Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Legacy of Stonewall

We celebrate Pride because of the courage of heroes 38 years ago

By Steve Charing

Fortunately today’s generation of lgbt folks do not have to face the conditions that pre-dated the historic Stonewall Riots that began June 27, 1969. In fact, this new generation wasn’t even born then.

Frequent bar raids occurred with police demanding ID’s under the threat of arrest. Entrapment by the police was astonishingly commonplace especially in "cruising areas." So was blackmail.
Names of the arrested were published in the newspapers: Jobs lost. Tenants evicted from apartments. Families torn apart.

Gays were beaten up by straights with alarming frequency. They purposely sought out queers to beat up outside gay establishments. Same-sex dancing was prohibited, as was touching. Sodomy was criminal behavior.

Mafia-owned bars serving overpriced watered down drinks whose owners often worked in collusion with the police and cared not one bit about the gays and lesbians who were their customers as long as they can make money off of them. Thugs acting as bar bouncers roughed up drunken gays.

There were no laws on the books to protect against discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations. Homosexuals were banished from the military following sadistic witch-hunts.

There were no domestic partner benefits or any rights based on same-sex relationships at major corporations and few universities. There were no openly gay elected officials, and anyone in the public eye remained in the closet. No officeholder supported an end to the harassment, much less advocated for equality. The thought of marriage between same-sex partners didn’t even exist.

A television show with a major gay character was unthinkable, as well as an openly gay actor. Any gay characters portrayed in movies were either depressed, suicidal, flamboyant or a victim of some sort. There were few, if any, gay-related periodicals.

Homosexuality was viewed as a psychological disorder; queers were considered sick and fair game by a hostile, homophobic society. Most chose to remain in the closet.

This was pre-Stonewall.

As we prepare to gather for the annual Pride parade, block party, and festival in the park, it may be difficult for the younger members of the community to relate to such pre-Stonewall conditions. While that is good for them, it is important that they reflect upon the courage of their brothers and sisters from earlier generations who helped pave the way for a much smoother gay experience.

The Stonewall Riots occurred in New York’s Greenwich Village on a sultry Friday night-early Saturday morning and lasted on and off for the better part of a week. It resulted from the second police raid of that week at the Stonewall Inn, New York’s largest gay club. The patrons, many of which were transvestites and young homeless gay men and hustlers, resisted the police’s actions inside the club.

As patrons were being expelled from the bar, chaos developed in the streets immediately outside. The crowd swelled to hundreds, and many began hurling bottles, bricks and other objects as well as an uprooted parking meter towards the police vehicles and the bar itself. The embattled police, who never encountered such resistance to any previous raids, were forced to take refuge inside the Stonewall Inn until reinforcements showed up.

Although the riots received relatively little play in New York’s daily newspapers at the time, this became a turning point—a seminal event—in the long and frustrating struggle for gay and lesbian rights. By the courageous actions of these individuals—often maligned and shunned as fringe people by even the gay community—a statement was made that "enough is enough."

The ensuing commemorative marches, parades and festivals that have been celebrated around the world since 1970 have emboldened the lgbt community to come out and stop being ashamed of who we are.

Yes, it is true that footage focusing on the more bizarre costumes that are typically on display at such celebrations have been used by religious extremists and political opponents to denigrate the gay community. They have been tools in the effort to keep us down, often succeeding.

But on balance the parades and other events are beneficial. They are an affirmation of our self-identity. The gruesome conditions of pre-Stonewall gay America that were described earlier have virtually flipped around in the decades that followed.

While we have had to endure a phenomenal amount of setbacks politically during this period—including the politicizing of HIV/AIDS—we have come so far as a community it defies imagination. We have evolved from merely seeking tolerance to seeking acceptance, and now full equality will hopefully be within our grasp some day.

Since those riots support groups and political advocacy organizations abound. With the publication of countless gay and lesbian newspapers, books and magazines and the advent of the Internet, an infinite amount of resources are available to those seeking information on gay and lesbian life.

Attitudes towards gays and lesbians are improving and reached a high-water mark according to a Gallup poll taken last month. The nation’s younger generation is leading the way. They constitute the beacon for the rest of society to follow.

We should enter Pride with the optimism from what we have accomplished as a diverse community and as individuals and how we will succeed in the future. There will be battles lost and won over the years, but the tide is with us.

The heroes of Stonewall helped make all this possible. That is their legacy. And this is our Pride.

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