Come mothers and fathers throughout the land,
and don’t criticize if you can’t understand,
your sons and your daughters are beyond your command,
your old road is rapidly aging,
please get out of the new one if you can’t understand,
for the times they are a changin’
— Bob Dylan —
June 28, 2019, is the 50th anniversary of The Stonewall Riots in New York City, where for three days and nights in 1969, over 400 Gay people stood together for the first time in history to defy police abuse – finally telling the world that we would no longer passively endure being persecuted for simply being who we are. One eyewitness was Larry Boxx, owner of The Stonewall Inn. Read his Stonewall Remembered HERE.
In a great cosmic coincidence, Judy Garland’s funeral had taken place several blocks away from the Stonewall Bar that very morning. Garland was literally worshiped by legions of Gay men and female impersonators and one can draw their own conclusions about this coincidence and its impact on the Stonewall Riots — which began later that day.
While the Stonewall Riots are now recognized by our community worldwide as the birth of the modern Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights movement, until the 1980s one rarely saw anything about this significant political event mentioned in the mainstream media.
Nor did one ever see the well-documented fact that, along with an estimated six million Jews, an estimated 50,000 Gay men and Lesbians imprisoned in the German concentration camps simply for being Gay were literally worked to death constructing the Autobahn — with many performing stone quarry work by hand.
The yellow Star of David may be the best known of the Nazi concentration camp badges, but in reality there were over 30 triangles of various colors and designs employed to ID specific groups targeted for extermination such as political prisoners, the mentally ill, social democrats, socialists, trade unionists, Freemasons, communists, anarchists. gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, alcoholics and drug addicts, vagrants and beggars, pacifists and conscription resisters, and prostitutes. Homosexual prisoners were identified by the pink triangle.
The following quote is from Heniz Heger’s, The Men With The Pink Triangle, one of the few first-hand accounts of the treatment of homosexuals in Nazi imprisonment:
What car driver today, hurtling along the German motorways, knows that each block of granite has the blood of innocent men on it? Men who did nothing wrong, but who were hounded to death in concentration camps solely for reason of their religion, their origin, their political views or their feeling for their own sex. Each of the granite pillars that hold up the motorway bridges cost the lives of untold victims — a sea of blood and a mountain of human corpses. Today people are only too willing to throw a cloak of silence and forgetfulness over all of these things.
Surprisingly, there was great opposition to any attempt to erect a memorial at Dachau to remember the LGBTs who were murdered there. Some, it would seem, wanted to keep the holocaust “pure” — having ironically forgotten where this very mindset can lead. But after a decade of campaigning, in 1995 a pink triangle plaque was finally installed at the Dachau Memorial Museum.
The sad reality is, the many significant roles of LGBTs throughout history has been maliciously concealed between the lines of a predominately heterosexual male version of history. Far better now of course, but at the time of Stonewall in 1969, there were virtually no visible positive role models in the entire world! How could young LGBTs possibly learn that people can be Gay and indeed find success and happiness in life?
According to the most recent stats from the U.S. Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), LGBT youth are at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide, and are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. LGBT youth also have considerably higher rates of substance abuse.
Unfortunately, to many, we Gays remain an enigma and how we are actually perceived by the conservative general public one might only imagine — given the long stereotypical depiction in the American film and video industries. View the trailer for the acclaimed film of Vito Russo’s historic book, The Celluloid Closet HERE.
While it’s difficult to explain to the non-Gay world “what we are about,” I can offer this brief clue: In his book Lesbians & Gays who Enriched the world, writer Thomas Cowan observed:
Because Gay people stand between two worlds as it were — the worlds of men and women, the worlds of the traditional and non-traditional — they have served historically as bridgers and mediators. Living between two worlds requires imagination and a sense of make-believe which has always been the survival strategy for Gay people. Having learned how to use make-believe in childhood and adolescence, either pretending an interest in the opposite sex or pretending not to be interested in ones own, Gay people often retain a strong sense of make-believe in their adult lives. They also often retain the youthful spirit in which that sense of make believe can flourish.
Social and political changes evolve slowly, and so to fully appreciate where the LGBT community is now, one must have some understanding of where it has been. Our circumstances have most definitely been worse. Had AIDS struck twenty years earlier, many of us would have been tattooed with a number and locked up, and our ability to sustain the enormous and costly battle in those early years against AIDS is proof of our having become more politically sophisticated.
During one of his early tirades against federal funding for AIDS research, the infamous right-wing Republican zealot, the late Senator Jesse Helms noted. “The well oiled political AIDS machine has changed the way the Federal Drug Administration conducts their business.”
Yes, we certainly did that — and by calling attention to our disgraceful national healthcare “system,” and the Federal Drug Administration’s archaic drug approval procedures, our efforts no-doubt saved the lives of millions – Gay and non-Gay alike. One example is how quickly new breast cancer drugs are now routinely approved.
The informed know that the AIDS epidemic was the furthest advanced in heterosexual Africa, and because of the conservative agenda of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the disease was allowed to infect millions of America’s citizens before anything significant was done. After all, AIDS was “only killing faggots.”
Yes, the LGBT community had indeed learned how to access and motivate “the system.” We had to quickly learn how to organize, communicate, and to move in league. We learned to work together and thanks to our friends such as the late Dr. Mathilde Krim & Elizabeth Taylor (AMFAR), we continue to raise more money for AIDS research than we might have ever imagined — and we learned to understand, respect and care more for one another in the process.
Despite AIDS, we somehow continued our struggle for social equality, for our rightful inclusion in written history, and for the recognition of the many contributions LGBTs have made throughout history to the defense of our country — of particular importance to those of us who live in Hawai‘i with its high concentration of military. The ending of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on September 20, 2011, by the Obama administration was yet another enormous accomplishment.
Yes, we actually grew stronger and wiser during the tragic years of AIDS. Patiently, while we continue to educate ourselves about ourselves, we have also worked to educate the world about the positive contributions — the magic — which Gay people have contributed throughout history. And so for several days in June, now around the world, Gay Pride is celebrated not to flaunt our sexuality in public, but for those who cry alone wondering “am I the only person in the world who feels this way?” to know that they are indeed not alone.
Read parts of my book in progress, “A Political History of the American LGBT Movement Since 1965 HERE. This includes my years in Hawai`i since 1985.
Read the history of LGBT Pride at the US Library of Congress HERE. – Scott Foster