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How the Stonewall Uprising Matters 50 Years Later

Remembering the event that sparked the gay rights movement

A sign for the Stonewall Inn

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Bob Edwards: Hello. I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP Take On Today. This week we're looking back 50 years at another defining moment of the boomer generation, The Stonewall Uprising. Many people credit the violent night of June 28th, 1969 and subsequent clashes with the New York City police for sparking the modern gay rights movement.

James O'Neill: The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple. The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive. And for that I apologize.

Bob Edwards: There were earlier pushes for equality for LGBTQ Americans in cities across the country. But the police raids on the Stonewall Inn took place in New York, and provoked an epic backlash by bar patrons no longer willing to tolerate routine official harassment. A year later, and in fact, every year since marches and parades have been organized to commemorate Stonewall. In the early days, marchers spoke of gay liberation. Now today, they speak of pride. Some might say it's really dignity for everyone. Our special correspondent, Mike Ellison is back this week. What his reporting on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall found, might surprise you. Some older gay, lesbian and transgender people and couples struggle to find the healthcare services they need as they age, primary care, nursing care and so on. Some go back into the closet. But he also found that anyone who has struggled for dignity anywhere has been part of a greater struggle, the fight for dignity and fair treatment everywhere.

James O'Neill: I think it would be irresponsible of me as we go through world pride month not to speak of the events at the Stonewall Inn, in June of 1969. Well, I'm certainly not going to stand up here and pretend to be an expert on what happened at Stonewall. I do know what happened should not have happened. The actions taken by the NYPD were wrong, plain and simple. The actions and the laws were discriminatory and oppressive. And for that I apologize.

Mike Ellison: That's NYPD police commissioner James O'Neill on June 6, 2019. A police commissioner apologizing for laws and actions that were discriminatory at a place called The Stonewall Inn 50 years ago. Let's set the stage for that. It deserves some context. 50 years ago June, 1969 the anti-establishment or counterculture movement was well-established. There was continued struggle in growth and legislative impacts from the ongoing civil rights movement. Still reeling from Dr. King's assassination, Bobby Kennedy's assassination, the country searching for common ground and meaning for so many. And starkly divided by its participation in the far away bloody war in Vietnam. So-called race riots, rebellions, protest, violence everywhere brought to American viewers at home every night on the evening news.

Against this backdrop on a warm night in late June 1969, The Stonewall Inn took its place in American history. Stonewall had no liquor license, so police at the time regularly took cash payouts from the inn's mafioso owners. But that's not why commissioner O'Neill was apologizing. You see, cops raided the bar with assumed consent by its owners. Not because they didn't have a liquor license, but because of Stonewall's main attraction, dancing. Dancing between same-sex couples, which at the time was illegal, as much as the bar's patrons were, in many ways in all but a handful of states via their actions, via their love for each other, via their sexuality, illegal.

PRIDE Attendee: Stonewall for me looking back 50 years as about not being complacent with where we are now, but still striving and pushing, writhing, and bringing on a revolution to make sure that we are able to continue to push for what we want for ourselves in our community and those we love.

PRIDE Attendee: Stonewall for me means just resistance from oppression. And it just means a lot to me, because it continues to inspire me to motivate me to continue to push on and be myself, no matter the obstacle or whoever's trying to be against me. So yeah.

Mike Ellison: The exact sequence of events that night are given to oral histories and scattered spoken interpretations, like these we collected in Baltimore just before marches set out for the 2019 Pride Parade a few weeks ago. We do know Stonewall patrons chanted for two days, slogans like, "Gay power," and, "We shall overcome." The tenacity and duration of the response hadn't been seen before. And instead of shrinking back, cowering in apology, acquiescing to the world of fear that was their lives. Instead of all that, the modern gay rights movement was ignited. More and more supporters turned up to join the uprising, and the growing crowd marked a turning point for LGBTQ people in New York, and perhaps the country. They found in themselves and in each other a community without shame. Stronger together. And yeah, for once proud. So first of all, Bob, thanks for having me back for Take On Today.

Bob Edwards: You're always welcome here.

Mike Ellison: Thank you. So as you know, Bob, the premise for our episode this week is the 50th anniversary of The Stonewall Uprising. And you've been a journalist for decades. And you came up in that era. Do you remember The Stonewall Uprising?

Bob Edwards: I don't remember it being as big a deal then as we think of it now. I think it was riots in New York. And you know, that was their problem. And just, it didn't have the effect on people. I was living in Louisville, Kentucky at the time. So I wasn't paying a lot of attention to what was going on in New York. It seemed like a local story. It got bigger obviously. And we, straight people from Kentucky didn't realize what the meaning of it, the impact, and what this was and the whole history. And that finally one day people said, "No more."

Mike Ellison: Did you know how bad ... Like you said, people forget how bad it was. Were you aware of how bad it was at that time without knowing about Stonewall? Were you aware of the challenges that what we now know as the LGBTQ community were facing?

Bob Edwards: No. It didn't affect me personally. Didn't think of it. Didn't know any gay people. I probably did, and didn't know it.

Mike Ellison: Right. Because they couldn't come out, because-

Bob Edwards: Right.

Mike Ellison: ... of the fear of retribution.

Bob Edwards: Exactly so. But people live their whole lives in secret. You had a whole different life. I mean, what that must do to your psyche that you have to be one person for yourself, and another person for everybody else in the world.

Mike Ellison: When LGBTQ people clashed with authority like they did at Stonewall, they're essentially saying, "I'm tired of pretending. I'm tired of hiding. I'm tired of dealing with close-minded views and authoritarianism." It's an extension of themselves coming out and standing up. Can you recall moments, the stories of human examples of this over the years? I mean, you've mentioned little milestones, right? But are there any that stand out to you beyond Stonewall, beyond the ones that you've mentioned already?

Bob Edwards: You know what I wonder about Stonewall, they must've felt, "I've got nothing to lose." I mean, how bad can it be that you get to that point where you say, "I've got nothing to lose. I'm going to bust that cop over there. I'm going to take on a New York cop." Get out of town. And it could have been a death sentence.

Mike Ellison: Yeah.

Bob Edwards: And they did it.

Mike Ellison: They did it.

Bob Edwards: Man.

Mike Ellison: Any thoughts on intersections between things that LGBTQ people face as they age that mirror the general population that you cover on this show, week in and week out?

Bob Edwards: I'm astonished at to how far this has come. And I know it seems slow to those in the LGBT community. But to me it looks swift, when you consider how long black people have fought for civil rights. Centuries. And this thing happened in what? 10, 15, 20 years. This is astonishing. We've done a complete reversal on this. I think people who were just enormously homophobic at one time have done complete 180s on this. A lot of people, a lot more so than in other areas. But I'm astonished that this has happened, and delighted.

Mike Ellison: I'm happy to have Dr. Gal Mayer on the phone with me. Dr. Mayer is an internist and HIV specialist in New York City. And is also the president of GLMA. Dr. Mayer, can you speak to the impact of the AIDS epidemic on healthcare?

Dr. Mayer: The AIDS epidemic gave rise to activism around healthcare. I think people with AIDS who had very little to lose were so angry about the treatment and the stigma and in some cases the bold hatred and violence that they were receiving at the hands of the medical establishment that they decided to fight back, and, in fact, they actually revolutionized the way healthcare is delivered in the United States. They certainly changed forever the way the FDA approves drugs, and they tied more closely the idea of politics and social determinants of health to healthcare than it had been for a lot of people in the past.

Mike Ellison: How does one group's fight impact us all?

Dr. Mayer: In some ways the fight for equity in the LGBTQ civil rights movement is a specific one, but in many ways it's the same fight that all marginalized groups go through. When it comes to healthcare, that fight is around addressing the health disparities that arise as a consequence of being marginalized. That is true for people who are older as well.

Mike Ellison: So, from a broader standpoint, I'm hearing that from healthcare to almost any other struggle to equalize disparities in our society, democracy really matters at the margins and speaking up really matters for everyone.

PRIDE Attendee: Stonewall was a riot and it always was a riot. Pride is not a big party. We are here to support our rights and to fight for our rights.

PRIDE Attendee: My wife's with me today and we can hold hands in the middle of the street and not be ostracized. Stonewall was the beginning of all of that and I never thought in my lifetime that marriage would ever be equal for us. Well, this is a peaceful demonstration, and at Stonewall it had to be a violent one. They stood up for us and we are continuing the movement.

Sam McClure: You know, generational diversity is one of the most valuable things we have in terms of continuing to move forward and make progress. No generation has all the answers, but we're always informed by those who've come before us. So it's really thrilling to see the different generational perspective sitting together, sharing, coming up with new ideas.

Mike Ellison: For the people of Baltimore Pride, this is a day to reflect, to pay tribute, to serve and to push for more inclusivity, to challenge, if you will, society to evolve further in its acceptance of all people. What's it like today for LGBTQ people who remember Stonewall and this era firsthand, and for those who followed in their footsteps? Who were the underserved and what are the pressing issues today that need focus and action? That last voice we heard from the Baltimore Pride chorus of voices, loud and proud, belongs to Sam McClure. Sam's the director of the LGBT Health Resource Center of Chase Brexton Health Care in Baltimore, Maryland. She agreed to come into the studio and help be our guide to better understand thoughts and answers to the above questions.

How are the health needs of the LGBTQ community different from other populations? And then more specifically, how does that impact people as they're aging?

Sam McClure: This is such a great, and broad, question. I'll come at it a couple different ways. I would first say that this diverse segment is similar in many ways to other diverse segments. This is not the only segment that experiences inequity and social determinants of health that create disparity. If you look at the statistical data, you'll find that each different segment within LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, have a different set of health disparities. People who are over 50 in this community have experienced different types of marginalization, sometimes over and over and over. What does it really mean to meet our patients where they are and to earn their trust enough to engage them in care and keep them in care? Because that's always our goal. We want people to engage in their primary healthcare, and we want them to stay in care. That becomes so much more important as we age as well. So it kind of connects the dots back to our work with the LGBT elders as well.

Mike Ellison: So what you're talking about is an education process, specifically in the medical field. Is this kind of, I don't even like using the term sensitivity, I just think awareness training, is that happening? Is that a part of your work and your platform? Is that something that you see is needed more broadly?

Sam McClure: It absolutely is really needed. Whenever we go in a training environment, I always ask, " How many people in this room have received some training on this topic already?" A few people raise their hands, but they do it sort of very awkwardly and slowly, and I'll say, "So I'm reading the slow response as someone might have mentioned it in about a 20-minute talk at some point in your long education journey." They're like, they start nodding and I'm like, "Okay, so you had a cultural sensitivity lecture, is that more like what what you're responding to?" They're like, "Yes," and with an eye roll.

Mike Ellison: It's funny you say eye roll, because you hear it from people, "Oh, what group now? Oh, now I have to be sensitive to this, I have to be" ... You know, it's like this burden that people feel when they hear the term sensitivity training, and even that basically says ... to me when you say sensitivity training, it doesn't say that I want to learn about your unique experience on this planet. It says, I just want to know the right things to say so I don't put my foot in my mouth, basically, right?

Sam McClure: Gone. We'll never say cultural sensitivity again. Let's flip it to something that will help everyone learn to understand and be empathetic to all people. Let's call it cultural humility.

Mike Ellison: I think the cultural and social humility you're talking about, the kind of training that is very specific to the healthcare needs of the LGBTQ community, could also be transferable to other professions.

Sam McClure: Economic insecurity and health equity, they sit side by side. The more we level access to, you know, appropriate, welcoming, and affirming healthcare that treats people where they are, the more we're going to free people from being stuck in situations that create ongoing economic inequality. We can forget about checking off all the boxes for some kind of compliance report that we took a class in XYZ sensitivity, and we can just come to the table and say, I'm going to learn to be humble with everyone who is different than me in some way.

Mike Ellison: Sam gave tangible examples of the different ways in which LGBTQ populations face challenges as they age.

Sam McClure: Their family of choice was around them. They took care of each other. Now they're the last one. All the people that they've helped take care of, the other thrivers, as we like to call them, they're gone. There's a new group of people living in the building. It doesn't feel like it used to feel and they're not sure, is it safe or not? You know, an elder can be inadvertently pushed back into the closet even if they've been out all their lives.

Mike Ellison: So after Stonewall, after fight upon fight for scraps of rights that became more substantial, no more criminalization for just being LGBTQ. No more classification as a mental illness across the board. Protections for workers, albeit not national and not in every state. Marriage equality and onward. After all this, to go back in the closet because you're afraid of your majority peers. Sam's colleague at Chase Brexton, Monte Ephraim, backed her up.

What does someone who walks in, what are they facing and what are they dealing with? What happens when they come into your facility?

Monte Ephraim: They're coming in to check it out or look into it because there's an issue going on in their life. For some of our elders, to get to that door is much more than a bus ride or a cab ride or a walk. It takes everything that they can, especially if they've been living in isolation and have not ever been connected to resources before, just to make that phone call or just to walk through that threshold of the LGBT Health Resource Center. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, A, "I didn't know you were here, and thank God there's some resources as an elder in the LGBT community resource, in the center. I've got folks that I work with that have been coming there for 30, 40 years that were there the day the doors opened. So it's so much more than health care. It's that human connection. It's that relationship, and that is the thing that's missing today for our community, and especially for our elder community.

Mike Ellison: Sam later talked about the bravery, the courage of people at Stonewall. And I asked her the following, "So are you suggesting in our modern era, are you saying to people, 'Hey, you don't necessarily have to go out and get your head cracked by police officers or turn over some cars to make your point, but you do have to find the courage to step out there and walk in your truth, in your gift, or whatever your talent is and believe in yourself and believe in your innovation to start addressing these problems because the structural elements of our society alone won't fix them'"?

Sam McClure: Absolutely. Also, just one more thing. I think it's really important, particularly for where we are now in history, to look back with very clear eyes at who really pushed back, because it was some of the most marginalized parts of the community and it were people who carried layers of intersectionality. They weren't just queer people. They were also people of color. And it's a really important element to understand really who did step up, and how did they bring not only their identities as LBGT or queer people, they brought their whole identities to that uprising.

Mike Ellison: In the context of Stonewall, Sam made the important point that people brought their whole identities to the uprising, and it led me to think, "What is the common thread that brings us all together?"

Monte Ephraim: It's our needs. It's our needs. And for the elder community, it's really hard because they've been quiet for so long for fear of physical, sexual, social stigma, and safety that it's hard to say, "Hey, you all need to speak up now, and you need to keep speaking up."

Mike Ellison: What I've learned, Monte, is that my studies brought me to the Sahara Desert, and there's sand that gets caught up in dust storms, and then that sand travels 1,600 miles over the Atlantic and lands in the Amazon. And it's rich in phosphorus, and it is the key to the ecological diversity of the Amazon. From a practical standpoint, whether you loathe me, like me, or love me, we are interconnected.

Monte Ephraim: Absolutely.

Mike Ellison: I learned a great deal from the voices we've heard today, and hopefully you have too. Some of you may still be asking why Stonewall matters. Well, Stonewall matters. Selma matters. Seneca Falls matters. Standing Rock and so many more seminal moments in American history matter now more than ever because they all essentially deal with the same issue, marginalization.

Now whether or not we identify or even empathize with the LGBTQ community, or any other for that matter, one thing is certain, we all face potential painful marginalization as we age the very second society says, "You're inconvenient and no longer useful," unless ... unless we all stand up, speak out, and come out for ourselves and each other.

PRIDE Attendee: We're here every year. This is our ninth year of doing it.

PRIDE Attendee: Did you say Age Action Baltimore?

PRIDE Attendee: AIDS Action Baltimore.

PRIDE Attendee: AIDS Action Baltimore. Fantastic.

PRIDE Attendee: Yes. Yes. I've been with the organization for over nine years.

PRIDE Attendee: I'm wondering who are those of us who are still on the fringes that that doesn't speak to, and what will happen when we're not the flavor of the month anymore?

PRIDE Attendee: Serve the transgender community, which is the highlight of my life.

PRIDE Attendee: Of course, I'm just going to make sure I reach out to everybody so everybody feels like they're inclusive with me, walking with me.

Nii-Quartelai Quartey: I think over the course of the past 50 years, there has been a consistent ebb and flow in terms of the rights of LBGT folks here in the United States. We saw Stonewall being certainly an inflection point in the LGBT rights movement, but there were several other inflection points over many, many, many years.

We saw, for example, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" go into effect as a policy, and we also saw it repealed. We saw marriage equality as not legal anywhere, and today, it is the law of the land. So we've seen a lot of progress, but still we have so much further to go.

Mike Ellison: This sage perspective comes from AARP's own Dr. Nii-Quartelai Quartey. He's the organizations national LGBTQ liaison and senior advisor.

Nii-Quartelai Q: AARP is very proud of our landmark LGBT research. The Maintaining Dignity survey really shows an enormous need, unanswered need, quite frankly, for LGBT older adults. And so, for example, when it comes to housing, 34% of the folks that we surveyed felt the need to hide their identity in order to obtain suitable housing as they age. We also found that over 75% of the folks that we surveyed feel as if they don't have adequate family or social support networks to rely on as they age.

Mike Ellison: Not only can we do more, we believe we can all be more. If there's a theme to carry away from this take on today, started in a bar called Stonewall and many more places like it throughout history, it's standing up, standing up, saying, "Enough is enough," when you're marginalized. However that expresses for you, your voice, like so many we heard from the Baltimore Pride Parade, from Sam, Monte, Dr. Mayer, and now from Dr. Quartey, we are interconnected. So let's help each other out and be kind along the way, always.

Bob Edwards: For more resources and to access the AARP Prepare to Care Guide, visit AARP.org/pride, or you can call 1-866-PRIDE-50 to receive it via email.

Here's what else you need to know this week. This fall, a trio of cases will be argued before the Supreme Court that will have longstanding effects on the rights of LGBT Americans. A central question before the court will be whether the term sex encompasses sexual orientation and gender identity. Many legal, advocacy, and business groups have filed amicus briefs in support of extending these protections to LGBT Americans. AARP and The AARP Foundation have signed on to the amicus brief.

The principles that the justices have been asked to rule on are also being debated legislatively. In May, the House passed the Equality Act with bipartisan support. A similar measure has been introduced in the Senate. Last week, AARP's Nancy LeaMond wrote a letter to senators Jeff Merkley, Susan Collins, Tammy Baldwin, and Cory Booker endorsing the Equality Act, saying, "LBGT discrimination is an aging issue that has threatened the health, financial security, and personal fulfillment of too many older adults."

This week, we want to close out the show by sharing what we heard from people we met during our reporting.

PRIDE Attendee: Stonewall for me means just resistance from oppression.

PRIDE Attendee: My child is trans, identifies as male, and I love my child.

PRIDE Attendee: We've really made tremendous strides with being accepted in society, and I think that's something to be very proud of.

PRIDE Attendee: I'm one of the original AIDS survivors.

PRIDE Attendee: I am old as hell. I've been doing this now ... This is 19 years in drag.

Bob Edwards: That was Izzy Moore, Derek Jesslen, Steve Barret, Abby Kadabra, and Daryl Coffey.

For more, visit AARP.org/podcast. Become a subscriber, and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thanks for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

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In 1969, LGBT patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought routine official harassment, helping spark the modern gay rights movement and a push for dignity everywhere – including in healthcare. 

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