I quipped to a friend about 2 hours into one of last week's events, a reunion of the Gay Liberation Front;
All we need is a small fire and some marshmallows. This is like a gay campfire, ghost stories included.
And it really was.
There were about a dozen member of the GLF, each taking a turn at telling a personal story of their involvement in this early gay liberation group, and it was an eye-opening, exhilarating and sometimes exasperating experience to listen to these pioneers talk about what it was like to be out and an activist, in the early 70's.
The change has been extraordinary, no doubt about that. It was gripping and terrifying to hear about routine violence perpetrated by the NY City police on members of our community who dared "flaunt it."
Sadly, a lot has not changed, particularly the challenges we face internally as a community.
It is clear that in terms of sexism and transphobia, white men dominating the space and other divisions within our diverse community, we have a long way to go.
The gathering, billed as a "reunion" given the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, was co-sponsored by SAGE and the Center. Since SAGE is a client, I had the honor and challenge of handling the media and "herding the cats," in a packed room of people, some of who had traveled across the country to be on the panel and were seeing friends they had not seen in decades.
It is always a rush for me to even be in the room with so many people I feel indebted to, whether I agree with them or not. Also always fun to see my SAGE peeps, role models and now friends who have been very willing to tell their stories to the media. Dick and Gary detailed their plans for the march in NYC, thrilled to now carry a sign that says "52 years together."
Jerry Hoose, a Stonewall riot veteran who has been tirelessly doing media all week and who will hopefully be able to take a break this week, was a joy to listen to, his continued work in the community offering some amazing perspective on where were have been and also where we need to go.
As each person recounted a story about their experience, one by one, it was striking to hear the tales of overt harassment from the institutions of the day (police, workforce) and stories of great joy at being part of a larger community and being in the fight.
One man said very bluntly, "I was able to be involved because I had nothing to lose. No job, no family. Nothing." Now, as the vast majority of us can take part in the "community" in some way, this struck me as particularly poignant.
We all make sacrifices to be activists or even just be engaged, but this man made it clear what it meant to be involved in the 70's. One generation ago - it was said over and over - we were illegal, immoral and insane (medically speaking). We are still working on all three of those, in varying degree, and will be for some time I imagine.
But as interesting to me were how sexism, trans-phobia, racism and other isms eat away at our community. One panel member went on a diatribe about how this was a "gay" movement only (never use "queer"), railed offensively about trans people and generally made me want to jump out of my seat and scream. He was called out, but it was fascinating to hear clearly and strongly articulated some of what I see in a much more subtle way still in our movement.
During the Q and A, a number of audience members asked for memories of those we have lost, a moving and wonderful chance to hear the "ghost" stories we will lose forever without events like this one.
All said, this gathering provided some things we do not often see in our community: a chance to hear our own history, an opportunity to ask questions of the founders of our movement and last but not least, to see in a tangible way how far we have come and how much we ground we still need to cross.
When I commented to one of the SAGE folks that my wife and I would be going to the reception at the White House commemorating the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, he took in a sharp breath. "Never in my lifetime could I have imagined," he said.
We will take the spirits of all of them with us as we keep pushing, not just for equality, but for liberation.