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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