For those of you who identify as LGBT, June is a special month, because it commemorates the birth of the modern LGBT rights movement. If you’re interested, PBS ran a stunning documentary about Stonewall, called Stonewall Uprising.
To this day, I still cry at Pride marches, and I think about that first Pride march after Stonewall, as told through the eyes of people who were in it, and how scared they were. One marcher (and you’ll see him in the film) said he was terrified that only 10 people or so would show up, and that would make him and his friends an easy target for violence. But when he went down to the location the day of the march, hundreds of people had shown up, and he said that it was like coming home, in a way, and for the first time, he felt like he knew who he was. Stonewall, he said, gave him a sense of self and shared experience. That’s how it is for me. I am not alone, I am not the only “weird” person out there, and there can be strength in community.
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I’m reminded of that every June, and I reflect on how far we’ve come even from the days when I was first finding my way — the mid- late 1980s. Then, police officers made it a habit to show up at gay and lesbian bars in Denver. Generally male, they’d go through the bar and stare at women dancing, make comments to each other, and then do random ID checks, using the excuse that they were looking for “underage drinkers.” I never saw that happen at straight clubs, and I went to my share of those, too.
I’d think about Stonewall when those officers showed up, and I’d get pretty uncomfortable and keep an eye on them as they worked their way through the bar. Terrible, that I was more afraid in some ways of the police than of gay bashers who might’ve been lurking outside. That happened, too, and that’s why nobody left the bar alone in those days. We walked each other to our cars, out in the dirt parking lot. The bars, as most gay bars were back in the day, were located in bad industrial areas of the city, or in areas that suffered from violence and drugs. The kinds of places that invited bad company that preyed on bar patrons, if they weren’t careful.
What’s most chilling about that is that I and my fellow bar-goers EXPECTED bad things to happen. We always had to be on the lookout. We expected to be harassed and possibly attacked, and we also knew that chances were, the police in the bar probably wouldn’t do much to help if one of us got jumped in the parking lot.
Every LGBT person in this culture grows up EXPECTING to be harassed and attacked. For those of you who do not identify as LGBT, that kind of burden is a terrible weight. Certainly, all of us know that there are “bad areas of town,” and so we avoid them. But for LGBT people, ANYWHERE can be a bad area of town. Even the workplace and schools are bad areas for those of us who identify as LGBT.
And now, even as we have made such strides in validating our relationships and ensuring legal protections for ourselves and our families, we are still under attack, and remain the group most targeted for violence in America.
Currently, the media is full of rampant anti-gay statements from people who profess to be “Christian,” who call us names like “pervert” and “diseased” and “pedophiles.” We’re denigrated as “recruiters of children,” “as purveyors of sin,” and accused of trying to destroy American culture because we would like to have the legal right to marry. We’re accused of “taking away the rights of Christians” because we would like to be able to engage in a legally recognized union with our partners, and we’re attacked for wanting to raise children and ensure their familial rights as heterosexual couples do. We’re called “sexual predators” because we would like to openly serve our country in the armed forces, and not worry about being outed and forced to leave.
There are days when the weight of all those terrible things that are said about us and that are done to us really gnaw at my psyche. I know that I am none of those things I’m accused of being, but it took me a while to get to the point where I came to really believe that. We lose dozens of young people every year to vitriolic rhetoric like that, and dozens more to addictions and unhealthy practices because they, too, have psyches burdened by the weight of ignorance and fear and outright hatred.
This is why Pride marches and gatherings are so important, still. They remind us how far we have come — and I am so very grateful to my predecessors who worked so very hard on this road, and I hope my own efforts in my life contributes in some way, however small. And they also remind us that there is more work to be done, but that there are other committed and brave people out there, both LGBT and straight, who will continue doing it.
And that, my friends, is why I cry at Pride celebrations.
Happy weekend, happy Pride!
And if you’d like to learn more about Stonewall, check out the Stonewall National Museum and Archives, as well.