Let me introduce you to Irene Benedetti, a short, slim, soft-spoken Italian woman who hails from South Philly, but could be from any Italian neighborhood in any major city. At a recent dinner party, someone asked her what it was like growing up as an out lesbian in the early 1960s.
You see, Irene is now a senior, and most LGBT activists of today only know a little of our elders' stories, since it is their heritage and what they claim to be fighting for. But in our community, LGBT seniors are largely invisible. Our activists talk about or mention Stonewall and all it symbolizes, but that symbolism is rarely personalized.
Irene always knew who she was, and from an early age she wanted to be true to herself. When she was old enough, she attempted to fit in; she even became a regular on the national TV show Bandstand. Irene was one of those teenagers who danced in the audience to Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker.
Finally, one day she came out to her parents, only to be greeted with the "all you need is a good man" line. She snapped back, "Do you want me screwing men to prove a point? Or can I please be myself and happy?" That ended that conversation, and Irene was out. At that point, the best word to describe her relations with her family might be distant.
She began doing what LGBT people did in those days: they traveled to what we called the wild side of town, where they'd find a bar - which usually was Mafia-controlled - or cruised with their friends (translation: riding around in cars where they thought they would be safe, or just hanging out with friends).
This was dangerous in the 1960s. For Irene, it meant being picked up by police. She was riding in a car that police stopped outside one of those clubs. The police claimed the driver didn't use a turn signal. Once the officer shined a flashlight in the car, he asked Irene, "What are you doing in the back seat with that other woman?" She replied, "Nothing," but she and the other three women were arrested, taken into the police station and spent the next six hours facing intimidation.
Irene, like many others, found shelter in those bars. On occasion they were raided, mostly during election time when those car stops and other forms of harassment were a regular occurrence for LGBT people so politicians could say "We're cleaning up this town," no matter if it was Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia or New York City.
This was a regular pattern of oppression nationally.