What and why you should know about Stonewall

stonewallinnThe Stonewall Inn

It seems so odd to think that in my lifetime, in the most metropolitan city in the United States, you could get arrested and your life would be ruined for dancing with another man.

“Dancing” isn’t a euphemism for having sex, by the way. In 1969, it was illegal for two men to dance together. Women were required to wear three pieces of “feminine clothing” at all times, or they could be arrested.

Last week when I was in New York for work, we were walking from Beatrice Inn, where we had eaten dinner, to meet friends at a patio restaurant for a round of drinks, suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks: “Holy crap,” I said. “I’m in front of the Stonewall Inn.”

“What’s that?” said my co-worker.

“You’ve never heard of the Stonewall Riots?” I asked, a little incredulously. (After all, this is a woman who worked at Playboy magazine.) “The Stonewall Inn is where the gay rights movement started.”

A few years ago, I watched “Stonewall Uprising” on PBS, a documentary about the first night that gay people resisted arrest, and fought back against police intimidation. (I later bought it on iTunes, but you can watch it for free at PBS.) It interviews protestors, journalists, even one of that night’s arresting officers.

It made me a little sick, honestly, to have to see how bad it used to be — watching footage of police officers telling school assemblies that “if you’re queer … the rest of your life will be a living hell.” Homosexuality was considered a disease, a mental illness, “no less dangerous than smallpox.” Mike Wallace’s 1967 report for CBS News said that “the average homosexual—if there be such—is promiscuous. He is not interested in, or capable of, a lasting relationship.” In extreme cases, gays were subjected to sterilization, sometimes to castration, even lobotomies in an attempt to “cure” or “fix” them.

And the arrests. Gay bars were raided regularly by police — about once a month — because they were considered “disorderly houses” and thousands of people each year were arrested in New York. Papers would publish their names, pictures, and often their home addresses, which usually led to being fired. “You knew you could ruin them for life,” says the arresting officer in the movie.

The Stonewall Riots were the first time that gay people “stood up and said no,” says one guy interviewed in the documentary. To understand how they fought back against police — at one point it involved a Rockettes-style kick line — is amazing and inspiring.

It was six months before the 1970s. This isn’t ancient history — it’s still fresh, and raw, and something that every day continues to be a battle. Sometimes we win, as in the recent DOMA decision — but the fact DOMA and Prop 8 were passed in the first place, and made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, shows you that gay rights are nowhere near assured or universally accepted. We’re a couple of court decisions away from being back where we started from in the eyes of the law.

Whenever I hear younger gay people asking why we even need a pride parade, I tell them to watch “Stonewall Uprising.” If you know or love a gay person, you should watch it, too — or at least know what we’ve been up against.

Not too long ago, we were up against a phalanx of police officers in riot gear. Because we wanted to dance with each in a bar.

WHAT SAM WORE: 6-27-13
shirt062713 pants062713 shoe060313
The shirt/tie: Long-sleeved cotton shirt from Banana Republic. Knit tie from the J. Crew outlet store. (The tie clip belonged to my dad.)
The pants: Skinny fit tapered jeans from Uniqlo.
The shoes: Monk-strap shoes from Charles Tyrwhitt, New York.
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