Sunday, June 28, 2009

1969: The Stonewall Riots

Today, there were Gay Pride parades around the world, and it was unique because this year is the 40th anniversary of the arrests at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York. Back in 1969, it was quite common for police to raid gay bars and throw people in jail. I remember, even when I was a child, sodomy was still illegal, and the argument you heard from people when there would be gay rights marches was "Well, look, those people might have a point, but remember: they are criminals." (Actually, the Iranian government is making the same point now about their protests) Back then, there was a whole legal apparatus set up to prosecute "loitering" and other offenses that amounted to cruising for sex- much of which dates back only to the Victorian era, but which intensified after WWII in the United States- and scholars have wondered what effect the legal definition of homosexuality had on public understanding of gay lives.

Perhaps the most interesting book I've found on homosexuality was the one written by the British literary critic John Addington Symonds, who wrote in its defense trying to understand his own desires. He also wrote an essay in 1883 that ranks as one of the first English-language defenses of homosexual behavior. But his autobiographical writings on love between men, which he intended to be published years after his death, are remarkably forthright and forward-thinking for the late 1880s. His criticism and poetry is also first rate.

At any rate, the Stonewall Inn raid that took place forty years ago today was a landmark in gay history because it triggered a spontaneous riot- something that had never happened before. There were gay rights organizations, but not really activism, or even just the outpouring of anger that happened at Stonewall. It was the beginning of the marches and forthright public attempts to change consciousness about homosexuality. It's possible that the repressive apparatus of the time triggered the response, in addition to the fact that 1969 was a good year for social rebellion.

Whatever the causes, this was the beginning of four decades of gay rights marches, movies, activism, and political agitation. Ideally, it should all be over by now. Society has had enough time to get over its progressive era obsession with remaking human beings in a Victorian image. Clearly, gay prohibition worked as badly as alcohol (and drug) prohibition. So, it's fairly absurd that things like Don't Ask Don't Tell (which about 3/4ths of Americans want repealed) still exist in law. For people my age, the argument is over. Let's get over this!

At some point, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people will be legally the same as everyone else and the gay rights struggle will be completed. What will all these organizations do then? Will they exist solely to plan for a big party every year? I think that would be fine.

4 comments:

Brian Dunbar said...

So, it's fairly absurd that things like Don't Ask Don't Tell (which about 3/4ths of Americans want repealed) still exist in law.

Another blog that I read has correspondence with a serving officer who talked with some of his officers and NCOs about some of the practical problems with repealing DADT.

Anyway, once we established the constraints of the conversation (and tabled the HIV factor for a later discussion), most of the guys came up with the same concept of response that I had:

http://biglizards.net/blog/archives/2009/06/mitigating_fall.html

It is typical of me, perhaps, to tune out the big picture and get fascinated by the implementation details.

Rufus said...

I read that, thanks for sending it. It's an interesting discussion. I'm not thinking it will be easy, but enough countries have militaries that have managed at this point that there are good models for changing the policy. Canada changed it in 1992 and, so far, there have been no problems that I know of. Of course, I get the feeling that many Americans are unaware that Canada has a military. I've actually had people back home say as much to me. It's a bit annoying since young Canadian soldiers are still, you know, getting killed in Afghanistan all the time.

I do understand that people are worried about morale and unit cohesion. But, since there are gays in the military as is, doing investigations of people with a long service record and drumming them out of the military for having a Bob instead of a Betty waiting back home seems pretty bad for morale too. Especially since I don't get the idea that the military can spare too many people right now.

Honestly though, the federal laws that really need to be changed are the ones to do with immigration and travel for people with HIV. Now that doctors have basically turned HIV into a chronic ailment, instead of a terminal one, it makes no sense to say that people can't travel to or live in the US if they're HIV+. You'd think Obama would be in a hurry to get rid of a Jesse Helms law anyway.

As for marriage, I assume the states can decide that, and the best thing for the administration to do would be to establish that it's none of the federal government's business, aside from recognizing that people married in states where it's legal are indeed married. You know, as an American married to a Canadian, it's fairly easy to bring Claire over and make her an American. But, if she was a he, being married would make no difference. The laws are the product of very different, and very outdated, thinking.

But, you know, the crazy thing is that I can see all of these laws being changed in the next decade or two and everyone forgetting about them. I think the urgency people feel about the gay rights struggle is because the finish line is within sight.

Brian Dunbar said...

enough countries have militaries that have managed at this point that there are good models for changing the policy.

This is a good point. A counterpoint to this is that most of those countries have armies that are not expeditionary: that is they do not do a whole lot of wholesale deployment.

Instead they send hand-picked battalions, maybe a brigade, and certainly a lot of UN peace keepers.

I do not think this really makes a big diff - but it's worth keeping in mind that one can say that (for example) Germany has integrated gays they also don't have a lot experience to say that it works well for large formations operating at a fast tempo. Cause they haven't done much of that since 1945.


You'd think Obama would be in a hurry to get rid of a Jesse Helms law anyway.

I believe you are confusing the current occupant of the White House with a fellow of the same name who campaigned for the office of the Presidency in 2008.


I think the urgency people feel about the gay rights struggle is because the finish line is within sight.

Probably. What we really have to do is wait for 'older people' to pass on for matters like homosexuality and racism to actually change.

I'm 42 and I see a cusp line where people older than I am have real problems with race and gays .. and people younger than I am feel that it is not a big deal.

narrator said...

Brian,

I think its odd that in Afghanistan US troops work alongside Brit and Canadian troops, both of which have numerous openly gay soldiers. This experience has not convinced the US Army to seek fewer Brit or Canadian troops.

So, considering how these three armies have become "the world's expeditionary force," it seems like the US has seen this "experiment" in action, and already accepted it, de facto.

The acceptance is so high in the UK that the show "Changing Rooms" can redo the military base homes of Gay couples serving in Germany, and the London Metropolitan Police march in their Gay Pride parades.

- Ira Socol