By Tom Ehnert
I recently had the opportunity to go to Stonewall, finally. I wanted to stand in that place where our GLBT civil rights movement began; to actually be in that building. I tried to imagine being in that moment in June of 1969.
Going inside Stonewall helped me to realize what it must have been like. It’s a small, rectangular bar. At the time there was only one way out: the front door. The police raided the bar whenever the mafia, which owned Stonewall, hadn’t paid off the police lately. It was the only bar in the city where GLBT people could actually dance together. When a payoff hadn’t been made for a while, the police would remind the mafia to do so by raiding. There was no way out for the people trapped inside.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to be trapped in that bar on that warm June night. You’re having fun in the safest place, the only place, you could be yourself, be among your own people, the only place in New York City where GLBT people could actually touch in a public place. In a flash, the bright white lights are turned on to signal a raid. If you were touching someone while dancing, you dropped your hands.
Angry shouts filled the room telling you to line up with your ID. Any male in women’s clothing was always arrested. Anyone who didn’t have an ID was always arrested. Everyone was shamed. Shame was the real weapon used to keep down the GLBT community. Not just police, but pastors and parents used it too. One individual there that night said he was so afraid that his picture would be published in the paper and he’d be fired from his job on Wall Street. I’m sure there were many hearts pounding over the prospect of lost jobs, lost apartments, lost family and friends, and lost reputation. Standing in the dark of Stonewall almost 50 years later, I could just feel the fear of loss.
I tried to imagine what made that electric moment of fear flare into anger. Sure, it was a hot summer night. Sure, it was an era of all minorities rioting for long-deprived rights. Gay men could get shot in Vietnam for their country (if they lied about their orientation) and the same men could be billy-clubbed in Greenwich Village by the law of that same country. But what was it that, in that one moment, in that one place, made all these people decide that that time was one time too many? One person there said, “When did you ever see a fag fight back?” What changed that? What made them fight back?
Here’s the answer I came to for myself, and from interviews with those who were at Stonewall, it was similar for them. The moment came when I had more to gain by coming out than I had to lose. I had more hope for life lived openly, than dread of loss. Coming out later in life from a conservative background meant that I was coming out in an environment not dissimilar to the one they came out in that June night of 1969. It meant losing friends, family, employment, and home for me. But I didn’t want to lose one more moment of my life in the closet. It was time to stop fighting me. It was time to start fighting for me.
We all have our Stonewall moments. Many of us have had that one moment where we were tired of living in a closet, and it was time to face our fears and come out. Those moments come up whenever we’re in new situations and disclose yet again. We have those moments where we have more to gain by coming out than we have to lose. That we have the freedom to be ourselves is thanks to those who faced their Stonewall moment, at Stonewall, in June of 1969.
I wasn’t at Stonewall. Most of you weren’t either. Maybe no one reading this was. But in our own way, we’ve all been there. We, too, have overcome. In that, we can all have pride.