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Stonewall Is U.S. History
Posted: 01/23/2013 6:49 pm
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” — President Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Speech, January 21, 2013
What was true four years ago is no less true today that a great new day is at hand now with the reelection of President Barack Obama. Four years ago, I felt as if we had come out of a bad dream with real hope for the first time in a very long time for genuine progressive social change.
The president confirmed this once again in his second inaugural address by placing the expansion of civil and human rights as a cornerstone of his political agenda, and by positioning lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights and history in its rightful place firmly as an integral part of U.S. history.
Some listening to his speech may not have been familiar of the name “Stonewall” — and for that matter “Seneca Falls” and even “Selma” — in any historical sense. Seneca Falls is significant because there, in upstate New York in 1848, a group of committed women and some men came together in convention for the first time to organize for women’s rights and women’s equality, including the right to vote. Participants passed their Declaration of Sentiments based on the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Selma, Alabama is particularly notable as a site of three marches in the struggle for civil rights when in 1965 activists protested the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the denial of voting rights for African American citizens, but were met with violence by state and local police officers.
There are moments in history when conditions come together to create the impetus for great social change. Many historians and activists place the beginning of the modern movement for LGBT equality at the Stonewall Inn, a small bar frequented by LGBT people, students, and others of all races located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
At approximately 1:20 on the morning of June 28, 1969, New York City police officers conducted a routine raid on the bar on the charge that the owners had been selling alcohol without a license. Feeling they had been harassed far too long, people challenged police officers on this morning lasting with varying intensity over the next five nights by flinging bottles, rocks, bricks, trash cans, and parking meters used at battering rams.
In reality, even before these historic events at the Stonewall Inn, a little-known action preceded Stonewall by nearly three years. In August 1966, at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, in what is known as the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, transgender people, sex workers, and others joined in fighting police harassment and oppression. Police, conducting one of their numerous raids, entered Compton’s and began physically harassing the clientele. People fought back by hurling coffee at the officers and heaving cups, dishes, and trays around the cafeteria. Police retreated outside as customers smashed windows. Over the course of the next night, people gathered to picket the cafeteria, which refused to allow transgender people back inside.
Out of the ashes of Compton’s Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn, people, primarily young, formed a number of groups to advance human rights for LGBT people. Unfortunately, U.S. schools do not generally include and educators do not teach the complex and important history and contributions of LGBT people.
In my position as a professor in a large Midwestern university, I teach an LGBT Studies course. A few years ago, during the first week of class as I outlined the course syllabus, in passing I used the term “Stonewall,” at which point a young man raised his hand and asked me, “What is a ‘Stonewall?'”
I explained the importance of the Stonewall Inn demonstrations, and the student thanked me. He then stated that he was a first-year college student, and although he is gay, he had never heard about Stonewall or anything else associated with LGBT history while attending high school. As he said this, I thought to myself that though we have made progress over the years, conditions remain very difficult for LGBT and questioning youth today caused in part by the fact that they are not taught their history, part of U.S.-American history, throughout their schooling.
In my own high school years during the 1960s, LGBT topics rarely surfaced, and then only in a negative context. Once my health education teacher talked about the technique of electro-shock treatment for “homosexuals” to alter their sexual desires. In senior English class, the teacher stated that “even though Andre Gide was a homosexual, he was a good author in spite of it.” These references (within the overarching Heterosexual Studies curriculum at my high school) and the utter lack of any discussions at all about the lives of transgender people, forced me to hide deeper into myself, thereby further damaging my self-esteem and identity.
I consider, therefore, the half-truths, the misinformation, the deletions, the omissions, the distortions, and the overall censorship of LGBT history, literature, and culture in the schools as a form of assault upon all students, regardless of their sexual and gender identities, and as a failure of our educational system to provide students with a multidimensional view of history and culture. When President Obama invoked the name of Stonewall before millions watching and listening throughout the planet, chills radiated down my spine, and I felt the excitement that comes with the prospect of righting a wrong.
California got it right in April 2011 when the state legislature passed, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law, SB48, the first in the nation requiring the state Board of Education and local school districts to adopt textbooks and other teaching materials in social studies courses that include the contributions of LGBT people. The law is due to be implemented during the 2013-2014 school year.
I am certain not everyone feels as excited and hopeful as I do by President Obama’s momentous speech and by the forward-thinking actions transpiring in California. While surfing the cable news channels following the inaugural address, I chanced upon an interview by Greta Van Susteren on the Fox News network of Patrick Buchanan. During the interview, Van Susteren asked Buchanan about his thoughts on the president’s speech. Though predictable, Buchanan’s response was none-the-less exasperating when he answered: “Look, they usually talk about what? When I was a kid, Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill. What was he talking about? Stonewall! That’s a barroom brawl in Greenwich Village in 1969, when the cops are hassling gays in their bar and the gays fought back and threw them all out! Does that belong in a presidential inaugural?”
Well, I would answer Buchanan and others who question the suitability of referencing LGBT-inspired events during major addresses by asserting that contrary to their apparent beliefs, some of us have a vision that one day in the not-to-distant future, LGBT people, indeed, people of all currently marginalized groups will achieve full rights and step out of the socially constructed and enforced stigma that often shrouds our lives, maybe even seeing one of us as president, openly and proudly leading our nation.
President Barack Obama during his address envisioned a journey, one which we all may travel to arrive at a better place, a journey where all women will earn equal pay for equal work, where barriers to voting will finally fall, where people from other lands hopeful to find their place among us will find welcome, where our young people will be protected from harm. He continued: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
This is part of the larger vision many of us involved in civil and human rights have and continually fight for on a daily basis.