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Reflections on Stonewall

All around the country, LGBT people are celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the events of June 28, 1969, when patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back against police who decided to raid the bar. Up until that point, police harassment was a regular occurrence, and the threat of being arrested was accepted as calculated risk people took in order to socialize in establishments catering to the LGBT community.

But on that night, for a variety of reasons that may never be completely understood, people collectively put their foot down and 53 Christopher Street became the site of several days of riots that are credited as the beginning of the modern gay rights struggle. The bar was declared a national historic landmark in 1999.

The story of Stonewall has always been fascinating to me, both in terms of its historic stature and as a reference point for observing how much LGBT life has changed in the last forty years.

Researching the background of the Stonewall Inn, it seemed an unlikely launching pad for a gay uprising. In previous incarnations, the Stonewall had been a restaurant and heterosexual club, until its Mafia ownership decided to turn it into a gay bar in 1966. While its status as the only gay bar that allowed dancing gave it an advantage over other clubs, customer service was not a priority.

The mob figures who ran the business were not shy about referring to the customers as “faggot scumbags,” even while they were taking their money. Their disregard for the patrons was also evident in their failure to implement even the simplest of safety and health procedures. Fire exits and running water were non-existent; drinks were served from glasses that had been merely rinsed in a tub of standing water and the toilets constantly overflowed. Prior to the riots, an outbreak of hepatitis among gay men was linked to the club’s lack of sanitation.

Despite all this, the Stonewall’s location in Greenwich Village made it a popular destination for New York’s gay community, attracting a clientele that cut across age and racial lines. Stonewall was a particular favorite among hustlers, cross-dressers, homeless kids, and effeminate men. Lesbians and upper-class gay men occasionally went to the Stonewall, but tended to patronize other bars.

When the Stonewall riots began, they were fighting for the basic right to go to a bar and socialize without being arrested. It is difficult to imagine that society’s current (and growing) support for openly LGBT people was envisioned back in 1969. Subjects like federal recognition of same-sex families, gay-straight alliances in schools, and hate crimes legislation may have seemed beyond the realm of possibility at that time. We have come a long way, baby!

Yet I wonder if the people of Stonewall would be completely happy with the state of affairs in the LGBT community. The Stonewall riots were a classic example of a grass roots event where people decided they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. They were not sure where those actions would lead, but they knew something had to change. Today, it seems ideas must go through focus groups, think tanks, and hierarchal leadership before being acted upon. I wonder if something is lost when the spontaneity is taken out of the equation of the gay rights struggle.

With pride season being in full bloom right now, I can’t be alone in noticing the heavy commercialization of what started as a political statement. This year, New York City is spending $2 million to market the Stonewall Inn to tourists, as part of a campaign to convince people to take a “rainbow pilgrimage.” The first gay pride parades did not have corporate sponsorship! I had a great deal of fun at Nashville Pride, but as I walked past some of the vendors, I couldn’t help but question their commitment and connection to the LGBT community because their services had no apparent link to LGBT issues or concerns. Were they really there to support us, or was it just an opportunity to add some pink dollars to their bottom line?

Finally, as I reflect on the drag queens, nelly queens, and lower-class people who set it off at Stonewall, I wonder what they would say about the idea that people like them are embarrassing the LGBT community and they should be less visible. Each year, somebody makes a statement criticizing the flamboyant and provocative among us for being a bit too proud. This time, it was Will and Grace creator Max Mutchnick who wrote a lengthy essay complaining that these “stereotypes” (this, coming from the man who gave the world Jack McFarland!) were dominating the image of LGBT people and preventing the rise of who he called “Martin Luther Queen.”

If you believe there should be a more diverse portrayal of the LGBT community, that is fine. My issue with Mutchnick is that in many cases it is the A-list, self-described “straight acting” gays who shun the spotlight because they don’t want to be identified with the gay community. Instead of challenging people’s ideas of how LGBTs are, they prefer to side on the sidelines and complain from afar. If you avoid pride events because of your fear, don’t be mad at people who are bold enough to be themselves. You can’t have it both ways!

From “Blackout” for 6/29/09 by Anthony Rucker


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