Saturday, June 29, 2019

Stonewall 50

Today is the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, which launched the modern LGBT+ movement for equality. It profoundly changed things in the USA and around the world because it meant that for the first time in the modern era, LGBT+ people were standing up to discrimination and oppression and asserting their right to be fully human and to live authentic lives. That struggle isn’t over yet.

I don’t remember hearing about the events of June 28, 1969 and the days following until I’d been at university for a few years, possibly as late as 1981. That was 12 years after the rebellion, and the following year I took part in my first LGBT Pride Parade in Chicago, and the year after that my real activist career began. All of that happened because of those June 1969 events, even though I couldn’t know that until I came out, more than a decade after Stonewall.

It’s not unusual for people not to know their own history, or the names of the trailblazers who came before them to clear the path. Each of us has to find our own path through life, after all, and that’s as true now as it was in my day or in the aftermath of the Stonewall Rebellion. The important thing, I think, is that when we find out what we didn’t know, we look for more of the story that we never even knew existed.

When I came out, I had a friend who gave me lots of books to read, especially history and fiction. I practically inhaled it all. Part of me was angry that all of that had been hidden from me—essentially denied to me—by a society that not only saw the stories and histories of LGBT+ as unimportant, but even as illegitimate. But I was also thrilled and excited to discover the stories of people who were like me, the first time in my life that had ever happened.

When I became an activist, I had two motivations. First, to make life a bit easier and safer for me and the rest of the LGBT+ communities. My other goal, or maybe my hope, was that doing so might one day mean that other LGBT+ youth wouldn’t discover their true nature and think they were the only one in the world. Much of the first part was successful, the second part somewhat, but more so after I left activism.

While I was proud of what I accomplished in my activist years, I was also keenly aware that I was standing on the shoulders of those who fought the battle years before I came on the scene, the people whose stories I’d finally learned. Those who began their activism after me have done and are doing the same. We are all inextricably linked, and always will be—even if sometimes it’s in spite of ourselves—in a great chain linking us all back to Stonewall, and to all the pioneers in the many decades before that.

So Stonewall is, for me, an intensely personal anchor, of sorts, a touchstone, even. The courage of those who struggled before me gave me strength to continue the fight, but they also helped me keep things real: It was never about me, it was never about my ego, and it sure wasn’t about what I could personally get out of it all. Other people, with the same general starting point I had, took a different path, and many became professional activists or politicians. That just wasn’t my path.

I’ll admit, there were times I regretted not becoming a paid activist, even though comparatively few actually did that in those days. The people who rebelled in June 1969, most of them, never made a professional career out of what they did then, and I didn’t from my time, either. That doesn’t make me (or them) “good” or whatever, it just means I was true to myself, to my nature, and to my path in life. I was being the most authentic me I could be—the very lesson I’d taken from my predecessors in activism.

At this major anniversary, as probably seldom before, I’m keenly aware of the tenuousness all the progress we’ve made over the past 50 years. Even now, there are people who want to turn back the clock and force us all into closets (or worse…), and some of them are very powerful, and some are even succeeding in starting to undo our work.

That’s precisely why it’s so important to remember Stonewall, and all the people who struggled before it and since, all working for the simple justice that LGBT+ people should have had as a birthright. Remembering them and what they did is one way to keep their work secure, and to honour the struggle that continues to this day.

That struggle isn’t over yet.

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