June 28, 1994
By Richard Goldstein
YOU HAVE TO HAND IT to the homos: We know how to gather.
We traverse continents, ford oceans, and endure Greyhound cavalcades just to be with each other in undeniable numbers. Sex has little to do with it. These queer congregations are, first of all, a way to keep the bashers at bay. But there’s another reason why we flock. In a society so dedicated to our disappearance, bringing vast numbers of lesbians and gay men together reconstitutes the world, turning parade routes and rally sites, whole downtown areas, into an image of the future that no longer forces us to keep our feelings so painfully confined. That exhilaration we feel in each other’s company is the buzz of redemption. So Stonewall 25, which promises to be the biggest gay gathering ever, is not just a commemoration, not just a party, not just a demand for civil rights. It’s a healing ceremony. A queer tikkun.
But there’s a morning after. You wake up, turn on the tube, and devour the 52 seconds of coverage (followed by equal time for the tiny band of fundamentalists that always rains on our parade). Next day, you pick up the tabs, snicker at the inevitable photo of men in gowns, and go into work vowing to wear that pink triangle like a crucifix. And you do, for about two days, until the subtle distance between you and the guys at the watercooler becomes a palpable tightening of lips. You realize you can only show queer when a critical mass is achieved. Rest of the time, there are table manners to be observed, and the napkins are made of Brillo pads.
Twenty-five years of homo holidays haven’t erased the stigma that haunts us. The dominant culture continues to regard our attempts to heal the world as a threat. And our enemies prey on our visibility. The middle-class face we present enables the right to organize where it’s never been welcome before: among Hispanics and African Americans. Hate jocks mock us. Preachers imprecate us. Our legislation remains stalled, our entreaties to the military are rebuffed, our need to create a climate of tolerance in the schools is dismissed. And we are left with a sense of collective isolation that parallels the watercooler quarantine. The personal is political: For us, that axiom is a sentence carved into our backs.
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This is the paradox of Stonewall 25. At. the very moment when our pride is at its peak, our political agenda is in jeopardy. We face the gravest threat to gay rights since the election of Ronald Reagan, in the form of ballot initiatives denying us basic protections against discrimination. In Congress, the situation is no less ominous. As the right rolls over the Republican party, and Democrats scramble to hold the center, our freedom is on the line.
Our foes are as formidable today as they were on that weekend in 1969 when the fairies fought back. The gains we’ve made since then are fragile, because they aren’t backed up by constitutional guarantees. This is the major difference between other civil rights movements and our own. It makes gays vulnerable to the whims of politics. And decades of conservative dominance have produced a judiciary loath to confer “new rights,” especially on the loathed.
Some time soon, the Supreme Court is likely to take up the matter of gays in the military. At stake is the Clinton administration’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy which, in its tortuous attempt to codify discrimination, has the potential to wreak havoc on gays even outside the military. Remember that, in all but eight states, it’s perfectly legal to fire a queer. Now factor in the military’s “new” standard: There’s no problem as long as homosexuality remains invisible; it’s only when someone asserts a gay identity (by making a public declaration or expressing same-sex affection) that the apparatus of expulsion is brought into play. If the justices uphold this strategy, it may well be because they frequently allow the military to set special standards. But those standards are often the basis of civilian policy. If the gay ban stands, it could well become a model for employers worried about the public relations implications of having openly gay workers. The result: In much of America, coming out would once again become an extremely risky act.
As if that weren’t ominous enough, the Supreme Court could soon rule on the constitutionality of antigay ballot initiatives. So far, lower courts in Ohio and Colorado have kept those measures from becoming law, but this fall, voters may get to consider similar provisions in Oregon, Washington, Maine, Missouri, Nevada, Michigan, Montana, Idaho, and Arizona. These measures typically override gay rights laws, as well as forbidding public agencies, schools, universities, and libraries from “advocating” homosexuality. In effect, these laws ratify discrimination and censorship, and the fact that they usually pass by wide margins is an ominous sign of how formidable the resistance to gay rights remains.
Just this week, a Time poll found that 62 per cent of Americans favor the passage of laws to protect gays against job discrimination. Yet, when antigay initiatives are on the ballot, about the same percentage vote to keep such discrimination legal. One reason why is the right wing claim that gays are asking for “special rights.” It’s a handy smoke screen, allowing voters to evade a hostility they’re ashamed to openly admit. But in fact, most Americans are profoundly torn about gay rights. On the one hand, we are all members of a secular culture that enshrines the ideal of equality in the constitution; on the other hand, we are products of a homophobic tradition with its roots in religion. Indeed, many gay theorists would argue that this homophobic “faith” is essential to the organization of heterosexuality as we know it.
That’s essentially what the Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Hardwick decision of 1986, when a slim majority found that the constitutional right to privacy did not apply to sodomy. More precisely, the court left open the possibility that laws against oral and anal sex might be unconstitutional when applied to heterosexuals, but not when it comes to homosexual acts. The decision itself was riddled with invective rarely heard in regard to questions of personal morality. Chief Justice Warren Burger quoted English criminal statutes describing homosexuality as an offense of “deeper malignity” than rape; he cited penalties against sodomy “throughout the history of Western Civilization,” since Roman times.
The Supreme Court would never have applied such reasoning to the long tradition of anti-Semitism or the venerable structure of slavery. But gay rights is distinct from these struggles because it involves the organization of sexual identity, and that issue is ultimately more central than even racism to Western religious belief. Blacks had to deal with the Curse of Ham, and Jews had to contend with the charge of deicide. But queers are up against something even more tenacious: a relationship between the sexes that calls itself natural law.
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Given this dogma, and the willingness of secular authorities to defer to it, no wonder the Supreme Court allowed sodomy laws to remain on the books in 21 states. Though these provisions are no longer used to jail violators, they allow the state to conceive of homosexuals as members of a criminal class. On those grounds, antigay discrimination is held to be rational. What if the Supreme Court were asked to decide whether voters could ratify such discrimination? It may happen, as right wingers appeal lower-court rulings throwing out such ballot initiatives on constitutional grounds.
It is possible, of course, that the current crop of justices will affirm these lower-court rulings. Justices Souter and Ginsberg are said to look more kindly on gay rights than their predecessors did. Had these two voted on the Hardwick case, the decision might have gone differently. But even liberal jurists fall back on standing law. Having already decided that states may pass laws against homosexuality, would the court forbid voters from effectively doing the same, by nullifying laws that protect this “criminal class”? It might, but don’t bet on it.
If the court upholds some form of these initiatives, they will spread like wildfire, from region to region, effectively stopping gay rights legislation in most states. Gay studies courses at public universities might also be threatened, as would public funding for gay-themed works of art, and even gay books in public libraries. Though it seems impossible that such sweeping changes could occur in America today, laws that apply only to state institutions can easily exert a chilling effect. Even the explosion of interest in queer culture could be stifled if the right wing, fueled by the success of ballot initiatives, makes it risky to produce gay films and plays, advertise in gay-friendly publications, or sponsor TV shows with gay characters.
This retrenchment is already evident in the medium most vulnerable to backlash: public television. Fundamentalist objections to the airing of Tales of the City, a gay-friendly adaptation of the book by Armistead Maupin, led PBS to back away from sponsoring a sequel. Just last week, my colleague Ellen Cohn reports, the local PBS affiliate, WNET, decided it would be wrong to mention the word pride in ads for its gay-oriented programming. Pride connotes promotion, something WNET cannot countenance, even as it pitches product to a gay audience.
American culture is a sturdy beast, but never underestimate the power of politics to tame it. Queers are always poised upon the slippery slope to oblivion. When it comes to representing our relationships, regulating our discourse, and repressing our expressions of affection, we are all vulnerable to the Clintonism “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
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It must seem to our enemies that gay rights is sweeping the land, but in fact, our victories so far have been provisional. Gay rights laws can and have been repealed; bold initiatives, like the original Clinton plan to end discrimination in the military, can and have been overturned. Our history in the West has been written in fits and starts. The Weimar years, perhaps the golden age of gay culture in modern Europe, were followed by the holocaust. The Russian revolution, which did away with laws against homosexuality, was followed by Stalinism, which made them more severe.
Looking further back, one discovers periods when homosexuality was tacitly tolerated in Europe and times when it was brutally suppressed. The scholar John Boswell has unearthed dozens of same-sex union ceremonies, dating from the 8th to the 16th centuries, when they were endorsed by the same church that now opposes gay relationships. My point is that sexual identities are fixed neither within the individual nor in history. The fascination and denial, empathy and revulsion, with which the world regards homosexuality may correspond to some internal process of personality formation, or it may relate to larger historical currents that shape human sexuality. In any event, this ambivalent embrace means that gay people can never count on being safe. The cultures we create are always in danger of being obliterated.
Consider New York during the Jazz Age, when, according to historian George Chauncey, an elaborate and highly public gay milieu was part of the city’s life. It came complete with bars, bathhouses, and drag balls. It was openly represented in the theater and widely covered in the press. How could it all have disappeared? Chauncey’s book, Gay New York, reveals that a series of laws passed during the Great Depression made it illegal to represent homosexuality, to operate an establishment that catered to queers, or even to serve them drinks. It was this legal structure that drove gay culture underground, where it remained (in the clutches of the Mafia) until Stonewall. Are we so certain of our place in the present that we cannot imagine such a thing happening again?
Even as we convene for the greatest gay show on earth, the right wing has taken over the Republican party in Texas and Virginia. Nothing new here, except the possibility that the Democrats, uncertain about how to keep the right in check, will throw us to the holies as a bone. If that becomes the strategy of the midterm elections, moderates who support us more from convenience than commitment could defect. It would take only a few purges of gay-friendly incumbents (such as Virginia senator Charles Robb) to assure a deafening silence in the halls of Congress, not to mention most statehouses. If the Republicans win control of the Senate and continue to rack up victories in the cities, we could wind up cast as the wicked witch of American politics, writhing as our power (which was really never that great) melts away.
Not in New York, you might think; it can’t happen here. But, to some extent, it already is. Faring badly in a poll against Republican candidate George Pataki, Governor Cuomo has begun to waffle on the bias-crimes bill, a controversial measure largely because it includes homosexuals. At a press conference last week, Cuomo shocked gay activists by predicting the bill would die in the Republican-dominated state senate, effectively sealing its fate.
Meanwhile, Mayor Giuliani walks the line between welcoming the Gay Games to his town and welcoming homophobes to his administration (as long as their hate is a tenet of faith). Progressives who would court the constituency that elected Giuliani are tempted to follow his lead. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, a supporter of gay rights, has been rubbing elbows with some notable homophobes since he decided to run for state attorney general. In a recent column in the Jewish Press, Hynes described the anti-bias bill as protecting people against crimes directed at their “race, creed, national origin, sex, disability, or age, etc.” Queers are the etcetera that dare not speak its name.
As Americans, gays proclaim that we alone create our destiny. We convince ourselves that, simply by coming together and making a joyful (or angry) sound, we can will society to make a place for us, on our terms. But freedom is never simply the result of individual agency. The Stonewall riot was a significant event because society as a whole was ready for the change those queens ushered in. It takes no credit away from them to say that they were a product of their time, nor does it cast blame on today’s out-and-proud legions to suggest that all our passion and pride may not be enough to stem the conservative tide.
Even as we march and celebrate, we need to assess the shifting political winds. If the right-wing resurgence goes unchecked, new laws may be passed against which not even Roseanne can protect us. We need to imagine what life would be like under novel forms of repression, designed to jam us back into the closet. We need to hear that slamming door, if only to wedge it open.
But pessimism is not my purpose, and nothing I’ve described is inevitable. The premise of democracy is that ordinary people, acting together, can shape politics. That concept applies with special urgency to queers. The denizens of Jazz Age gaydom never took to the streets when laws were passed transforming them into second-class citizens, and the result was 40 years of silence. But the denizens of Stonewall did, and the result was freedom.
How we act in the face of the present danger will be a crucial component of our own future, as it has been throughout the AIDS crisis, when solidarity and resistance kept the worst instincts of a polarized society at bay. But in a sense, civil rights is a more difficult struggle than the fight against a deadly disease, because it entails nothing less than the renegotiation of power and privilege. Dominance, after all, is what hides behind the mask of social necessity. And the preservation of dominance (racial, sexual, global) is precisely what gives the right such power in our time. These are the storm troopers of the order.
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BUT WHAT ABOUT our own right wing: that cadre of queer conservatives, so refreshing on Charlie Rose. What Larry Kramer was to the ’80s, Andrew Sullivan is to the ’90s. This openly gay editor of The New Republic is not only thoughtful and sincere, he’s effective enough to be attacked by bigots, attractive enough to appear in a Gap ad, and possibly the most influential gay intellectual in America. He’s written briefs on behalf of gay marriage, but he’s against Roe v.Wade. That distinction is not incidental to the politics of gayocons.
But hold on — how can there be a gay right? The answer is, how can there not be after a generation of conservative hegemony? Of course, most gayocons would prefer to be called libertarians. Their politics resemble those of William Weld, the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Weld is not averse to cutting services to the poor, but he’s all for gay rights. So is Marvin Liebman, though that didn’t stop him from being a Friend of Bill (Buckley, that is), a confidant of Ron and Nancy, or a closet-mate of Roy Cohn. As penance for his attraction to Very Important Homophobes, Liebman is currently campaigning for gay rights within the Republican party. That, and only that, is what separates him from other conservatives.
Nor do the progressive social impulses of gayocons usually extend to matters of race. Nearly all the members of this fraternity are white. And male. They act like it. New York Native columnist Stephen H. Miller monitors “male bashing” by the women’s movement, and regularly rails against the “feminist-directed ‘lesbigay’ amalgamation” of gay life. He’s every bit as bitchy as Howard Stern when it comes to identity politics, but every bit as fervent as Tony Kushner when it comes to gay rights — and every bit as out.
Is there a contradiction here? Yes and no. Visibility may seem like the signature of gay liberation, but it’s merely a product of the larger social critique that emerged from Stonewall. Who better than drag queens (many of them black) to enlighten us about the hierarchies of race, class, and sex? The gay right removes homophobia from this radical analysis. Theirs is a movement to sever our movement from liberation ideology.
Take Bruce Bawer, whose book, A Place at the Table, is the volume of choice for straights who sympathize with gay rights but not gay rites. Bawer’s thesis is that reconciliation between homosexuals and society is possible, if only queers would act like they belong. Part of doing that, Bawer insists, is abandoning the gay movement’s affection for the politics of alienation. In shuffling off that coil, he argues, the conventionality of most gays would become evident. And seeing these shining happy faces, America would open its ample arms.
What follows is a Family Channel version of the story of the Prodigal Son, complete with marriage, migration to the suburbs, and a two-car, two-dog family. It’s a tempting fantasy, at least for well-off white males. And it may be that, in America today, class is a more significant marker of social status than sexuality. But it also may be that, as the Jews of Europe learned, when a vehement right-wing movement succeeds in mobilizing society against those it deems deviant, there is no safety in the camouflage of convention.
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There are several reasons why our movement is situated on the left. For one thing, gay liberation, like feminism, has been part of democratic socialism since the 19th century. For another, gays and progs share a sense of standing apart from the dominant culture. Yet, what ultimately ties us to the left is our ethic of individualism. For conservatives, selfhood is the mark of an elite; those who have it show it, by rising to the top. But for progs, individuality is everywhere. It’s the arbiter of knowledge, the seat of identity, and— as Walt Whitman proclaims — the ecstatic engine of democracy.
Of course, there’s another tradition on the left, the Marxist-Leninist one, which regards individualism as a contemptible bourgeois tendency. Marx himself was a homophobe (not above distinguishing between “men of the front and men of the rear” when referring to himself and his rivals on the democratic left), as is Castro. Mao suppressed homosexuality when he came to power, unleashing what is thought to be one of the century’s most brutal antigay pogroms in Shanghai.
Though overt opposition to gay rights has all but disappeared from progressive discourse, it persists in a tendency among leftists to regard all claims of oppression as suspect unless they are grounded in race or class. This assumption accounts for the failure of the left to address homophobia — as well as sexism — in black arid working-class cultures. It surfaced during the debate over the Rainbow Curriculum, when many progs fell silent rather than offend minority parents enraged that their children were being taught to respect homosexuals.
The ideology of class struggle allows leftists to deny their own homophobia. But that’s just part of the puritanism gay liberation struggles against and, as anyone who’s been thrown out of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival can attest, it’s hardly limited to straights. Nor is puritanism anywhere near as prevalent on the left as on the right, where the individual is only to be trusted when tightly bound by family and faith. This is the signal irony in gay conservatism. Their lust for acceptance leads these homo-normalists to valorize a system whose very rigidities deny us a place at the table, unless we cease to be ourselves.
The biggest blunder of gay conservatives is to ignore the most important alliance gay people can make. That is the bond between queers and feminists. It’s no surprise that the gay right overlooks this possibility. Their frat is not just male, but masculinist. Though they’d never be caught in leather, gayocons worship the sexual hierarchy that affirms male power. That’s the real difference between gays of the left and right. Radical queers struggle against sexism; theirs is a movement in which women and men tangle, for better or worse. On the gay right, such rituals of parity are ridiculed as politically correct. This jargon, appropriated from male chauvinists, is revealing. It suggests that the appeal of the right to some gay men may stem not just from class and race, but from a profound attraction to masculine authority.
It’s not necessary to eroticize men in order to worship their power. The same enchantment can apply to heterosexuals. It is the primal meaning of Rudy Giuliani’s observation that deference to authority is the essence of freedom. But for gay people, whose desires are straight men’s epithets, there is a special danger in building a politics on the yearning for male dominance.
This veneration of male authority has always existed in gay culture, along with its androgynous obverse, and it has always stood in counterpoint to our openness to feminism. In Weimar Germany, the issue of male supremacy caused a split in the fledgling gay rights movement, which came to a head when the Nazis first appeared. Some gay publications featured square-jawed Horst Wessel types on their covers. In these circles, feminism was blamed for the decline of great societies. It’s important to revisit this moment in light of the present danger. We will need to choose our friends carefully, examining our impulses lest they lead us astray. The worship of male power is a dead end for queers, as gay Germans who pursued that fantasy learned when they joined the Nazi movement. They achieved a place at the table — until the night of the long knives.
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There is an alternative to promoting male power. There is a politics founded on the enduring bond between women and queers. And this alliance, forged in the similarities between sexism and homophobia, and validated by a shared respect for the individual, has the potential to see us through the coming crisis of gay rights.
What is homophobia? As its victims, we ask this question with a special urgency, but our answers don’t always point to root causes. We blame our parents, teachers, preachers, politicians, and celebrities. We direct our demands to institutions — to churches and schools, the military and the movies — as if they represent discreet realms of social reality. We are eager to blame the hate that deranges us on Amerikkka, or the Judea-Christian tradition, as if, in some other civilization, some other era, there’s a place for us. But, Stephen Sondheim’s lyric notwithstanding, there is no society — Hellenic or Amazonian — where gay men and lesbians, as we currently conceive of ourselves, are freer or safer. There is no place for us except the one we create today.
What if homophobia is not simply an artifact of culture and religion, but a central component in heterosexuality? The question immediately begs to be expanded: What if hatred of homosexuals springs from fear of femininity, and both come with the development of masculinity? What if rejecting the female within — which is also to say, the homosexual — makes straight men what they are today?
There is plenty of evidence to support this claim. You don’t have to be a Freudian to understand why a sitcom audience roars with laughter at the macho hero who enters a gay bar by mistake. You don’t have to be a follower of Robert Bly to understand why this hero struggles to smile politely while lunging for the door. The comedy here is in his attempt to be civilized amid the instinct to flee, and you don’t have to be an activist to grasp why this conflict leads to murderous rage.
Surely there are straight men who consort with the female within. And straight men who don’t fear homosexuals, because they feel comfortable with their own homoerotic fantasies. My hunch is that such men make the best lovers of women. But they rarely rise in male societies, and they don’t dominate the culture. Those who do emerge, as warriors, leaders, heroes, and even mystics, are nearly always the other kind of male, whose butch demeanor is the product of an endless struggle against femininity, and whose hatred of homosexuals is an emblem of that psychic split.
Think of the rappers who advertise their hatred of “faggots, they living in the Village like meat on maggots.” Think of Howard Stern, Eddie Murphy, that bad-assed “Diceman,” the insouciant Axl Rose, the rude-boys of reggae, those devilish Dire Straits. The rise of an overtly homophobic and sexist pop culture is part of the perception that women and queers are not just gaining power, but battering down the iron doors of the male psyche. It may well be that many men are learning to enjoy an imagination that can encompass the femme and the queer, but in the heroic contours of their culture, those boundaries must be heavily policed. Think of the number of male heroes who have expressed their empathy for homosexuals. Now think of the number of female heroes who have. There’s no male Madonna. See what I mean?
Homophobia would not be so dangerous if it were simply a product of straight male identity. The rest of us could simply stay out of the way. But the problem is that these men make the laws, they run religion, they direct media empires, and until recently, they determined how society should be organized.
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Consider the closet. Where did the idea that queers are tolerable as long as they’re invisible come from? Odd how it corresponds to the strategies of denial heterosexual men use to regulate their homosexual impulses. For queers, the closet is a chamber of horrors, but for most straights, it’s a gallery of shadows, intriguing as long as it’s shrouded in secrecy and contempt. Imagine what happens when one of these “closet cases” spots a flaunting faggot, a preening pansy, a strutting fudgepacker? He’s put up against the return of the repressed.
The closet was at the heart of resistance to gays in the military. The shower-room fantasy was more than these fighting men could bear. But if their fear was being subjected to the gaze of other men (and thereby transformed into “women”), how would the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prevent that? Obviously, privacy wasn’t the point. The resolution, hammered out by an all-male committee of senators, was designed to preserve the integrity of the straight male libido, by acknowledging the possibility of homosexuality but not the reality. That same strategy informs the new antigay initiatives, which is why they have been so wildly successful. These laws deny protection for the open expression of a gay identity. You can be fired when you come out. There is no way that sort of discrimination can seem rational unless you consider the real intention: to restore the closet. That is, to make the world reflect the minds of straight men.
It’s significant that few women in the military expressed qualms about sharing the shower room with lesbians. Polls of the civilian population showed a similar split: Most women favored gays in ,the military, while most men opposed it. Women have their own closet, and many cling to it as a mark of their receptiveness to men, but they do not require homophobia in order to maintain their female identity. That doesn’t mean there aren’t homophobic women, but it does mean that gays are more likely to bond with women than with straight men.
A line of greeting cards meant to be sent by heterosexuals to their gay friends is being test-marketed in the Midwest. There are cards from parents to their gay sons, from siblings to their lesbian sisters, from straight women to their homosexual friends. But a straight man looking to send a card to a queer buddy won’t find any. The manufacturer is convinced there’s no market for that sentiment.
It won’t be easy to convince gay men to open their hearts to feminism, any more than it’s been easy to convince straight men of that. And queers may not be entirely welcome in a women’s movement that has its own anxieties about what Betty Friedan once called “the lavender menace.” Puritanism has its feminist version, as is evident in the crusade against pornography. But what holds this authoritarian impulse in check is the gut instinct that freedom is inexorably bound up with choice. Like gay liberation, feminism is a movement that honors the individual. It struggles for selfhood and against the sexual order.
There are important lessons here for gay politics, especially as we face an enemy whose appeal is based on the preservation of male dominance. Our struggle must be not to build a queer nation, but a world where both sexes have an equal impact on the formation of values. Such a culture would produce ceremonies and laws very different from the ones we have today. It would not produce fewer heterosexuals, but it would mean fewer homophobes. And it just might liberate queers.
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I glimpsed this future, ironically enough, at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1991, when we marched past 2 million bottle-throwing, curse-hurling, God-fearing folks. It was a spectacle of hate the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the early days of the civil rights movement, as David Dinkins would later observe. But there was something else going on in that parade, something the media missed, possibly because you had to be queer to notice it.
Every few blocks, we’d pass a contingent of Catholic school girls. Their response was very different from that of their elder brothers. They leapt and shrieked, their faces filled with joy barely held in check. Why joy, I wondered? What was it about flaunting fairies that brought out the ecstasy in these girls? It set me thinking of a line from an old blues song, and I sang it to myself as I marched through that mob: “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.”
There’s something in that lyric about the persistence of individuality in those too young to have mastered the rules of male supremacy. And those too queer. Stonewall, that emblematic moment in the struggle against unjust authority, was also an invitation to find the joy in selfhood. Let Stonewall 25 be a testament to this power. Let it be a fierce party, a clamorous protest, and a vast singing of the body electric. Let freedom ring! ■
Research: Michael Miller