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Seven Years Old in 1969: What the Stonewall Demonstrations Mean to Me

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.

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.