Is Stonewall Just Old History?

On June 28, 1969, a group of street people and drag queens in Greenwich Village enacted the “Bunker Hill” moment of the movement for equal rights for transgender, lesbian, gay male, and questioning people in the U.S.

This motley crew didn’t decide to hold a fund-raising event at some swank venue. They fought for their rights on a city street outside a sleazy gay bar.

They didn’t sit around complaining, theorizing, or rehearsing how they hadn’t been treated fairly. They already lived mistreatment personally and acted to end it.

They didn’t await approval from the leaders of existing LGBTQ+ organizations who felt dressing acceptably was necessary to gain acceptance in the system. They weren’t interested in looking “the same as you” — as straight as possible.

They didn’t seek the love and approval of their abusers. They fought for change in the power structure that was beating them down.

They fought back against another police raid at the Stonewall Inn that for them was the last straw in never-ending harassment. It wasn’t theoretical. They experienced it personally.

The “Stonewall Riots” that were the result communicated the fact that LGBTQ+ people weren’t going to take it anymore. A year later the first Gay Pride marches took place in New York and Los Angeles commemorating their anniversary.

Everything about the activities of Stonewall is liable to offend somebody today. But it symbolizes ideas that go far beyond equality with straight marriages and gaining the attention of businesses that want to make money off of everyone equally.

First, its politics were local. It began where the hurts were.

Marriage equality is being tackled state-by-state while our President and most of our Congress want to support something less than marriage for LGBTQ+ people. And our national LGBTQ+ organizations are part of this progress to the extent that they return to the states a portion of the funds and activists they solicit regularly from locals.

So are most other LGBTQ+ issues. Anti-discrimination statutes are more likely to come city-by-city, county-by-county, and state-by-state than from the federal government down. Our Stonewall-commemorating energies need to be there.

Second, their goal was not to be liked or loved. Abused people often seem to want to go further than ending discrimination and abuse as if they need affirmation from the dominant group to be okay.

Our goal is to end what’s hurting LGBTQ+ people and to marginalize those who hurt them, whether the right-wing ever loves LGBTQ+ people or not. The objectors to equal rights are going to have to take care of their own multiple psychological issues that manifest themselves in homophobia and the need to enforce the straight role on themselves and everyone else.

A student of color told me she was tired of affirmative action because when she did get rewarded, the assumption was that it wasn’t based on her merit – that really she was inferior, basically unqualified, or lazy. She was convinced that getting rid of affirmative action would solve that.

I asked her what the people who benefited from discrimination thought of people of her color before affirmative action. Without missing a beat, she shot back: “That we’re lazy and inferior.”

“So,” I asked, “before affirmative action they thought you were lazy and inferior, and after affirmative action they think you’re lazy and inferior. Doesn’t sound like a change. I guess the question is: Would you rather face those stereotypes with a legal chance to move ahead or without it?”

Third, their fight for equal rights was about power — who has it, who will do anything to keep it, who’s power is built upon the status quo, and who must be confronted with alternative power.

Power doesn’t corrupt. It just gives those who do not value equality over money the power to enforce their values on us all.

It’s power – moral, economic, intellectual, and communal – that convinces the powerful that there’s value in sharing their power. It’s not because we have out-niced them.

I know, I know. Liberal people don’t want to think in these terms. They’re hoping for the powerful to just get it by persuasive argument and continual dialogue. Then they’ll surrender their privilege and profits that are based on discrimination.

Thank goodness the union movement years ago, or the civil rights movement, knew better about power. Where would we be if they’d have been constrained by fear of disturbing the peace?

They knew that power didn’t have to be mean, vindictive, or irrational. They also knew that it had to come from a personal sense that they were not powerless.

That’s why voting isn’t enough. Our political movements can’t just settle for periodically recommending whom we should elect.

They must unceasingly follow up with those we support to make them do the right thing. They must be there holding the office-holders accountable, as if we really do have power.

A vote next time around, politicians need to believe, should never be taken for granted. Those forces invested in present power know how to buy political power.

In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Harry Belafonte recalled a story Eleanor Roosevelt told him. Her husband introduced A. Phillip Randolph and asked him: “what he thought of the nation, what he thought of the plight of the Negro people, and what did he think… where the nation was headed.”

FDR concluded: “You know, Mr. Randolph, I’ve heard everything you’ve said tonight, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit. But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it.”

“Make me do it,” presidential candidate Barack Obama repeated at a fundraiser in Montclair, New Jersey. He wanted a show of power.

Stonewall, then, doesn’t symbolize some of our models for change. It really symbolizes what we’re prone to forget.