Happy Stonewall Anniversary!
It has been a momentous week for gay and lesbian rights in America, with the Supreme Court's decisions striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and sending the proponents of California's anti-gay Prop 8 packing.
Today, on the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, is a great day to celebrate.
Here, for the occasion, is a beautiful essay by EJ Graff on gay pride after Stonewall, from the first volume of our Hidden History ebook series, Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall:
Pride and Prejudice After Stonewall
E.J. Graff, June 1994
When I looked back at the escalator behind me, my heart lifted. Hundreds of men and women were streaming off the subway at Dupont Circle – all, it seemed, lesbians and gay men. To have been at the March on Washington parade grounds was powerful enough, but here! – here it was heady, even dizzying. Someone started a cheer, and the whole subway rang with shouts and applause for us all, alive and visible and rising into the daylight.
Is that moment—seeing ourselves as ordinary citizens on our cities' ordinary streets—what we're marching for? On June 26, 1994, New York City will host hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of men and women, this time from around the globe, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of what's mythologized as the launch of today's lesbian and gay pride movement: riots at a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn. Those riots began when, on the night of Judy Garland's funeral, police held a run-of-the-mill raid. Bar patrons astonished police by erupting with long simmering rage. The next three days of bottle-throwing, street-trashing, and firesetting have been commemorated every year since with Pride marches in large and small cities worldwide, marches that celebrate Stonewall as the Big Bang that began widening our life beyond Mafia-run bars. Stonewall 25 will surely be the usual Pride mixture of Mardi Gras and politics, AIDS activists and marching bands, exhortatory speeches and s/m leathermen – a riot this time of identities.
How, then, can I imagine that Pride is about being ordinary? For decades, there's been a debate in the gay press – which lately has broken into such places as The New York Times – with one faction insisting that "gays" put forth a more respectable face while another faction howls back that "queers" are aiming for a diverse politics of sexual liberation, not middle-class assimilation. Meanwhile, every year the whole gamut shows up, from gay Republicans to New Age vegetarians to party animals.
Why do we come to these occasions in such increasing numbers? Are we out to claim the high moral ground, or out to have a good time? What, in other words, do lesbians and gay men want?
The answer is both simple and complex. We want to be ourselves. Every minority knows how hard and necessary it is to hang on to a sense of self when everything around you sells the majority's bias as the superior norm. Heterosexuality is pitched through TV plot lines, Olympics pair skating, co-workers' family photos, strangers' wedding rings. It's dismayingly easy to lapse into the moral murk of silence, to censor for others' comfort. Despite my best intentions, I hold back normal mentions of my life, such as the fact that we're buying a house, taking a vacation, or visiting the in-laws; hesitate to write my beloved's name on medical forms; guard my movements in public so that no one will guess my fierce and committed passion for the beautiful woman by my side. Such cowardly half-lies are poisonous, but difficult to resist.
Every minority knows also what it means to come home to the side of you rejected elsewhere. It's electric to walk outdoors, literally in the sunlight, among others proud of our particular gift for loving. And it's exhilarating to use privileges heterosexuals take for granted. Almost childishly, every year I insist that Marilyn hold my hand the entire parade, just because we can. I'm an affectionate person, quick to reach out and touch; it always hurts to stop myself from touching the woman I love for fear of others' violence or disgust. (I find it startling to hear someone doesn't care "what you do" as long as it's kept private – as if heterosexuals weren't displaying their sex lives every time they hold hands.)
Many minorities get to see each other, within all their ordinary conflicts and variety, in their home neighborhoods. For lesbians and gay men things are different. While a few cities do have lesbian and gay enclaves, most lesbians and gay men live assimilated lives. We might go occasionally to a lesbian or gay club, or belong to a caucus or a choir, but Pride is the one neighborhood where, however temporarily, we all gather. That makes Pride a sort of Brigadoon that appears magically once a year, inviting a giddy feeling. Here every one of our separately formed identities goes on display, each shouting in his or her own way, We're here! We're queer! We're fabulous!
But who are "we"? We are, to twist the slogan, everyone. Just as in South Boston, Iowa City, or Chinatown, at Gay Pride you find the prostitutes and architects, Marines and downtown performance artists, daughters living at home and Social Security retirees. Gay men and lesbians come from every American class and geography, from every ethnicity, religion, age, gender, from every political outlook. Imagine a block party created by inviting one person at random from every zip code in the country; that's Lesbian and Gay Pride.
Such amusingly broad demographics means that walking through Pride – especially the national versions, like the Marches on Washington – can feel at times like a tour of the anti-melting-pot that is America. Every human impulse is on display. Suburban moms in frosted hair and gold necklaces walk past leather boys dancing on bar floats, so drunk you pray they won't fall off (the counterparts of straight men drooling in topless bars). "Natural" 1970s types wear purple sweat pants and Birkenstocks, while post punkers dye and shellac their hair and pierce various skin-flaps. Parents hold signs like "I'm proud of my lesbian daughter," bringing cheers, tears, and hugs from the crowd.
Banners proclaim a wide range of affiliations. Episcopals, Jews, Catholics, Quakers ... blacks, Irish, Asian, Latina/o ... professional groups and college groups. There are dancing two-steppers and sober twelve-steppers, campaign workers handing out pamphlets and leather-jacketed
AIDS activists chanting. If you want to see something that looks more like America than does President Clinton's cabinet, come to Pride.
Not surprisingly, among the human impulses that arise at Pride is the impulse to police our differences. Some want to purge our neighborhood of the queens flashing fishnetted legs and shouting cattily to the crowd, and of the dykes on bikes, butch gals who wear confidence like a leather jacket. Often that's an impulse to get rid of everyone but the middle-class, a common American bias. Sometimes it's a misunderstanding, seeing gender variation as parody instead of as a genuine impulse separate from (but no more or less chosen than) homosexuality. Only lately, in the wake of such voices as those of performer RuPaul and author Leslie Feinberg, have our communities listened to the argument that gender need not conform to biological sex.
Some observers – both in the Parade and beyond it – focus on the sexual display, as if that defines us any more than any other group. But the sexual display seen at Lesbian and Gay Pride can be found in any American community, albeit less conveniently collected in one parade. The highly pierced young would be (and maybe are) in mosh pits; the girls wearing WOMEN MAKE ME WET T-shirts would, in my coming-of-age decade, have worn BOYTOY belts. Some grew up with a streetclothes language that easily refers to sex, and wear it here; others, trying to flee the suburban ennui, borrow that clothes – language as if it were more "real." None is particular to us.
Still, some lesbians and gay men – in probably the same proportion as heterosexuals – do adopt the idea that sex is not just pleasurable but revolutionary, ignoring the fact that constant desire is precisely what the consumer culture hopes we'll buy. There are among us – as among any minority group or nation – those who like to make a separatist virtue of something about the group perceived as different. In this case the sexual superiorists, like the conservative Right, proclaim our sexuality innately dissident. But there is no political meaning in the fact that some of us – like some heterosexuals – like porn, promiscuity, s/m, leopard-skin leggings, or even lipstick. The flamboyant side of Pride Day represents lesbians and gay men as accurately as Carnival and Mardi Gras represent Catholicism.
The lesbians and gay men who recoil from Pride's flamboyant side, and those who wish it more emphasized, have something in common: both want to stress one narrow slice of our communities' natural human variety. But the debate about who "we" are – and by extension, who should and should not attend Gay Pride – assumes a unified community, with similar backgrounds, reading material, personalities, and agreement on how to interpret each others' street life. However, only a totalitarian could eradicate everyone but those he or she personally finds acceptable at Pride. The truth is, we have less than other communities to unite us. We don't even agree on what love means any more than heterosexuals do – agape or eros? lifelong or serial? celibate, monogamous, open, or promiscuous? We have only two things in common: we love within our own sex, and we know how it feels to be hated for that fact.
What's difficult about having a wide-open neighborhood: The national taste for sensation puts the platinum-haired, the gender-benders, and the party animals on display as standins for us all. Worse, the radical Right edits these images into frighteningly effective propaganda videos like The Gay Agenda, half-quoting lesbian and gay leaders out of context, showing wild urban styles to small-towners as if those styles were dangerous or innately gay. Voiced over all this is a big-lie narrative imputing to us the appalling goal of sex on demand, anywhere, any time, with anyone. These films are so off-base as to be laugh-out-loud funny – but with a nauseous aftertaste, as one realizes how many viewers won't see the willful distortions. It's disturbing to know that all over Oregon, Colorado, and other places where we are not "out" in more familiar styles, people swallow this vision of homosexuality as the demonic Other.
So should Pride parades be policed by a PR patrol? It's been tried. The first homophile marches (as they were then called) started in 1965, before Stonewall, when the pioneering Mattachine Society (a gay men's group) and Daughters of Bilitis (a lesbian group) bused twenty or thirty or seventy people to Independence Hall and the White House every Fourth of July, picketing against discrimination in Federal employment. Men had to wear suit and tie, women skirt and pumps; once organizers actually pulled a man wearing sneakers out of the line. Those who argued that numbers would speak more powerfully than respectability were voted down – until Stonewall.
Even after Stonewall, image skirmishing continued. After New York's 1973 march, in a now-infamous shoving match, some feminists insisted that drag queen Sylvia Rivera stop speaking and leave the platform, seeing drag as an offense to women. (Those feminists today publicly regret that they once so misunderstood drag queens.) Sylvia Rivera had actually been in the Stonewall riots. To shove her off the platform was to reject our actual history and substitute something more sanitized.
Indeed, those riots were wildly pluralist; the Stonewall Inn had been frequented by queens like Sylvia, who ran away from home at age twelve to make a living on the streets, and her black and Puerto Rican friends, sitting one room away from what historian Martin Duberman called "the chino and penny-loafer crowd." When riot police appeared, the queens started a kick line, chanting risque verses beginning, "We are the Stonewall girls." A gay Yippie joined the riots, hoping the revolution was under way, and discovered to his dismay that his New Left comrades wanted nothing to do with faggots. The respectable Mattachine Society plastered the streets with posters urging decorum.
In other words, the famous nights on Christopher Street displayed the same range of ideas we see at Pride today: ideas that "we" are really sassy gender-crossing back talkers; natural radicals; folks out for a good time; decent people petitioning for the end of irrational prejudice. Today we have Queer Nation and the Lesbian Avengers instead of Yippies, Log Cabin instead of Mattachine, drag queens doing Cher instead of Judy, young lesbians in chic grunge instead of anti-couture lumberjack plaid. Over the contentious years we seem to have agreed, if only by default, that we'll have to march together as we are, at least for a day.
Many of our leaders – and opponents – note that Pride marches alone won't get us far. They're right. The other 364 days of the year, we need all the organizing tools available: caucuses and letter campaigns, corporate interest groups and local potlucks. Pride is no civil-rights march, petitioning for some result.
And yet I love Pride, that day when we're marching for ourselves where it just so happens anyone can see. I love being part of a human rainbow, my own life's heterodoxies fading into perspective. At the 1993 March on Washington, I kept stopping in the avenue and staring back at the waves of so many like and unlike me, all of us wilting, grinning, and grousing in the relentless sun. I confess that at one moment I started to cry, head full of relatives who refuse my company. For quite a while after I flew home, I plain forgot to be afraid of being visible in my own life. As, apparently, did many others. Even The New York Times reported, that summer, that men and women were coming out in small towns across the heartland, familiar faces now visible to family and friends as lesbian and gay.
That, I believe, is the message of our day, the infamous gay agenda. We exist in the same variety that's around you every day: assimilationist and separatist, coupled and single, spiritually committed and sexually focused, healthy and ill, politically angry and apolitically amused. We're ready to show up, the reverse of disappearing ink, as your parents, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, cousins, neighbors, and co workers – taking our ordinary places, where we already belong.
E.J. Graff's essays and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Progressive, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere.
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