42 years ago this month the Stonewall riots began in earnest when an old-school butch, being beat by police, yelled out to the crowd, "Why don't you guys do something?" We owe her everything. And her question is still relevant.
I had no idea that a butch had helped to start the Stonewall riots. It's the sort of thing that has been lost through the years as LGBTQ history has been cleaned up and corporatized. Do you ever see a butch leading an HRC event or in a corporate ad congratulating Pride attendees? No. But, I digress.
Or maybe I don't. Maybe that's exactly the issue. Activism in the queer community has gradually transformed from an unlikely, working class group of butches and other visibly queer and trans folks who decided one night that enough was enough to the domain of Washington, D.C. think-tanks who hold black-tie dinners while they settle for the crumbs that fall from the tables of power. And in doing so, we have lost our soul.
I came out when I was 18. It was 1994. It was the South. It was no picnic. And yet, I had it infinitely better than those who came out before me, and many who came out afterward. I had supportive parents, went to one of the few schools in the South that had a LGBT office, and found acceptance and hope in supportive Christian clergy. Still, I was painfully aware that who I was would inevitably change the trajectory of my career and the rest of my life. And, I knew that the less I assimilated along the way, the harder it would be for me.
I've found that there aren't that many times when you can look back at what you thought when you were 18 and realize that you had it right. But in this case, it's true. I was right. In the 17 years since I came out I have finished three degrees, been ordained as a minister, and in general managed to build a life. I've realized that's not too bad for someone who is unapologetically butch.
But I've also faced the reality of what living opening has meant. There are few areas of my life in which my options have not been in some way been defined by my queer identity. From choosing which denomination I would hold my ordination in to being disqualified from consideration for certain positions to deciding where to live, my identity has always played a role.
A little over three years ago, I left my home. I love the South. I would probably still be there today if I had anything resembling equal rights under state law there. I had always told myself I would never leave. But when I reached the age of 31, I realized that I couldn't stay any longer. I could not be everything that God was calling me to be in that place. Aside from a few short trips to Massachusetts the year I moved there, I had never even been north of Baltimore. Then, I drove my car across the Mason-Dixon line. All of a sudden I found myself living in a state where I could celebrate gay marriages and, more significantly, where every trip to the grocery story didn't bring with it the possibility of verbal gay bashing.
But now, 42 years after Stonewall, some people tell me the fight is over. We're accepted now. We've got Rachel Maddow and a lesbian wedding on Grey's Anatomy. And it's true - we've come a long way. But not long enough that my path was smooth. And my story is just one variation of every queer's story. Almost without exception, we've all taken a much rockier road than any of our parents would have hoped when we arrived in this world.
Tonight I'm wondering about those queers who left their homes on the night of June 27, 1969. Were they young? Were they out? Were they scared? Did they go out knowing that in just a few hours, they would change everything? Did they know that a beating would turn into a two-sided fight? Did they know that years from now parades would stream down the main avenues of every major city in memory of what they did?
And the next morning, did they lie there with bloodied faces and broken bones realizing what they had done? Did they realize that they had just struck the first significant blow for gay rights in this country? Did they feel the pride, even while they felt the pain in every part of their bodies?
I wonder what they would think of us now. We, younger queers, with our corporately-sponsored pride parades. We with our national organizations that spend our donations meant for activism redesigning their buildings while we push apologetically for basic rights. We with our penchant for finding spokespeople who don't look "too queer." We with our insistence that we are just like everyone else, even when we're not and don't need to be. We with our lack of knowledge of even the basics of queer history.
I read about Storme DeLarverie recently. She was one of the butches at Stonewall. She may have even been the butch who yelled out to the crowd. She's living in a nursing home in Brooklyn, well loved but struggling with memory and certainly not wealthy. The article in The New York Times insisted on calling her a "cross dresser" instead of a butch. I wondered what she would have thought about that article and her life if she had been able to see it 41 years ago. I wonder what she would have thought about us. We who party so extravagantly on Pride weekends have forgotten about her, and those like her, in more ways than one.
I, for one, have this image of her looking at all of us - freed from the dementia for a day, in her best suit and tie, taking us all in.
And then, loudly and fearlessly, shouting at us all: "Why don't you guys do something?"