The Modern Gay Rights Movement Turns 40; or, Continuity and Change

Last night, at around 9:30pm, I was waiting for a bus in Dupont Circle. Dupont, for those of you who don’t know, was once Washington’s gay ghetto, and still houses many of its gay bars and businesses and the one remaining gay bookstore. It being Saturday night, the circle was filled with all sorts of people—young and old, gay and straight—out on the town.

One group whom I noticed in particular, and who spurred me to begin this post this way, was a cluster of three young African-American women who were waiting to cross the street by the bus stop. Two of them had long hair in dozens of braids, and wore short spaghetti-strap dresses and high heels; the third, who was holding hands with one of the more femmey women, had short hair and was wearing baggy jeans and an oversized polo shirt. They looked young enough to be in high school—though so do I, so that doesn’t say much. They giggled with each other as the light changed and they crossed the street, and the couple clung to each other in that way that young couples do, in my experience—so delighted with each other that they don’t realize their PDA is attracting attention. I mention these women who walked past the bus stop in Dupont last night because as I was thinking how I would write about the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, I realized that they are as good a representation as any of how the LGBT world has changed since June 28, 1969, when a group primarily composed of gay men, notably fronted by a phalanx of drag queens, fought back against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street.

People speak of the Stonewall riots as the flowering of the modern gay rights movement not because it was the first attempt at a call for fair treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender Americans, but because it was a different kind of call. The advocacy, writing and publishing, discussion, and awareness-raising done by early “homophile” groups such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis (men-oriented and women-oriented groups respectively) was somewhat less confrontational, and with good cause—if these activists had published their magazines under real names, or met in anything other than secrecy, they would have lost their jobs. Some were married, with families. It was not easy to be out in 1950s and 1960s America, especially if you had any sort of professional life or standing in your community.

By contrast, the queers who rioted on June 28, 1969 were young, by and large. They had less to lose, and they were fueled by the atmosphere of direct action of student movements and the African-American civil rights movement. They added their voices to the chorus angry at the American society run by their elders for all sorts of reasons, and by fighting back they declared themselves in a “we’re here, we’re queer” way that was, as far as my sketchy knowledge of the historical timeline is concerned, a relatively new phenomenon. Of course, history does not develop in terms of discrete watershed moments; to canonize the Stonewall rioters is to give short shrift to the flowering of a larger gay culture in the late ’60s in New York and in other major cities around the country. But Stonewall galvanized the gay community—particularly in New York—in a way, I think, that few other actions or institutions had. It was a uniting event, and in the conventional narrative of queer history it began the outright fight with federal, state, and local governments and with social standards and institutions that characterized the next forty years of fighting for LGBT rights. Since June 28, 1969, LGBT activists have fought to not be fired from their jobs or ostracized from their communities; they have fought for the right to have sex and to get married; they have fought for the right to serve in the military and to have (and work with) children. They have campaigned to elect their own into office and to beat back the hegemony of the religious right. They have agitated for awareness of the AIDS crisis. And they have always fought for the basic recognition and acceptance of their existence, to be able to come out and not be disowned by their families, their friends, and their communities. They have fought to walk down the street with their significant others and not be harassed, to be depicted positively in television and film and literature, to be regarded as part of the variegated thread of American culture.

And forty years on, this is happening in a way that, I expect, it must have been very difficult to imagine back in 1969. As someone who spends a lot of time steeped in the history of this culture and this movement, it is even difficult for me to conceive of the degree of public acceptance of LGBT Americans. I see this in the federal government, where the President’s (gay) Office of Personnel Management director apologizes to gay activist Frank Kameny, who was fired from his federal job over fifty years ago; or where (gay) Representative Barney Frank—who, indeed, would have been fired from his federal job fifty years ago—holds a press conference to introduce a sexual orientation and gender identity-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act into the House; or in the New York Times, which once had an editorial policy of not printing the word “gay,” and today included no less than three positive LGBT-oriented articles in the Sunday paper. I see this in state government, where six states have passed legislation that raises same-sex relationships to the level of recognition of opposite-sex relationships—a result that would have seemed impossible in the aftermath of November’s Proposition 8, much less on June 28, 1969. I see this on the local level, where the pride parades that Stonewall initially spurred are an annual event attended and supported by public figures and ordinary citizens—in my native San Diego, a city which trends Republican, the Pride parade is the largest street event in the city, larger than the St. Patrick’s Day or Fourth of July parades, and features prominently the Republican mayor, who on account of his gay daughter is supportive of his gay constituents. Queer folk are everywhere: on TV, in politics, and most importantly, I believe, in schools and universities. LGBT folks continue to come out at younger and younger ages; the increasing visibility of gay people in our society causes them to understand what they’re feeling; the increasing acceptance, especially among their peers, renders it possible to come out. Regardless of whether their parents or their families accept them (a serious problem, of course, that I do not wish to belittle), queer youth are no longer alone, and things have never looked so good for the promise that they will be able to live lives as free and full of possibility as straight youth can.

And so now we come back to the three young women I saw last night at the bus stop in Dupont, and the realization that, for many young people—people my age—being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is incidental. For urban teenagers and young adults, being gay has a status of normalcy it didn’t have in 1969; gender fluidity is also accepted in an entirely new way. The overwhelming majority (we’re talking 80%, according to some polls on some issues) of young Americans support social and legal equality for LGBT folks. And without putting words into the mouths of the three young women, I think that it must not have been too consequential a decision for the one woman to cling to her girlfriend. I think that such an action would not have seemed important to her, any more than it does when a girl takes a boy’s hand, because her culture does not distinguish between the two actions. And I know that because it’s my culture too, and I know that because so often it is difficult for my peers to understand why I react with wonder at every step forward for LGBT recognition. It is more surprising, I think, to many young, urban men and women that things have not come further by now.

This is the generation which came of age not just after Stonewall, after gay liberation, but after AIDS ceased to be labeled a “gay” disease, and after the influence of the Moral Majority began to wane. This is the generation—and I can speak for it, because I am of it—which came of age after Ellen and Will and Grace, which voted for the very first time in an election that chose the first black president, and attended its very first protest rally in the wake of Prop. 8. This is the generation that has put more effort into mocking the National Organization for Marriage and its “gathering storm” than it has into seriously opposing or supporting that group’s stance. This is also, though, for all that political and legal questions dominate the discourse of LGBT civil rights, an apoliticized group, a group which, because it does not seek to get married or have children or get health insurance for its domestic partners or file taxes jointly, can focus on the now-so-uncomplicated tax of simply being out. It can benefit from the work of its forebears to establish LGBT community centers with youth programming, to establish Gay-Straight Alliances in middle and high schools and queer student groups on college campuses. This is a generation which does not only not have to fight back at a police raid of its social space, but can be publicly affectionate with its significant others as it takes full possession of its no-longer-ghettoized social space.

As we observe the fortieth anniversary of Stonewall, and as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago (among other cities, I assume) hold their annual Pride celebrations this weekend, LGBT civil rights are in the news more than they have been in the past decade. Outrage continues at President Obama for his hesitation in acting on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act; the House with its three gay members is working on legislation, while the major mainstream gay activist groups continue to lobby and fundraise and raise awareness. The more distributed, non-Washingtonian LGBT rights movement continues to debate strategy and fight for state-based marriage rights and consider the merits of a march on Washington. But my judgment of where we stand forty years after the beginning of the modern gay rights movement is that the truest sense of acceptance of LGBT Americans, their relationships, and their lives will not come with the repeal of DOMA or the passage of a hate crimes bill; it will not come with a march on Washington. It is coming even as I write this in the hearts and minds of the young people—who forty years to the day after they fought back at Stonewall can walk down the street holding hands (yes, in Dupont, but even that couldn’t have happened forty years ago). Speaking personally, it is an exciting time to be 19 years old and queer, a declaration I could probably not have made at any other time in American history.

And where will we be when the modern gay rights movement turns fifty? Well, I suppose my generation will be the ones to decide that. Good luck, millenials: we’ve got an awesome legacy to live up to.

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