Monday, 29 June 2009

BBC News: 'Stonewall gave me new gay role models'

San Francisco, California. 1987.
A protest in San Francisco, California, against the Catholic Church's policies

The Stonewall uprisings 40 years ago brought the gay rights movement to the forefront of American culture. Writer and historian David Carter assesses what progress has been made since that pivotal moment and how far the quest for equal rights has to go.

The end of this month marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, an anniversary that has been duly marked by a number of events, including a White House reception on Monday.

The Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village

The Stonewall Riots began late on 27 June 1969 when New York City police officers raided the popular gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village

The raid set off a six-day series of protests, demonstrations and confrontations between the city's gay community and the police
Police said the raid was staged because unlicensed liquor was being sold on the premises
The Gay Liberation Front formed just a month after the riots and soon became an international force

But because the history of the gay civil rights movement has generally not been taken seriously by educators nor by the media, people are often uncertain about what exactly Stonewall was: why did the Stonewall Riots occur and what do they mean?

There had been a homosexual rights movement in Germany since the 19th century, a movement that regained some momentum after the setback caused by World War I. The movement spread in Europe, including Russia, during the 20th century and suffered further setbacks under Nazi and Communist dictatorships.

After World War II homosexual rights movements made progress in Western democracies. The homosexual rights movement began in an organized way in the United States after World War II during the Cold War when the Mattachine Society was founded.

While there was progress toward decriminalizing homosexuality in Canada and Europe, progress in the US was much slower. But in Europe, severe prejudice against homosexuality remained even in those societies where homosexual sex acts were not illegal.

It was the massive and sustained uprising against the police that erupted at the end of June 1969 when the New York City police raided a popular gay bar named the Stonewall that eventually changed the situation worldwide.

Because the riots broke out in the late 1960s after the successes of the US anti-Vietnam War movement and the black civil rights movement, the organizations that emerged immediately after Stonewall were cast in a New Left mould, which also meant a militant consciousness.

Suddenly I had a new model: gay men as brave and creative and effective, not as sex perverts who were creeps and mentally ill

The most successful of these organizations, the Gay Activists Alliance, modelled its actions on guerrilla theatre and added camp humour to create "zaps", demonstrations that were highly creative, highly subversive, and designed to get media attention. The result was that gay people were seen over and over in the media acting from positions of power: challenging power and unafraid.

That changed the consciousness of gay people everywhere, including even someone like myself who was a high-school student who was trying very hard to deny his homosexuality.

Suddenly I had a new model: gay men as brave and creative and effective, not as sex perverts who were creeps and mentally ill. And this is why the movement at this historical juncture grew like mushrooms: this was just what gay men and lesbians, who had been so suppressed for so long needed. And because we had witnessed the revolt of all the other oppressed groups, we knew just what to do: all the other militant movements that had changed the consciousness of the masses in the 1960s -even when they had often failed to change particular government policies or pass specific laws - offered a template for ending discrimination and prejudiced thinking.

comedian/actress Ellen DeGeneres
Ellen DeGeneres was one of the first celebrities to come out

The Stonewall Riots, in the way that they were immediately commemorated with annual marches, also offered a way to spread the gospel of freedom, equality, and liberation. They were extremely effective because one of the main obstacles against homosexual equality was invisibility.

As long as most people thought they knew no homosexuals what basis did they have for doubting the media image of lesbians and gay men as strange, lonely, sad and probably pathological beings? But when real homosexuals had the courage to march in the sunlight, they did not look so different from anyone else: the normalcy was apparent.

Members of the public might see their co-worker or fellow student or neighbour in the march, and this made it easier for more and more homosexuals to "come out": to quit hiding. This in turn made it possible for people to approach politicians and demand not only that oppressive laws be overturned, but that laws to protect the civil rights of lesbians and gay men be enacted.

Fighting back

And so more and more laws outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation were passed, first on a local basis and then by states. Films and novels began to portray gay men and lesbians more fairly and more accurately.

Ground was lost as a terrifying disease with no cure that was connected in the public's mind with homosexuality spread rapidly. Hysteria was caused in part because it was unclear how the disease was spread. Would mosquitoes or a cough spread it from an infected person to an "innocent" (ie, heterosexual) person?

Again, the gay community fought back as it had during the gay liberation phase by both organizing and by a new creative media campaign. As medical knowledge progressed and the disease spread more and more, it became clear that Aids was not, after all, a "homosexual disease," and hence not a divine judgment on homosexuality.

Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco

Equality, promised by the advent of the gay liberation movement in Stonewall's wake, is on the horizon

By the time of the Clinton administration, the gay civil rights movement was ready to spring ahead after 12 years of hostile Republican rule. And spring it did. Gay people were energized by the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and more and more positive and stronger media portrayals from television to Hollywood.

Now with the Obama administration in Washington after eight more years of Republican government, there had been much optimism among gay people in America. This was fuelled in part by Barack Obama's proclamation of support for gay equality except in the area of marriage.

Now the 40th anniversary of Stonewall has simultaneously heightened the gay public's historical awareness, making gay people impatient for action from this administration. Many are wondering whether President Obama will unveil a new policy initiative today.

But whether the Obama administration does so or not, it seems clear that the time of equality is getting close at hand: young Americans don't even understand the idea of discrimination based on sexual orientation any more than young people in the 1990s could understand racial discrimination.

Equality, promised by the advent of the gay liberation movement in Stonewall's wake, is on the horizon. When it finally does arrive, it will be thanks to young gay people who found the courage to stand up for themselves on the streets of Greenwich Village 40 years ago.

David Carter is the author of Stonewall: the riots that sparked the gay revolution. He is a consultant for the BBC Radio 2 programme Stonewall: The Riots That Triggered The Gay Revolution, which will be broadcast on Tuesday 30 June 2009 at 2230BST.

[Click on the hyperlink at the top to view the comments on the BBC-News website.]

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