Though old enough to have had firsthand knowledge of Stonewall (I was 22 when the riots occurred) my understanding of Stonewall came from hearing about it from friends and reading about it many years later. Though I grew up in upper Manhattan, anything having to do with gay life was something out of my experience.
When the Stonewall Riots began on June 28, 1969, I had just graduated from college and was on my way across the country. I was living a deeply closeted life. Even after going to work for gay rights advocate Bella S. Abzug (D-N.Y.) in 1972 it would be nearly 12 more years until I came out. So it was much later that I learned how much I owed those who took part in the riots and how the repercussions were to impact my life.
When I did come out in the early 1980s, I met and got to know Frank Kameny learning he demonstrated for gay rights before Stonewall. A little research confirmed that with a few others Kameny led a picket line protesting government treatment of gays and lesbians in front of the White House on April 17, 1965 — four years before Stonewall.
After coming out, I joined the fight for equality for the LGBTQ+ movement meeting many who were there before me to whom I owed much. Our community must recognize the very fast pace of change that has occurred for us compared to other minority groups and women. Until the Trump administration things were going at lightning speed for our equality movement compared to the hundreds of years it took for African Americans and knowing women still can’t get the Equal Rights Amendment passed by states that was first introduced in Congress in 1923. So while some think things have moved slowly, I hope when Democrats once again take the Senate and the presidency we will be able to pass the Equality Act first introduced in Congress by Bella in 1974.
We have gained recognition by society in some ways just as important if not more so than legislation. We have gained the right to marry even though in 37 states we can marry on Sunday and be fired from our jobs or thrown out of our homes on Monday.
I think the debate in our community as represented by the two competing parades being held in New York to celebrate 50 years since Stonewall are in some ways emblematic of our success. This year there is a counter march to the New York Pride parade called the “Reclaim Pride” march honoring Stonewall. It is a back-to-basics march without any outside participation from the corporate or government communities. While I can respect the views of the leaders of this march and wish them success, I think our success has been that government and the corporate communities want to march with us.
To me a celebration of those who took part in Stonewall and others like Kameny would include corporate floats, the police and military in uniform. We fought for broad-based acceptance and recognition for members of our community. Why is it a bad thing if a corporation is proud to have its gay employees march openly under their banner in a pride parade? Why should we not celebrate police departments proud to have their LGBTQ members and other officers who support them march openly? Then there is the military who some object to having participate. We fought long and hard to have members of the LGBTQ community be able to serve openly in the military. Why would we now not want them to march proudly in the uniforms they worked so long and hard to wear?
I am not blind to how far we have to go. There is discrimination in our society, even in our own community, especially toward people of color and women. We must demand our police be appropriately trained and diversify. We must rid police departments of those who allow their racial biases to influence their actions.
We honor those who were at Stonewall when we let corporations celebrate with us after 50 years of our activists fighting for this to happen.
When we needed help fighting anti-gay laws in North Carolina and Indiana among other places the business community stood with us. Those of us who are out need to live our pride every day of the year. We need to urge more and more people to come out and it’s so much easier if they know their neighbors and their employers say “you are welcome here and we support you.” We honor Stonewall when we are inclusive.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.