Friday, June 27, 2014

Forty-Five Years: A Celebration of the Saints

It was a hot night in New York City, 1969.  The actress Judy Garland had died of a drug overdose, and there was mourning in the gay community over the loss of one of their Hollywood icons.  Drag queens and kings, lesbians and gay men, had gone to the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn for a night of drinking watered-down cocktails to let themselves "be" among those who were just like them.  That's when the police of the local precinct in Greenwich Village decided it would be a night of busting up the gay bar, and hauling people in for the crime of being queer.

But on this night, 45 years ago, the men and women at the Stonewall Inn had a collective uprising that said, "Hell NO!" to this ongoing harassment.  And for several nights, they pushed back, stood up, and refused to be bullied any more.   One of the people at the bar, the Rev. Magora Kennedy, recounted what she saw that night:
"This scene in 1969 was incredible -- like in an alarming movie.  I personally witnessed this one Gay boy who was marched out of The Stonewall Club, by what turned out to be plain-clothes cops.  The boy actually tried to escape and nearly escaped but was grabbed from behind, pulled to the ground outfront The Stonewall and then he was needlessly drop-kicked by a big uniformed cop.  The boy's nose must have hit the pavement because he was suddenly bleeding.  His standing up to this police abuse against Gays sho' nuff sparked the rebellion.  That scene was just too much for the growing and angry crowd of every type person you could imagine.  My friends and I observed a couple of cops take Williamson Henderson, though I didn't know him or his name then, off to a black and dark green cop car and did a little billy-clubbing along the way.  I really feared for Williamson's life, though I was in a circle of fear myself.  In 1969, those things actually happened."

"The Gay Rev.," as she's called, went on to talk about the turnaround on the police:

"After awhile, as the excitement and the crowds continued to grow and get louder and feistier, I saw this big, good-looking, black drag queen, with a fancy blue cocktail dress and some sparkly high heel shoes, yank loose a street parking meter "with a little help from her friends".  Funny, that was a sing-a-long song by The Beatles at The Stonewall a couple of years earlier.  Anyway, as anyone who was ever there or ever travelled that block knows, there was street parking there then.  At this point with the turning of the tables, many of the cops were now barricaded inside The Stonewall Club and we were all on the outside!   What a change of events that was.  The 'black 'n' blue' drag queen -- without a green light -- and her newfound, very Gay rebellious friends began to batter The Stonewall's door with the uprooted parking meter and bang on the front door of The Stonewall but nobody in the 'inn' was answering.  Hello?!  It wasn't too long before the cops called for some heavy duty reinforcements.   They arrived in uniform, with helmets, armed, dangerous and on horses!"

Out of this rebellion came the modern day LGBTQI Pride Movement.  This would be the beginning of Pride parades, including the one in 1973 when Jeanne Manford walked alongside her son through the streets of Greenwich Village, a move that would lead to the birth of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

It was out of this rebellion and action that gave the backing to the truth that San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Harvey Milk spoke in the mid-1970s when he became the first elected gay official, and was subsequently martyred by a man let off from his murder by claiming he had "diminished capacity" that he was depressed and ate too many Twinkies due to his depression.

Preceding all these events, there were others who, in their own way, were heroes and heroines of this fledgling movement for equality.  One of my favorites is Bayard Rustin, an advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who suffered exclusion due to his sexual orientation.  The FBI was all over the civil rights leadership, and they naturally kept a file on Rustin.  He was arrested for his homosexuality in 1953, an event that would dog him throughout his participation in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans and workers' rights.  He never denied being gay, but because he was gay, he was often forced to take a back seat and not shine quite so brightly.  However, the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech was all the organizational effort of Bayard Rustin.  

And, despite what the popular historical belief is about Dr. King's commitment to non-violent protest, King actually learned the strategy of non-violence from Rustin, a Quaker who went to India to learn from Gandhi's followers, and a man who committed his whole life and being to refusing to use weapons in the effort to reach equality.  You can learn more about this passionate leader in the award-winning documentary, "Brother Outsider."

On this day, I give thanks to all these men and women who paved the way to where we are now: a nation still struggling to accept LGBTQI equality.  We have made great strides since 1945, but we are still a country that is divided with 46-percent of the population living in a state or the District of Columbia which recognizes full marriage equal rights for gay and straight couples.   That leaves 54-percent still waiting for fairness to come our way.  

How long, O Lord, how long?

(To learn more about the history of the Stonewall Rebellion, go to the site:


1 comment:

Born Again Agnostic said...

It is curious how we have progressed in the past two generations. Yet even back in the 1980s I can remember being lined up outside a gay club in Manchester (UK) and having my name and address taken by the police. At that time the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester was the much despised James Anderton - a man who publically stated that homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes who had AIDS were "swirling in a cesspit of their own making". He was a staunch Conservative Catholic and much loved by Thatcher, who supported him during the maelstrom his AIDS hate-speech produced – and perhaps supported him to discredit his deputy’s report on Northern Irish Policing... Such was the integrity of Lady Thatcher...

Today when I wander through central London, where I work, and see the bars and cafes around Old Compton Street, and the ‘normality’ of gay culture, you wonder what all the fuss was about – particularly when you consider the hypocrisy of many anti-gay activists who, it turned out, didn’t lead squeaky clean lives themselves.

But we must not become complacent, many younger people seem to take all this liberty for granted. Which given the present political climate – the rise of UKIP and the hard Right in Europe and the emergence of the Tea Party in the USA, we need to be careful, lest the rights won through blood, sweat and tears are taken away by those eager to enlist blame politics to veil their self-interest and greed.

W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming...’ has a marvellous lines that says something about contemporary politics – and it is one we would do well to remember.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity...”