June is Gay Pride month. Timed to commemorate the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in June of 1969. Gay marriage has, of course, been much in the news this year as California voters inexplicably passed a constitutional amendment banning the practice while four other states (Connecticut, Vermont, Iowa, and Maine) joined Massachusetts in legally sanctioning same-sex marriages.
I don’t remember hearing about the Stonewall riots until after the fact when they became synonymous with the advent of the modern gay rights movement. Reading about it now, it’s clear how far we’ve come.
The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in a traditionally gay part of the Village was the place to drink, and the only place to dance, for homosexual men (and a few lesbians) in New York City 40 years ago. A Mafia family ran the business. It had no liquor license, but the cops accepted cash to overlook that detail. Bribes notwithstanding, the Public Morals Squad of the NYCPD raided the place, as they did every gay bar in Manhattan, about once a month. Bartenders hid booze in back rooms, the better to reopen as quickly as possible, but anyone without ID, or anyone wearing make-up or acting at all effeminate was hauled off to jail.
Something snapped in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. Police barged in at 1:30 a.m. and rounded up the usual suspects, but instead of going quietly, the swishes and transvestites put up a fight. Crowds gathered outside and started throwing coins, then bricks. The cops had to barricade themselves inside the building and call for backup. When reinforcements arrived and tried to sweep the street, rioters formed high-spirited chorus lines and high-kicked the cops. A number of police and protestors had to be hospitalized. The same scenario, more or less, repeated itself the next couple of nights.
Overnight, the gay community was galvanized. One Stonewall participant said it was “like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise.” Openly-gay poet Allen Ginsberg said, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”
Homosexuality was a crime in most states in 1969. It was listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” or “a pathological hidden fear of the opposite sex caused by trauma in the parent-child relationship.”
Homosexuals were included on the lists of un-American types during the McCarthy era along with anarchists and communists. They were banned from federal jobs on the grounds, according to Under Secretary of State James E. Webb, they “lacked the essential stability of normal persons.”
I arrived in NYC in December of 1971, a newly-minted college graduate, to see what the big city was all about. I met a lot of gay men. Some of them tried to pick me up. Some were shy and some were bold as you please, emboldened perhaps by the marches and new-born organizations – the national coming out – that followed the Stonewall awakening.
One gay friend hounded me in a good-humored way until I left the city a year later, insisting that all humans are bisexual, and that I would come around eventually if I’d just let my inhibitions go. Another friend tried to crawl under the sheet with me on a hot New Jersey night. He’d invited me out to his mother’s place, and he took the rebuff hard, though he knew it was coming.
The unsought attention showed me something of the way women have felt for eons. And it reminded me of a college roommate who complained bitterly, albeit tongue-in-cheek, about a basic unfairness in the new feminist canon: Why was it, he asked, that he was never placed on a pedestal, or treated as a sex object by women, preferably those who looked like Judy Collins?
So, the mainstreaming of American gays has come a long way in a relatively short time. Witness the mere bemusement – no real ruffling of feathers – at Sasha Baron Cohen’s stunt at the MTV Movie Awards the other night, descending crotch first onto homophobe rapper Eminem’s face.
Colorado voters have so far rejected initiatives on both side of the marriage question. But legally-recognized same-sex marriage may at this point be frosting on the cake. In Montrose at a backyard party recently, I overheard a lesbian friend introduce herself to a stranger. Somehow marriage came up, and she had to explain: “I don’t have a husband, I have a wife.” That was that. End of subject. The way it should be.