Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Remember the past to change the future

Four decades ago, America was a much different place. It’s good to remember that no matter how bad things may seem at any given moment, there was a time they were much, much worse. We should celebrate how far we’ve come, and learn from the past so that we never return to those dark times.

A new documentary, Stonewall Uprising, takes a look at the night that changed everything for GLBT America: On June 28, 1969, New York City police conducted a routine raid on a mafia-owned bar, the Stonewall Inn. That night, for the first time, gay people fought back and the modern gay rights movement was born.

There was, of course, already a reform movement prior to that night, some of it chronicled in the earlier film, “Before Stonewall”. But the three nights of rioting that the 1969 raid touched off is widely regarded as the spark that started everything moving.

The film’s trailer above gives a sense not only of the film, but also the times in which the Stonewall Riots happened. The trailer has one historical inaccuracy, however: A title card says, "In 1969, homosexual acts were illegal throughout the United States." That's actually not true: In 1962, Illinois became the first state to repeal its anti-sodomy laws, nearly a decade before any other state. So, in 1969, homosexual acts were illegal in 49 states.

Illinois certainly wasn’t some sort of paradise: Police still found other ways and reasons to harass GLBT people, whether entrapping them in "prostitution" stings or routine raids of GLBT bars. Such routine police raids of gay bars in Chicago didn't stop until after Jane M. Byrne became Mayor of Chicago in 1979.

When I came out in 1981, I entered an underground community. It was legal to fire GLBT people, or refuse to hire them in the first place, because of their sexual orientation. It was legal to refuse public accommodation to GLBT people, or to refuse to rent or sell housing to them. In much the state, crimes against GLBT people went unreported because the police were not on our side.

By 1983, I was in Chicago. Routine raids on gay bars had ended, but discrimination was still legal. In 1988—nearly 20 years after Stonewall—the Chicago City Council finally adopted the Human Rights Ordinance, banning discrimination against GLBT people within the city. Added to the small cities and towns that had already enacted local ordinances, roughly one quarter of Illinois residents lived under the protection of GLBT-inclusive anti-discrimination laws.

It was another 15 years before the Illinois legislature finally passed a statewide human rights law—nearly 36 years after Stonewall.

The work ignited that New York night in 1969 hasn’t ended. Despite the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, about a dozen US states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books, waiting for a more conservative court—or the triumph of the “tenthers”—to begin enforcing them again.

We’ve also seen the frenzied effort by religious extremists to deny same-sex couples any legal recognition whatsoever. Illinois has seen off attempts at amending its state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, but the current Republican candidate for Governor, Bill Brady, declared, “Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman… I support an Amendment to our state constitution which would safeguard the institution of marriage…”

In Illinois, and most of the US, the battle for equality is far from over. We face powerful, well-financed opponents, especially on the religious right, who lie and defame GLBT people with giddy abandon. But the force to obtain simple justice for GLBT Americans, set loose that night in June 1969, is far from extinguished, even though there are years of work ahead. As Dr. King famously put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Ultimately, we will prevail.

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