I was born in the Camelot 60s, came out during the gale force of 1980s-wartime-AIDS, breathed easier in the 1990s, when awareness led to more acceptance and "Will and Grace" lightened the mood, and opened my eyes in the 2000s to the possibility of true equality.
As the gay-rights movement marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in June 2009, gays and lesbians of my generation are well into midlife, out and a little bit loud, asking and telling more than we did in 1969, and as proud as we deserve to be. After all, many of us live more openly and have secured rights, protections, and benefits.
Now, as I wonder what’s next, I’m looking both forward and back, to the birth of a civil rights movement. As a gay man, I’ve had my share of struggles, but I know that if I’d been born just one generation earlier, life would have been much more difficult.
It’s hard to imagine police handcuffing, harassing, and arresting gay people for simply gathering in public—but that’s what happened, routinely, before Stonewall’s spontaneous uprising of gay men and lesbians in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood galvanized the gay-rights movement. For younger people, who’ve grown up in a world with increasing legal protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, it’s hard to think that just four decades ago, gay people’s jobs, families, and homes were threatened, and their lives restricted or ruined.
What began that hot summer night in New York City with a few hundred people ended up galvanizing a global community. While not the first rebellion, the Stonewall riots are the most famous instance of homosexuals fighting back against government persecution. From all accounts, the riots weren’t pretty or organized; Stonewall was six nights of street melées with some of the least empowered elements of society—the closeted, fearful, and disenfranchised—fighting the police batons and pepper spray with what they had, mostly fists, signs, garbage cans, bottles, and shoes.
For gay people my age, gay boomers, the uprising is a defining moment to celebrate as we look back at how far we’ve come in four short decades and look ahead to future progress.
Before and After Stonewall: A World of Difference
The strides forward since 1969 have been enormous. As films such as the documentary "Before Stonewall" show, images of gay life in the 1950s and 60s are of shadowy people, secretive encounters, and smoky bars where furtive figures moved along the periphery of society in a parallel universe. The act of "coming out," if it happened at all, was a very private admission of shameful same-sex desires. But after Stonewall, "coming out" became an act of political conscience, following the feminist mantra of "the personal is political."
When I was a teenager, 10 years after Stonewall, I had no idea how I’d come out and live a happy, open life. I couldn’t see it. I had no role models. The activists who were breaking down doors for me were still getting started, and I couldn’t feel the effects yet. But that changed quickly, and I found power in numbers and hope in the stories of those who were paving the road right in front of me.
I can’t recall another civil rights movement in recent history that saw such progress after a single galvanizing event. Within a year of Stonewall, New York and San Francisco were hosting Gay Pride marches; now, similar events are held around the world, attracting millions. Within a couple of years, there were out, elected public officials, national watchdog groups, and lobbying organizations. Led by a relatively small number of activists, organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front formed in small spaces immediately post-Stonewall. Gay organizations have since morphed into huge operations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, an internationally renowned lobbying organization, and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), with its focus on changing the images of gays and lesbians in popular media. In 1973, homosexuality was eliminated as a psychiatric personality disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), in a move that helped change the attitudes of large segments of the general population.