Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Stonewall: 40 years Later

This Sunday was the 40th anniversary of the “Stonewall riots” that occurred in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1969. Gay bar patrons suddenly, unexpectedly, fought back against the police harassment that had become routine. The 48 hours of that weekend are credited with beginning the gay rights movement. There has been a great deal of coverage of this anniversary in the press; President Obama has invited gay leaders to the White House for a commemoration. Of course, this coverage has far exceeded the coverage that occurred that weekend and the days following the actual events. With the exception of the Village Voice, the story was buried in the interior of the city’s, and nation’s, papers. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times on June 25, 2009 (, reporter Lucian Truscott IV describes his coverage as a summer intern for the Voice who, as “perhaps the unlikeliest person in the world to cover the Stonewall riots for The Village Voice…” having “… graduated from West Point only three weeks earlier and was spending my summer leave in New York before reporting for duty at Fort Benning” and says that the raids, by the NYPD Morals Unit (!!), was not a generalized crackdown against gay bars, but against Mafia-run bars. Of course, all the gay bars were mob-run.

The brave young men who decided to stand up against this harassment were not the established “leaders” of the gay community in Greenwich Village (Truscott says “I was there on the Saturday and Sunday nights when the Village’s established gay community, having heard about the incidents of Friday night, rushed back from vacation rentals on Fire Island and elsewhere. Although several older activists participated in the riots, most stood on the edges and watched.”) It is rarely the established leaders who create the breakthroughs in any movement, for they have too much to lose. In the film “Milk”, which portrays a period in San Francisco some years after Stonewall, the activism of Harvey Milk and his friends and followers are seen as threatening to gay leaders, who do not initially support him.

Nor were these rioters the “gay contingent” of the young radical college students of the day. Rather, they were young men, largely working-class, many of them living on the streets or in slums, who had come to the Village from the whole of Greater New York. In many cases, they had been turned out of their houses by their families; in virtually all cases they were seeking a place where they could openly be themselves. The police were shocked, the gay leaders were shocked, the community was shocked, and the mainstream media closed their eyes.

And for many those eyes, and the eyes of our government, are still closed. Forty years later, while there have been many great advances in the rights of gays (no longer is the practice of gay sex punishable by castration in many state!), we are still not yet at the only place it is fair, reasonable, or moral to be.

More than 75% of our people support the rights of gays to serve in the military but we still have “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (and it would be wrong if it were only 10%!). In May 2009, Dan Choi, an Army officer and West Point graduate who was an Arabic translator was dismissed from the Army after opening identifying himself as gay. Comedian Jon Stewart famously commented: “So it was okay to waterboard a guy 80 times but God forbid the guy who could understand what that prick was saying has a boyfriend? Waterboarding may make a prisoner talk, but it ain't gonna make him talk English."

But Choi was not the first. Military Arabic translator Alistair Gamble discussed his firing in a New York Times Op-Ed piece on November 29, 2002, and Stephen Benjamin described his in another Times Op-Ed on June 8, 2007. Times reporter Nathaniel Frank has followed the story, with two long articles, one describing the firing of nine translators on November 28, 2003, and another followup after Choi’s dismissal on March 18, 2009.

Six states have legalized gay marriage, but the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), first enacted under President Clinton, is still in effect defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and the Obama administration’s Justice Department has filed a brief supporting it. Not all politicians who are supporters of DOMA and opponents of gay rights are nauseating hypocrites like Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, but these two, like many others, demonstrate that if heterosexual marriage needs protection it is not from loving gay couples who wish, against all rules, to demonstrate their commitment to each other through marriage. Let me be clear – what makes Ensign and Sanford and their ilk slime is not their extramarital affairs, which from my point of view is an issue between them and their families, but their vicious hypocrisy in preaching “family” and opposing gay marriage while carrying on in ways that clearly demonstrate that they are driven only by their own phallic narcissism.

We have a long way to go before gay people in the United States have been granted their full civil rights, but make no mistake – there is only one OK, moral and acceptable outcome. That is full, non-contingent, civil rights for all people. Including gay people.

Sure there are a lot of people who don’t approve of, don’t like, or are scared of gayness and gay people. There are also racists, religious bigots, and misogynists. That doesn’t make it OK, or supportable in any way by our society. Forty years after Stonewall we must finally put to rest the unconscionable laws and policies that discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.

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