The Real Stonewall Legacy

Forty years ago, a raucous group of transvestites, queens, dykes, hustlers, and homeless queer kids gathered at their local bar in Greenwich Village: The Stonewall Inn. This wasn't a political meeting -- and contrary to the common historical narrative, they weren't leaders in the nascent gay-rights movement. (Those leaders were far too concerned with convincing the powers that were that gay Americans were "just like everyone else" to set foot inside the Stonewall.) No, this was just an average Saturday night in 1969, and the Stonewall's patrons had gathered for the same reasons that most people gather at a bar -- to dance, drink, hang out with friends, and maybe get lucky.

Then something extraordinary happened.

It wasn't the police raid. Raids were pretty average then, too, as cops made a habit of targeting gay hangouts. What was extraordinary was that, for whatever reason, on that night everyone at the bar began to fight back.

The modern LGBT-rights movement owes its existence to the heroes of Stonewall. And while much has been gained in the intervening decades, a certain crucial something has been lost. We've become a movement that will settle for anything vaguely positive that proves we exist. We put an exploitative, straight pop star on the cover of our magazines just because she sang a song called "I Kissed A Girl." We laud the media coverage of Thomas Beattie (aka “The Pregnant Man”) as some kind of victory for transgender visibility, instead of condemning it as the objectifying freak show it is.

Then there's our relationship with President Barack Obama. We cling to him like we're his abused and co-dependent boyfriend, swooning over his Pride Proclamation and endlessly pre-excusing him (He's just busy! He's waiting for his moment!) for his total inaction on our behalf. And when he hits us with a Department of Justice document defending marriage discrimination and equating homosexuality with incest, we quickly crawl back into bed with him as soon as he apologizes with a bouquet of limited benefits for federal employees and the vague possibility of hate-crimes legislation.

For years the major gay-rights organizations (and the LGBT philanthropists who fund them) have poured nearly all of their capital into the fight for marriage equality, a fight whose success will only benefit those of us lucky enough to be in long-term, romantically partnered dyads. There's nothing wrong with a little nuptial justice, but many of our leaders seem to have forgotten that even when we win marriage equality once and for all, we'll still be facing hate, violence, and perfectly legal discrimination in most other areas of our lives.

The leaders of the LGBT movement have done us a disservice for far too long by avoiding the impolitic reality that being queer is about who we love, how we have sex, and how we choose to express our bodies. Instead, they argue for our civil rights under watered-down pretenses. To hear them tell the tale, we deserve health care and an end to hate-fueled violence just because "we can't help how we're born." We deserve job protections or marriage rights because we're "just like everyone else."

In fact, we deserve all of this and more simply because it's nobody's business what we do with our bodies as long as we're not hurting anyone. Arguing otherwise forces us into a posture where we're apologizing for our own existence -- promising that we'll take up as little space as possible in exchange for whatever considerations the heterosexual majority can spare. Is it any wonder we're still struggling to overturn a policy called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?

June is pride month, and I love a flashy parade as much as the next person. But on this 40th anniversary of Stonewall, it falls to all of us to remember that the first pride event wasn't a rave -- it was a riot. And we're still living under a system that dictates whose bodies are free and whose aren't. Who gets to pursue pleasure and who's a pervert. Never mind that we're not hurting anyone. Never mind "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In America, in 2009, LGBT bodies are still illegal, immoral, and in danger.

This must end now. We must stop waiting for opportune moments.

This Wednesday brought one hopeful sign of rebellion -- no doubt on the strength of growing frustration among grass-roots queers. Rep. Barney Frank announced that he would soon reintroduce the Employee Non-Discrimination Act in Congress (and the Human Rights Campaign has even vowed to resist stripping it of protections for trans people, like they did the last time it was introduced). What we all do next -- tomorrow, next week, and next year -- will determine whether this is a lovely but fruitless gesture or the opening salvo in a new gay revolution.

I'm not suggesting the road will be safe or easy. As we've seen over and over (most recently, in the attacks on Rachel Maddow for "nagging" and "bashing" Obama when she dared to suggest he isn't living up to his LGBT campaign promises), our so-called progressive allies will deny us as an impatient, unreasonable, radical fringe the minute we start demanding the real freedom of our bodies without apology or concession. The virulence of the Proposition 8 campaign demonstrated anew that, while many Americans may be willing to purchase "gayness" as an entertainment product, far fewer are prepared to accept us as full and equal citizens. The recent hateful acts of ideologically motivated domestic terrorism we've recently suffered as a nation are a stark reminder of the risks we face from the far right. And it's impossible to predict what new backlash may greet a groundswell of uppity queers refusing to take "wait your turn" for an answer.

But those unknown risks aren't worse than the known realities. Last year alone, almost 1,500 hate crimes were committed against LGBT citizens and organizations in this country -- and those are just the ones that were reported and believed. The forces against marriage equality use Obama's own words on the subject (it "is the union between a man and a woman") in their defense. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens across the country are regularly fired from jobs, turned away from homeless shelters, and denied health care and housing based on whom they love and how they look -- all with the blessing of state and federal laws. And the first few months of 2009 have already seen the separate suicides of three young boys who chose death over living with homophobic bullying.

Waiting our turn isn't working. Asking nicely isn't working. What will work is what worked that fateful night at Stonewall -- all of us refusing to stand down until all of our bodies, all of our loves, and all of our desires are truly free.

You may also like