June 18, 2019

A New Read on Stonewall

“Twenty years after the Stonewall Riots, I was graduating from Wesleyan University as a young activist. I had come out in college in 1985—first as bi, which was something of a first draft of the truth, and then as gay. Wesleyan held workshops then that every student had to attend in their first year, in which you role-played being gay and coming out for one hour, a practice that allowed those of us who were queer to experience telling the truth in a confidential setting, and allowed those who were not to understand something of the pressure of saying those words. By my senior year, I was leading these workshops. I knew enough of my history that when I organized the campus Pride celebration that year, and designed the T-shirt, it had an eye drawn with an upside-down pink triangle in it, hand-lettered by me and silk-screened in my basement—the triangle was the symbol the Nazis had placed on gay prisoners at concentration camps, re-appropriated by ACT UP.

I was, in other words, an activist like many of my generation of queer youth, educated at a liberal arts college, and terrified by both the AIDS crisis and the country’s reaction to it. I even had a gay mentor, an out gay professor who was working to create a queer studies program on campus. And yet I couldn’t tell you when I first heard the words “Stonewall Inn.” I just remember thinking it sounded like a place I could go to get chowder with my mom near my campus in Connecticut.

There is no license to be queer, as my friends and I used to say, no exam to pass. That is both a weakness and a strength of this identity, and it has always been this way. In 1989, I was someone who had come as close as you can to getting such a card, and if you had asked me then about the cause of the riots, much less why Pride was in June, I don’t think I could have told you, but I could have educated you on the current safe-sex protocols and infection rates for HIV, and, depending on when you knew me, I may even have done so. I thought the story of Stonewall did not have much to offer me, back then. The legend was that the riots of 1969 had inaugurated an era of gay liberation, of freedom to love, and yet as far as I could see, 20 years later, they had become the start of a global Pride industry apparently dominated by white gay men, selling an idea of desire—a young muscular white man, smiling and dancing without a care in the world. This seemed a contemptible goal then, and I didn’t understand it as a political aim.”

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