Rev. Emily C. Heath

Stonewall at 42: 'Why Don't You Guys Do Something?'

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | June 07, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: assimilation, butch, queer, stonewall

Stonewall.jpg42 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?"

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Incredible post, Rev. It makes me think about activists like Sylvia Rivera said to have "thrown the first brick at Stonewall" and "historians" such as David Carter who seem to be on a mission to rewrite her out of that history, deeming her queer and trans POC activism irrelevant to the energy around the riots. loved the way you brought yourself into this

Careful now. Someone's likely to post a response saying that you've got it all wrong and you're just whitewashing the movement and that Stonewall wasn't really the beginning of anything at all. It's too bad that you can't be as informed as them.

Anyway, I think the question of why grass roots movements turn into corporate affluent think tanks is certainly not new, but still an interesting topic.

It seems like all grass roots movements inevitably turn into mainstream warpings of what they originally stood for. And then someone splits off with a desire to return to grass roots and then the cycle repeats.

Is it naive to think that an movement will always be grass roots no matter how big it gets, how much power, how many resources, and how many connections it forms? I think one of the assets of grass roots organizations is that they are accountable to no one but themselves. But the minute you get support from an outside interest, you become accountable to them as well. Is that selling out or an inevitable concession to the reality of an involved versus isolated social-political discourse?

Honestly, I don't know. But the gay rights grass roots movement isn't the only one and that tells me that it's more than individual people with power suddenly becoming corrupt.

"Did they realize that they had just struck the first significant blow for gay rights in this country?"
the first blow huh? Stonewall is predated by Dewey’s Lunch Counter Demonstration,April 25th, 1965.
as well as Compton's Cafeteria Riot August 1966.
why does everyone focus on Stonewall as being the first?

Jay Kallio | June 7, 2011 6:16 PM

I came out in 1966 and became an LGBT activist in 1970.

While I sorely miss the raw, raunchy grassroots activism of those early years, I also will readily admit that our efforts as a totally volunteer movement were very immature and inefficient most of the time. Volunteers, especially volunteers who are predominantly in the closet at home and at work, or are very, very poor because they are out, are not much good at conducting the kind of activist campaigns that get the job done. Back then we had no money to finance the basics of communicating our message, no support from external resources (we often could not even find a place to hold meetings or events, and could only meet in volunteers' living rooms, for example). Our volunteer activists would come and go, so there was little sense of organizational history, and we often did not learn from mistakes, because that generation of volunteers would have disappeared. There were countless opportunities for success lost, because we were not organized enough to "strike while the iron is hot". It always seemed we were "a day late and a dollar short" when the opportunity to make a difference appeared. It took more than 15 years just to get a NY City Council just to pass an LGBT rights bill, even in the years of Liberal ascendance here, the struggle in which I and my partner were most involved.

Back then we knew nothing of how to wage an effective media campaign, could not even reach our own supporters. Communications about rallies, and other events was done by shoe leather, dragging boxes of precious leaflets to park on bathroom shelves in smoky bars, or handed out one by one at the front entrance. Major companies would have nothing to do with us. Media ignored us. Our huge trees fell in the forest and no one heard. Politicians were openly hostile, or would grimace and tell us it wasn't our time yet. Building a movement with no money and no staff was like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill, and many were crushed underneath every time it rolled back on us. Many fell by the wayside, their lives and careers ruined in days of relentless bigotry and discrimination, from which we had no protection.

Yes, there was a vitality and Quixotic longing that pervaded it for moments at a time, but much of it was also fatal friendly fire, as the rampant horizontal hostility with which many of us regarded one another caused many of us to flay each other for even tiny failures or differences of opinion, burning out many who had offered their hearts and souls to the movement. There were hostilities at every meeting, and self sabotage at every turn. Our anger needed somewhere to go, when our lack of progress led to an inner frustration and shame without outlet, and was often misdirected at each other. I see that going on still, today.

I give us credit for always fighting to be inclusive back then, and there were always considerations about outreach to all segments of our perpetually diverse community, although we never had much success with that, either. But as a community that transcended all the boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, etc, there was always an awareness that we needed to be open to all, and work together so we could go forward together. At least in the radical feminist circles I inhabited.

Despite all our inefficiencies and sometimes tragic mistakes I do remain fiercely proud of our tenacity and willfulness in the face of what seemed insurmountable odds. I agree there was an amazing heart and soul animating us. But I believe all that is still there, in a matured, refined movement that does have a sense of history, has learned from it's mistakes in many ways (yes, we will make new ones!), and now has systems set up to achieve our goals and expand them. Now, because our "profo homos" have experience and understandings they have arrived at through the years of struggle, they do have a skill set and sophistication beyond that of a grassroots volunteer, and we all benefit from their accumulated wisdom. On the down side, in many ways we have lost that heady self empowerment that goes with breaking new ground as individuals. Some of that intoxication of opportunity is lost. I mourn that.

But I do not romanticize a past when we did not have two nickles to rub together, when our arrestees at civil disobedience actions could not mobilize legal counsel or mount a defense, when our members would lose jobs because of getting caught by TV cameras at public events, when group treasurers would run off with all the donations, when volunteers were forced into the underground economy to survive their activist endeavors, without benefits, pensions, or health care, when there were no minutes about past meetings and people would war on each other over different recollections of what was decided, and when individual egos would run roughshod over group goals and principles, destroying the entire organization and dividing us. It was a time when it always felt like we were running on empty, often chugging to a halt when the fumes ran out. Substance abuse in our hidden community destroyed many of us, and they took others down with them. I can wax romantic over the good old days, but if I am honest, much of it was not in the least bit honorable, or pretty.

Overall I have been enjoying the relative maturity of our community today, and don't believe that corporate sponsorship of events, which is often the showiest aspect, necessarily ruins them. I don't believe our organizations are irrevocably compromised by wealthy donors. I still see so much of that same spirit, but now it is honed by the people who show up every day to deal with the responsibilities of keeping our movement and support services going long term.

It's a different flavor now, like a LTR or marriage of many years, full of well worn arguments and the compromises of living with another who is, well, different from who we are, and making it work nevertheless. Some of that initial thrill of the new flirtation and blissful first night together has been transmuted into depth, accountability, and real sustenance.

Success over the long haul does not have to ruin our essence. It can renew it.

Just my reflections, not meant to speak for anyone else. :)

Happy Pride!

Wow, thank you Rev. Heath and Jay for your words. As a millennial queer person (i'm 26) I really resonate with Rev. Heath's story but at the same time of course have a different one, because of my different identities, locale, and even coming out just 9 years later at 18 in 2003. I didn't have any formal LGBT resources in the small town I grew up in with a graduating class of ~83 but family and trusted friends kept me going until I fled to a city I could live in instead of survive in.

I have often talked with my created family, those much closer to me than the word friend could ever define, about the concept of queer privilege. Given where we are (Minneapolis/Saint Paul, MN) we as queer people have access to incredible resources and power that those in other places and with other identities don't. I met my partner of 4 years while we were both in college, we work for different companies, save for retirement, rent and are talking about buying a home down the road, the topic of children has been talked about but in a futuristic way, our friends and family pry and ask about marriage plans or children sometimes in a joking way sometimes not. Our life together is so very... normal. And that is the most amazing part of the whole thing, my coworkers don't bat an eye at the different pronoun and masculine name attached to my stories of home life shared over coffee along with theirs.

The ability to have these conversations and to even have the language and thoughts themselves are part of the heritage you both write about above. The ability for me to just... be me the vast majority of the time, though not always, not everywhere, and not always legally is astounding. I owe a lot of this to the first wave of folks who stood and were beaten for their incredible courage. I owe a lot of this to the next era of LGBT institutions that were then possible. I owe a lot of this to a family and community that has changed very quickly and yet never quickly enough to see things differently and accept a world where things are harder to define and rules once engraved in stone no longer true.

Thank you again for the chance to reflect,

Happy Pride!

Jay Kallio | June 9, 2011 4:43 AM

Hi Kevin! It's great to hear your report of a considerable amount of comfort and freedom to be yourself in your locale. In such a few short years things do seem to have gotten better, at least in many parts of the world. There are still clearly many places where it can be fatal to be LGBTQ, and I hope our advocacy and relative wealth of resources here can be instrumental in assisting in change in those places as well. There is still much work to be done, but it's terrific for me to hear that we have had some success. Back in the 60s and 70s it seemed so slow, and often seemed so impossible. The difference is amazing.

Happy Pride to you, also. And thanks for chiming in!