Stonewall and the 1960 Decade

The full post of this article was originally intended for my forthcoming BIO project, an autobiography. It’s posted here for space reasons. My post was prompted by the PBS June 8 airing of their “American Experience” special “Stonewall Uprising”.  A video and transcript is available on the PBS website.

“When police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in the Greenwich Village section of New York City on June 28, 1969, the street erupted into violent protests that lasted for the next six days. The Stonewall riots, as they came to be known, marked a major turning point in the modern gay civil rights movement in the United States and around the world.” — PBS special Stonewall Uprising

As the PBS American Experience video “Stonewall Uprising” explains, there was no out in the Dark Ages of 1960’s; everyone was closeted. I had written about going to the library in junior high school and being horrified to find I could be classified as having a “mental defect – maybe even a form of psychopathy.” As the PBS special rightly pointed out, authors of such books “were not writing about people, they were writing about things.” I had no idea how bad it really was. I was in fact an American without civil rights, unprotected by the revered Constitution we all take for granted. Gay men and women were being incarcerated in institutions like Atascadero, California – “Dachau for Queers” – a forensic psychiatric prison facility with a grimly medieval reputation. There they were subjected to medical experimentation, including electrotherapy and other aversion conditioning, “pharmacological water-boarding.” Sometimes treatment included forcible sterilization or lobotomization.

My brother Nickie might likely have been wired into the early gay community in ways I was unaware of. He may well have had knowledge of special hidden dangers of being gay in the decade of the 1960’s. If that were the case, his pending visit to a family “shrink” may have represented not a glorious confrontational opportunity for a profoundly articulate thinker, but the literal beginning of the end. That would add a new level understanding to Nickie’s 1964 suicide, which I had never fully accepted as explicable.

Harassment, abuse and rights violations of the GLBT community only started to change when the NYPD decided to raid a grimy Mafia-run bar in Greenwich Village called “Stonewall.” In 1969 of course, I was still two full decades away from dealing with any part of my own issues with sexual orientation. My summer spent rooming with “Pablo” had instilled in me the fear without the awareness. I decided to add this section to my book after watching the PBS special and realizing that I, an “out” gay man in 2011, still had no idea how bad it had actually been in the 1960’s.

In the video, the words of Martha Shelley: “I don’t know if you remember the Joan Baez song, ‘It isn’t nice to block the doorway, it isn’t nice to go to jail, there’re nicer ways to do it but the nice ways always fail.'”

Or Virginia Apuzzo: “It’s very American to say, ‘This is not right.’ It’s very American to say, ‘You promised equality, you promised freedom.’ And in a sense the Stonewall riots said, ‘Get off our backs, deliver on the promise.’ So in every gay pride parade every year, Stonewall lives.”

I’d long been proud of the men and women who stood up to the politically and culturally biased NYPD at Stonewall. Misuse of law enforcement personnel as “morality police” has long been a cherished part of our American tradition of legally enforceable prejudice and persecution. We are closer to Iran’s secret Savak who enforce Sharia – religious law – than we feel comfortable believing. Watching the PBS presentation reminded me how very American the Stonewall protestors were, and how proud we should be of their brave contribution to the Civil Rights initiative.

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The Last Visit

a morality play with beer and a lie

Whatever happened to you? I remember our last visit well. In fact, I never forgot it. Would our friendship have turned out any differently if I had told the truth?

I was just reading an early Stegner short story, “The Glass Mountain”. This is about two college chums who got together for a short visit after seventeen years. One of them was a successful scientist or academic of some sort. The other was a lush, already slurring his words and repeating himself. The visit was awkward, and nothing that needed to be said really got said, and their reunion was mercifully brief.

I remembered that you called in about 1976 to say you were in the area. Did I have time? Well, sure. How long had it been, five years? Certainly not seventeen, thank goodness – I was still not making new friendships or reviving old ones, even by 1988. I don’t remember exactly what seemed so likeable about that person you visited in 1976, and I don’t miss him any more than you do.

When you called on that Saturday morning I was badly hung over – and when was I not? But what could I say? You were over in an hour. It certainly was good to see my old best friend and college chum again, but I repeat myself. What could I say? My life – my island universe as it was then – was all caught up in flying lessons, density altitudes, retail management, beer, scotch, wine, grass, fast motorcycles and braggadocio, all descriptive of my exciting life, in any order you like.

And of course my world was filled with people who knew all about this and heard more every day. There was never anything to explain. There was never anyone to ask, “do you still read any philosophy” or “what did you end up doing with your business degree after you graduated?”

Until you arrived, these weren’t questions I would even entertain by myself. I was working, life was good, and it was filled with adventures and partying and the passage of time and the mandatory morning hangovers.

So I must have seemed uncomfortable while we visited. Worse, maybe I masked my discomfort too well and seemed indifferent.

I felt bad about that, but what could I do? There was hardly any point to thrilling you for hour upon beer-soaked hour with my tales of flying and backpacking and motorcycle trips. This brave new world of mine was light-years removed from anything we had shared together in the old college days. Imagine me dumb-struck, I who always had all the answers for everything, and if I didn’t, there was a reason for that too.

How could I, who never ran out of things to say about any subject no matter how narrow, find nothing I could say about this new life of mine?

You told me a bit about yourself and it embarrasses me to this day – I can’t remember a thing of it. I think you were thinking of going east. I heard later that you had done so, and settled down to raise a family in some eastern seaboard state. You said that your mom had incurable breast cancer and that saddened me. She had always treated me like a prince, as if some of my good qualities might rub off on her boys, I had always been fond of her. Seeing as how an unforgiveably mean stunt I had pulled made me persona non grata in the family, it didn’t seem appropriate to ask if I could see her – what could I say?

I asked if you’d care for a beer, and I forget whether you said “beer” or “coke”. I was relieved to be able to pop the quick first and second of the day. You asked if I was dating, a clever way of putting it, I thought, and I always had a snappy one-liner for such probings. I used it.

So then you remembered you had indeed meant to ask me something – you surprised me by mentioning that your brother thought he might be gay.

Back in college, you recalled, I had been sorting through similar feelings of my own.

Where we had mercifully left off that subject in college, I’d confided that the thing for me to do was to focus on girls, and maybe start dating.

And so, since your brother seemed to be going through the same process, what had ever become of that? Did I ever sort through my issues?

I confess it took me a minute. I looked you straight in the eye and said, “He’s just going through a phase. He’ll get over it. I did.”

Wishful thinking? If I wasn’t exactly sure this was a lie before you asked, I certainly was sure it by the time I said it.

Somehow, at that exact moment you realized it was time to leave. I grabbed another beer from the fridge and saw you off.

Although I never saw you again, I always wished you well, and was glad to hear you were doing well. We were so close in college. Maybe you knew me too well for my own good, and I, not well enough.

It would take me another thirteen years to “sort through my issues”. It’s a shame our last visit didn’t go better. But what could I – or, for that matter, anyone in my position – say? If anyone could fake it, I (who hated fakery) should have been able to. I had become the lie.

That’s just not the sort of thing you look forward sharing with people who know we deserve better.

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Coming Out – 10 Years

Archive: Coming Out – 10 Years: For the most part, I have always avoided references to my own personal experience in these pages in the past, though that is the preferred method through which gays shared issues and experiences in all the peer groups I’ve attended and facilitated. I still think a newsletter is not necessarily the proper forum for a journal of personal experiences and tribulations. On this occasion, I’d like to share an exception. It’s never been my intent to keep my own personal experience a secret. I have written frequently about national and world issues, because I am a citizen, but I especially owe the gay community a lot. I am a gay man, and part of that community, and always will be.

I think that on the tenth anniversary of my own coming-out, it is time to say something about who I am and what I’ve experienced — personally.

Alex Forbes Tuesday, December 7, 1999

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