Of course, as the recent film "Milk" so pointedly—and poignantly—noted, gays and lesbians are still fighting for equality. The film dramatized the fight in the 1970s over Prop 6—the attempt to ban gays, lesbians, and their supporters from teaching. Ironically, the film opened within weeks of voting on Prop 8, which was 2008’s measure to change the California state constitution by restricting the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples and stopping same-sex couples' right to marry.
But polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support equal rights for gays in the workplace, and straight allies are coming out in droves to support us—as they did publicly during "don’t ask, don’t tell" arguments and Prop-8 demonstrations. While we’re not allowed to serve openly in the military, there’s a real chance that "don’t ask, don’t tell" may one day morph into "don’t ask, don’t care," allowing gays and lesbians to serve their country without fear of recrimination. We have created a national awareness of hate crimes, despite a lack of national legislation to deter them.
Forty Years Ago, Who Could Have Dreamed This Was Possible?
While I am grateful for progress, I know the path to civil rights is never a straight line up. If one milestone of a civil rights movement is the moment when decent people decry inequality in public and in private, I hope a critical, decent mass gets outraged and connects the dots from movement to movement.
In 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn who refused to be intimidated by police oppression had no idea they were about to change history. They just wanted equality. In the 1950s, Rosa Parks had no idea she was about to change history when she refused to move to the back of the bus, either. As she famously recounted, "The reason that I did not move from my seat was that my feet were tired." From such humble origins, movements ignite.
"Discrimination is discrimination. Pain is pain," said Sabrina Sojourner, author, LGBT advocate, and the first openly lesbian African-American to hold the title of U.S. Representative (for Washington, D.C.). "The connection between all the civil rights movements is absolute. We’re all looking for acceptance, respect, and equality."
Those old enough to remember Stonewall and the challenges of busting down closet doors at home and in the workplace know better than anyone the often uneasy balance between demanding our rights and gaining widespread support. One requires activism; the other requires diplomacy. Both require vocal candor. We need to let people know who we are, how we’re different from the straight population, and the many ways in which we’re the same.
We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby…But the Fight Continues
The fight that began on the streets of New York City continues in every city, suburb, and rural township in America, as well as in countries around the world. To some extent, the LGBT movement has gained mainstream support for and understanding of coming out, fighting AIDS, and civil unions (if not marriage). We’ve shown the world how we thrive in every profession and contribute to our families, friends, workplaces, and communities. We’ve proved that we’re defined by much more than our sex lives.
As the post-Stonewall-riots generations age, are we approaching growing older in the same, vigorous way we tackled coming out?
"You cannot be liberated until you imagine your own liberation," said Perry Brass, author and LGBT activist since 1969. "We started imagining a world of equality back then, and we’re still imagining how to get there completely."
I wonder what we’ll imagine next for the older LGBT community. I wonder if those of us on the frontlines of gay, "out" aging will keep walking that line between activism and diplomacy. If the first 40 years of our civil rights movement are any indication, will the next 40 take us into a future of greater equality, with more allies? Will the Stonewall legacy of fighting for being out and equal motivate us to pave new trails for gays and lesbians at age 50+? I think we owe that not only to ourselves and to subsequent generations, but also to those who stood up for us at Stonewall.
I know one thing for sure. The memory of Stonewall is not going back into anyone’s closet.