June 28, 2013, commemorates the 44th anniversary of The Stonewall Riots in New York City, where for three days and nights in 1969, over 400 gay people stood together for the first time in history to defy police abuse – finally telling the world that they would no longer passively endure being persecuted for simply being who they are. One eyewitness was Larry Boxx, owner of The Stonewall Inn. His Stonewall Remembered can be read at:
In some great cosmic coincidence, only the day before, thousands of Judy Garland fans “…arrived before dawn at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home and stood for hours behind police barricades – thousands of elderly women, weeping young men, teen-aged girls, housewives, nuns, priests, beggars, cripples, and hippies. They packed 81st Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, streaming into the funeral home to gaze at the glass-enclosed coffin containing the body of the 47-year-old singer who, in death as well as in life, stirred emotions in her fans. They wept.”
While The Stonewall Riots are now generally recognized by the gay community worldwide as the birth of the modern lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights movement, until somewhat recently one rarely saw anything about this significant political event mentioned in school or library history books. Similarly, one can find little about the well-documented fact that, along with an estimated six million Jews, tens of thousands of gay men in the German concentration camps were literally worked to death constructing the autobahn’s stone quarry work by hand.
“What car driver today, hurtling along the German motorways, knows that each block of granite has the blood of innocent men on it? Men who did nothing wrong, but who were hounded to death in concentration camps solely for the reason of their religion, their origin, their political views, or their feeling for their own sex. Each of the granite pillars that holds up the motorway bridges cost the lives of untold victims – a sea of blood and a mountain of human corpses. Today people are only too willing to throw a cloak of silence and forgetfulness over all of these things.” – Heniz Heger, The Men With The Pink Triangle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_triangle
Only a few years ago, there was great opposition to an attempt to erect a memorial at Dachau to the gays who were murdered there. Some, it would seem, choose to keep the holocaust “pure” – perhaps having very ironically forgotten where this mindset can lead.
The interesting, relevant, and very significant roles of LGBTs in history has been maliciously concealed between the lines of a predominately white, heterosexual male version of history. Far better now, of course, but in 1969, there were very few visible contemporary or historic positive role models, and young LGBTs could not easily learn that people can be gay and still find success and happiness.
Decades later, the numbers remain grim. According to a recent Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. In addition, the San Francisco State University Chavez Center Institute has found that LGBTQ youth who come from a rejecting family are up to nine times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. The statistics for young gays on drugs and alcohol dependency and premature death are equally grim. One out of every three gay persons is on the chemical dependency list – an estimated seven million people in the United States!
Unfortunately, to many, gays remain an enigma, and how gays are actually perceived by the conservative general public one might only imagine – given the long stereotypical depiction in the American film and video industries. While there is not the space here to attempt explanation to the non-gay world of “what gay is about,” I can offer this clue: in his book, “Lesbians & Gays Who Enriched the World,” writer Thomas Cowan observed, “Because gay people stand between two worlds as it were – the worlds of men and women, the worlds of the traditional and non-traditional – they have served historically as bridgers and mediators. Living between two worlds requires imagination and a sense of make-believe which has always been the survival strategy for gay people. Having learned how to use make-believe in childhood and adolescence, either pretending an interest in the opposite sex or pretending not to be interested in ones own, gay people often retain a strong sense of make-believe in their adult lives. They also often retain the youthful spirit in which that sense of make believe can flourish.”
Social and political changes evolve slowly, and so to fully appreciate where the LGBTQ community is now, one must have some understanding of where it has been. Circumstances have most definitely been worse. Had AIDS struck twenty years earlier, many of gays would have been tattooed with a number and locked up, and the ability to sustain the enormous and costly battle in those early years against AIDS is proof that society has become more politically sophisticated.
During one of his early tirades against federal funding for AIDS research, the infamous right-wing Republican zealot, the late Senator Jesse Helms, noted, “The well-oiled political AIDS machine has changed the way the Federal Drug Administration conducts their business.” Yes, that was certainly done by calling attention to the US’ disgraceful national healthcare “system” and the Federal Drug Administration’s archaic drug approval procedures. Still efforts no-doubt saved the lives of millions – gay and non-gay alike.
The informed know that the AIDS epidemic is the furthest advanced in heterosexual Africa, and because of the conservative agenda of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the disease was allowed to infect millions of America’s citizens before anything significant was done. After all, AIDS was “only killing faggots.” This writer is here to remind this conservative mindset that “we told you so.”
Yes, the LGBT community has indeed learned how to access and motivate the system. The community had to quickly learn how to organize, communicate, to move quickly in league, and to work together. Thanks to people like Dr. Mathilde Krim and the late Elizabeth Taylor (AMFAR), the LGBT community continues to raise more money for AIDS than might have ever been imagined – and the community learned to understand and care more about each other in the process.
All of this had to learned very quickly, because friends, brothers and sisters were dying, and gays were being violently attacked in the streets. There are those who would still indeed see gays behind fences or in their version of hell. Despite AIDS, the LGBT community has continued to fight for social equality and for recognition about the many positive contributions that LGBTs have made throughout history to the defense of its country, and indeed continues to make; this, of particular importance to those who live in Hawai’i with its high concentration of military.
LGBTs continue to contribute to local political change on other relevant issues. This community is concerned about inefficient unresponsive government bureaucracies, corrupt elected officials, unfettered corporate influence, homelessness and poverty, and in Hawai’i, LGBTs are appalled by the continuing destruction of the natural resources and beauty of the islands with ill-conceived, unsustainable, and uncontrolled over-development. The LGBT community knows that the missionary position is very much alive and well in Hawai’i.
Yes, the LGBT community grew stronger and wiser during the tragic years of AIDS. Patiently, gays continued to educate themselves about themselves, and they have also worked to educate the world about the positive contributions – the magic – which gay people have contributed throughout history. And so for several days in June, now around the world, gay pride is celebrated not to flaunt sexuality in public, but for those who cry alone wondering “am I the only person in the world who feels this way?” to know that they are indeed not alone.