This commentary is by Walt Amses of North Calais.
When police came down on Stonewall, a Mafia-owned Greenwich Village bar, in 1969, they didn’t roust the capos, dons, underbosses and consiglieres; they were there for the “queers,” who were for years harassed, entrapped, routinely beaten by cops and even blackmailed by the Genovese crime family, relying on a sign-in sheet promoting the bar’s faux “exclusivity,” targeting wealthy patrons who preferred keeping their sexual orientation private.
What no one realized at the time was that the evening would be different.
As recently as the mid-1960s — still an extension of the repressive 1950s rather than anything approaching revolutionary — New York City bars could face penalties, including being shut down by the State Liquor Authority, for serving alcohol to “known or suspected” homosexuals. It was considered disorderly conduct when such individuals socialized or “gathered.”
Later in the decade, when upheaval became the norm, the LGBTQ+ community refused to be left on the sidelines, bursting through the metaphorical closet door that summer night at Stonewall and never looking back.
Though the battle for gay rights was largely thought to have begun with the Village riot, it actually goes back nearly 100 years to the formation of the Society for Human Rights in Chicago, which disappeared after a very short time with the arrests of society members but set the stage for what followed. Decades later, the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Daughters of Bilitis — the first lesbian rights group in the United States — emerged in 1951 and 1955 respectively, becoming the precursors of a movement aimed at changing the world.
Some sociologists, like Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Suzanna M. Crage, believe that Stonewall was an “achievement of gay liberation rather than the cause,” pointing out that several other “riots” preceded that iconic moment but have largely faded from memory based on several factors, not the least of which is timing.
In 1969 the country was in turmoil, with young people amped up and frustrated over a multitude of divisive issues. Vietnam was raging and Nixon had begun secretly bombing Cambodia; riding the crest of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Liberation was taking hold; the National Organization of Women drew 500 feminists to New York for the “Congress to Unite Women”; and the country felt as though it was being torn apart.
Woodstock was coming but so was Altamont; we would walk on the moon while the Earth was out of control; and history notwithstanding, Stonewall launched a more militant phase of the gay rights saga that would make astonishing gains both legally and socially over the next half-century.
As we enter Pride Month, the progress made thanks to the LGBTQ+ community and allies, unthinkable 50 year ago, should certainly be celebrated with satisfaction by all Americans, especially those living in Vermont, which, despite its diminutive size, blazed a trail for the rest of the nation — beginning with the introduction of the first Civil Unions bill in 2000, extending the benefits and protections of heterosexual marriage to same-sex couples, followed up nine years later with another first, a same-sex marriage law enacted by statute rather than judicial mandate.
As dazzling as all this was, none of it came easy. Termed the “least civil debate in the state in over a century” by Gov. Howard Dean, who at times wore a bulletproof vest, according to a Vermont Public report in 2013, the anti-civil unions activists descended on the state, as did the national media. Gay men and lesbians were denounced as “abominations,” certain to experience the wrath of God. The fictitous “homosexual agenda” came under fire with warnings that civil unions would destabilize traditional marriage, allowing “outsiders” to drive the state down an “immoral path of no return.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, the tent show proselytizing, dire warnings and “threats” to traditional marriage crumble under the weight of absurdity. Thousands of gay couples have been married and gay marriage is now the law of the land, supported by over 70 percent of the country.
In short, nothing happened. But we should never forget that evangelical Christians and red-state governors thrive on absurdity and the same paranoia that fueled this debate from the beginning is being resurrected by conservative politicians either bent on authoritarian rule or with designs on the White House, often both.
While gay marriage is enshrined in federal legislation, carefully targeted, systematic discrimination, determined to marginalize the community out of existence if possible, is becoming rampant. CNN reports at least 417 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures since the beginning of the year, more than twice the number of a year ago, a record according to the ACLU.
Many are designed to isolate already vulnerable young people through the promotion of ignorance, excising any mention of gay rights from school curriculums, banning books if a single reactionary parent complains, and denying gender-affirming health care for trans youth.
While we celebrate Pride this month — and the vast distance we’ve traveled — we should remember that the bottom feeders are still out there and they’ve reissued a license to hate, with open carry for homophobia becoming dangerously routine in many areas of the country.
Glaring examples of an authoritarian future come from Texas and Florida with legislation straight off the cave wall, doing away with DEI offices at state universities, rendering diversity, equity and inclusion illegal. Let that sink in for a moment and imagine what it means for not only the LGBTQ+ community but for everyone else as well. Without diversity, equity and inclusion, will certain people and groups be considered illegal?
The Lone Star bill was sponsored by GOP state Sen. Brandon Creighton, who explained: “The days of political oaths and racial profiling in university hiring are behind us,” whatever that means. Similar legislation is being considered in several other states.
The battle to put hate back in the closet is ongoing.