire, the House of Bishops consented, and he was consecrated Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Well, that got my attention, and the attention of the people in my church, and the attention of people in Episcopal churches across the land, and in the whole of the Anglican Communion, even to the point of obsession some might say, because those in opposition to equality for LGTB folks never seem to stop talking about the evils of same-sexuality.

Our president, Barack Obama, who promised to be gay-friendly during his campaign, has not kept his promises, except for throwing the gay community a bone in the form of certain partnership rights for federal employees, but stopping short of full health-care benefits.

Gay Pride parade New York City today.

Note: Counterlight's posts can be read at his blog by clicking on the pictures of the riots on the right of his sidebar.


  1. I'm so glad you posted this.

    I'm afraid I'm hugely ignorant of this history.

  2. Thanks, Mimi. So many don't know the history. So many still don't know who we really are though all our lives are intermingled.

    You cannot imagine how much I appreciate your witness in this, as in so many areas. You are a true friend.

    Sorry I missed your call.

  3. No need to feel ashamed.

    I presume most people don't know this history, including most gay folk. It's only been in recent years (within the last 10) that scholars have begun to research it and publish it. Earlier histories, such as they were, were short and written by activists, usually as memoirs or commentary.

    I didn't know most of this stuff until about 5 years ago, and I'm still finding out a lot of things that I never knew.

  4. Excellent tone. At one point in reading this post, I had to go back a few sentences to see where the quoted text from Frank Rich had ended, and where your commentary had begun.

    I especially LOVE your use of the word "folks" to refer to those of us who identify as either LGBTorQ.

    And, Mimi, a heartfelt gay hug from a fellow bayou blogger. I read your blog "religiously" but oh so much moreso "gaily" and daily.

    On a sad note, have you seen what the police did in Fort Worth TX on the 40th Anniversary of Stonewall? See the story all over the gay blogosphere, as exemplified by the fine reporting at

  5. Thank you all. I try to get it right, newcomer to the cause that I am. I am not quite brave enough to say "queer" yet. Whoops! I just said it.

    Crapaud, watch for the italics. That ain't me. I'll check out your link.

  6. Frank Rich was unusually unaware at Harvard -- or perhaps he just wasn't Episcopalian.

    susankay '66

  7. SusanKay, I didn't know any LGTB folks who were out in the 1960s. I had a gay friend in graduate school. I knew he was gay, but we never talked about it.

    I don't know what Harvard was like when Rich was there.

  8. Catherine in JapanJune 29, 2009 at 11:13 PM

    I hope your children and grandchildren know what a cool person you are!

  9. SusanKay, I missed the "susankay'66" in your comment. You we're there, and you knew what it was like. I guess Rich was unusually unaware.

    Catherine, I doubt that my grandchildren think I'm cool. They just think I'm an old lady who loves them.

    Thanks for the lovely compliment.


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