Preserving the Stonewall Legacy

Eighteen years ago, only four years after my miraculous recovery from Stage IV AIDS, I was living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I worked as an activist and community organizer. Those of us who had barely survived AIDS because of the eleventh hour release of effective anti-retroviral drugs were only then beginning to internalize the possibility that we might actually anticipate a future. 

From my point of view, queer communities, queerness itself, seemed to be at a crossroads, not unlike the crossroads that had seen an eruption of militant queer resistance to police harassment forty years earlier at places like Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles (1959), Compton Cafeteria in San Francisco (1966 ), and the Stonewall Inn in New York (1969), to name only the most celebrated of these uprisings.

When I was invited to address the Stonewall Rally and Candlelight Vigil at Esplanade Park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I attempted to capture my sense of that moment in our history, echoing as it did the uprisings of our past. In this age of renewed resistance, perhaps it resonates still.                                      

16 June 2018

 

Remarks to the Stonewall Rally and Candlelight Vigil

by Greg Scott

Esplanade Park, Fort Lauderdale

28 June 2000

I know everyone has already heard a lot about Stonewall this month. Some of us have learned of it for the first time. Others of us perhaps refined our understanding of it during these June celebrations. And, the few among us who were actually there on that summer night thirty one years ago have spent the last few weeks sharing their memories with the rest of us.

I was only six years old when the drag queens and dykes at the Stonewall Inn took their historic stand, so I can’t even tell you I remember reading about it in the news. And I certainly have no first hand account to share.

Still, I came of age under the influence of its legacy, as a generation of young queers reclaimed the Stonewall heritage in the face of AIDS. “Silence equals death!” we proclaimed to the world as we took back the streets under the banner of ACT UP. “Stonewall was a riot!” we reminded our elders as we lined the barricades under the banner of Queer Nation. We understood, as many had then forgotten, that the legacy of Stonewall was not about orderly June parades with permits from the city, not about proud event organizers with fundraising plans, not about the marketing opportunities for local businesses, not even about the exposure opportunities for community non-profits, and certainly NOT about the quiet cooperation of polite homosexuals. No. The Stonewall legacy is about the very antithesis of all of this. The Stonewall legacy is about queers at their most desperate moment — that moment when we can’t take it any more — that moment when we must overcome our greatest fears in order to SURVIVE.

Almost ten years after the Stonewall rebellion — May 1979. Lesbians and gay men of San Francisco fill the streets to protest the verdict in the trial of Harvey Milk’s assassin. That was a Stonewall moment.

Then some twenty years after the Stonewall rebellion — December 1989. AIDS activists in New York storm St. Patrick’s cathedral to protest John Cardinal O’Connor’s continued interference in the city’s HIV prevention efforts. That was a Stonewall moment.

These are the moments on which history often seems to turn, and we are right to remember them solemnly. These are the moments that show us the way in our darkest hours, and we are right to commemorate them honestly. These are the moments that are replayed every month of every year all over America — when a gay kid stands up to a playground bully, a “pink panther” vigilante intercepts a fag basher, or a lesbian employee sues for fair treatment.

We enjoy a proud and powerful history.  And Stonewall is a symbol that resonates with both that pride and power. When we are threatened because of who we are, it serves us well. It serves us well when we must fight

But a symbol like Stonewall has its price. Symbolism, after all, can obscure the harsh realities of our history, allowing us to forget the raw truths of broken skulls and spilled blood. And just as it can help us understand our history, a powerful symbol can also limit our view of that history, allowing us to package our past neatly and brand it all with one sanitized logo.

That’s why, in commemorating Stonewall, we must consider the whole of our history, lest we misunderstand the turning point that was that Stonewall moment. From the ancients whose love of beauty gently rocked the cradle of Western Civilization to raucous Forty-niners who used handkerchiefs to signal who would lead and who would follow at their all-male dances, we must forget none who came before Stonewall. From martyrs like Harvey Milk, Allen Schindler, and Matthew Shepherd, to organizers like Steve Endean, Larry Kramer and Alan Schubert we must forget none who came after Stonewall.

We must not forget heroes like Jose Sarria, the drag queen whose Sunday afternoon performances drew unprecedented crowds to the Black Cat Bar on San Francisco’s North Beach in the late 1940’s—Jose Sarria the activist who popularized the battle cries, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay. The crime is getting caught.” and “United we stand. Divided they catch us one by one.” In those days of oppressive police harassment, men routinely pled guilty to anything the police charged, in the vain hope of protecting their anonymity. Jose urged Black Cat patrons to instead ask for trial by jury, a radical idea that would require coming out publicly. And for years, he closed every night at the Black Cat by gathering the clientele into a circle to hold hands and sing “God Save the Queens.” Like a pregnant mother soothing her yet born baby, Jose Sarria nursed our gay pride in its womb. When the ABC tried to close down the Black Cat in 1948, Jose rallied support for the bar’s defense and the case ultimately led to a California Supreme Court ruling affirming the right of homosexuals to peacefully assemble. That was twenty-one years before Stonewall, yet, the rebellion had already begun. Abandoning his gowns and pumps in 1961 he became the first openly gay American to run for elected office, garnering 7000 votes in a San Francisco commissioner’s race that astonished the pundits.

He was not at Stonewall. But without him, could Stonewall have ever happened?

To commemorate Stonewall honestly, we must not forget our Jose Sarrias.

The legacy of Stonewall transcends any one month of the year. It surpasses the contributions of a single crowd in a single city in a single night. And we should rightly commemorate it all year long – not just with rallies and parades and festivals and  fundraisers – but in the way we live our lives.

How do we do that? How does the legacy of Stonewall affect our day-to-day lives? The legacy of Stonewall to the modern gay liberation movement is the imperative to stand up for our rights, to never back down. But what does it mean to each of us?

The original Stonewallers overcame fear because their survival hung in the balance, the survival not only of an emerging gay culture, but of each individual’s sense of self worth. More than just “coming out” as lesbian or gay, taking such a stand requires that we never cower from the truth of ourselves. Indeed the heroism of Stonewall demanded a love of self that defied heterosexist indoctrination and overcame personal insecurities, a love of self that – while perhaps not shameless – could never again be shamed into silence.

When AIDS struck our community in the eighties, many feared that our progress since Stonewall would somehow be erased or even reversed – that we would retreat from the barricades, return to the solitude of our closets, fade again into silent acquiescence. Instead, the horror of AIDS revealed us as never before — noisy and brash and right in America’s living room. With its celebrity secrets and Rock Hudson revelations, the AIDS epidemic affirmed that “coming out” was our only practical option – our only moral choice.  As surely as they forged a new expectation of queer compassion, AIDS’ tell-tale lesions and inevitable wasting steeled our emerging sense of queer integrity.

But the same queers who would no longer accept the closet readily conceded to another deception, and even now – a generation since Stonewall and decades since AIDS earned its name — some among us would still risk our lives rather than admit we might have HIV. Can we imagine a sadder betrayal of the Stonewall legacy?

The tragedy of an Olympic diver who conceals his HIV status from emergency medical personnel can be dismissed as selfishness. The rumors of a local candidate weighing the political consequences of HIV disclosure can be set aside as ambition. At least they cared enough for themselves to acknowledge the risk, submit to the test, and progress beyond head-in-the-sand denial. At some level, at least, they have accepted the reality of who they are – individuals who might have contracted HIV – and loved themselves enough to find out.

But what of those who – by doing nothing – surrender to the hate mongers who say AIDS is our just reward? What of those who deny their own infection to the grave? Should we honor the sexually active man who refuses to get tested until he falls ill? Should we lionize the drag queen who so fears the truth that she doesn’t seek treatment until it’s too late? Should we make role models of humanitarians who raise money for AIDS services but who are too ashamed of HIV to access those services themselves?

We live among heroes. Today, right here in Broward County, brave men and women struggle to accept their HIV diagnosis, struggle to survive in spite of it. They rearrange their lives, overcome financial hardships, choke down pills, and fight for services. Among such heroes, how do we justify emulation of those who let their fears interfere with their own survival? This is not the legacy of Stonewall, and the defenders of Stonewall should reject such cowardice.

When I was very ill, and as my family and doctors attended my deathbed, I knew people who believed they remained well because they had never gotten tested. The stress of knowing, they argued, was the bane of our immune systems. To deny, they claimed, was to live. I must admit that with no therapies promising any hope to people with AIDS, I could hardly fault their escapist approach. But today – with so many therapies, so many survivors, so much hope – that escapism becomes a deadly denial. To die without ever having pursued treatment may not be wrong. Certainly, many will choose surrender over struggle – without moral pause and no matter the arsenal at hand. But to so die cannot be called virtuous in a world of champions, survivors who openly acknowledge they have AIDS, fight for love of self and life, and blaze a trail of hope for those who follow. They are the preservers of the Stonewall legacy. They stand squarely against the threat of the day as surely as those drag queens stood against the police persecution that threatened them – facing down their most profound fears to win their own survival.

What about you? Do you have the stuff to stand up and fight? Have you faced your fears of your self and come out to your co-workers, family, friends? Have you faced your fears of being less popular and refused the party drugs that now jeopardize the health of our communities? Have you faced your fears of AIDS and taken the HIV test? Have you faced your fears of rejection and disclosed your HIV positive status to your sexual partners?

These are the ways to preserve the legacy of Stonewall. These are the ways to commemorate the courage of those gone before us. Only by striving to be our own heroes do we properly remember the heroes of the past. Do not let this legacy be lost to misplaced respect for those who failed to rise to the fight. Do not squander this legacy in petty squabbles about parade dates or festival venues. June or February, your neighborhood or mine, it is not enough to celebrate Stonewall once a year anyway. We must live it, every day. Nothing was decided by Stonewall, after all. No treaty between straight and gay America ended the fighting. The struggle continues – right here – right now.  And today you must ask yourself if YOU are ready to do your part.

Keep fighting Fort Lauderdale!

Remember, Stonewall was a riot!

16 June 2018