The Stonewall Riots (over the shutdown of a gay bar in New York City), forty years ago this Sunday, marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, and the Colorado Democratic Party's gay, lesbian and transsexual interest section (like that of many Democratic Party entities with the same purpose) bears its name, the "Stonewall Democrats."
Growing up in small town Ohio in the 1970s and 1980s, even though it was a college town, this was just background noise to me. I don't remember being really aware of the gay rights movement until I went to an even smaller college town in Ohio (Oberlin) after graduating from high school and encountered people who were out as gays and lesbians for the first time (transgender was part of the acronym commonly used on campus at the time but that concept was not something I had encountered personally, or a possibility that part of my consciousness or that I understood, until later). The notion that someone might take a term like "dyke" or "fag" and embrace it, was a revelation. I knew what the terms meant literally, in high school, but not in a way that had any really context or meaning to them.
More than anything else, the gay rights movement owes its success to that same thing that opened my mind, exposure. The "present company excluded" concept is more than a rule of etiquette. Your brain simply can't help treating people you know differently. Theoretical knowledge is all fine and good, but your gut works on the particularistic experiences you've had in real life. One of the most visible early gay rights groups, ACT-UP, didn't make a lot of friends with its militant and often law breaking tactics, but it made you pay attention and acknowledge that gay rights and AIDS were serious issues at all, and just as important, that gay and lesbian people really existed, and were not just some theoretical construct invented by philosophers (well actually, some queer studies scholars still do say that gender is just a theoretical construct, but that's another story).
Still, the biggest impact didn't come from anything flashy or carefully planned. It came from ordinary but brave people living daily, ordinary lives and choosing to embrace their identity instead of hiding it, even though this involved risks of serious harm to their personal safety and reputation. I learned about what "gay" and "lesbian" meant while serving in student government doing things like brokering disputes over office space between the gay and lesbian student group, the Evangelical Christian group, the sex co-op (it provided contraception, counseling, practical sex tips and other information from a basically pro-sex perspective) and the seven Republicans on campus (some of whom I was also on a debate team and bipartisan student publication with). And then there was the drag ball, one of the highlights of the annual campus social calendar. And then there was walking across campus to dinner or a class or a dorm and seeing people of the same sex embracing like all the other lovers on campus and getting used to it (much more easily than I did to the sweet but very loud young woman in a passionate heterosexual relationship down the hall from me in my second year on campus).
At the time, in the Midwest, there weren't a lot of gay role models and there were no guarantees that there wouldn't be serious backlash. People then (and now) have been attacked, killed and ruined socially and professionally by coming out as homosexual or transgender. Many graduate school bound fellow students who were not only out, but incorporated their sexual orientation into their scholarship, had to gamble that they would be embraced rather than shunned by academics who got their PhDs when "Stonewall" was a descriptive non-proper noun and "gay" meant carefree and happy. The science bound future graduate students on campus often didn't have to be quite so obvious in their application materials, but also faced a group of prospective advisers and colleagues with a lot less predisposition to be welcoming as a matter of principle.
In the fact, most people were not punished for their openness while I was in college in our insular community, although not every place else at the time in the outside world was so welcoming. It was a good time to be out, although we didn't know that then. The safe bet at the time for those who didn't know any better was that this coming out was just a localized, temporary fad that would soon go the way of barbershop quartets, flappers, disco and bell bottom jeans.
I know that I was not so brave or self-assured at that point in my life. I spent all three of my years as a residential undergraduate living a lie (not a terribly uncomfortable one to be sure) as a parishioner of the local Episcopal Church and member of the Christ Church's quite active college student's group (even serving as a Sunday school teacher my last year there), despite having quite definitively ceased to believe in God while I was still in high school. The conclusion on religion only became only more firm as I studied church history and science in the classroom, but I wasn't about to let anyone know that in public. I could easily have simply been negligent regarding church attendance and not been noticed at all (which is what I did in law school), but I erred on the side of caution and habit and self-doubt. Maybe I'd change my mind in a different denomination than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that I grew up in (and was confirmed in while I was in high school at a time when I didn't believe). I wasn't ready to face my social fears, even after I eventually figured myself out.
The risks haven't ended. The U.S. military, even in the Obama administration, is still drumming people out of the service for their sexual orientation. Public attitudes have changed, with a lot of that change hitting the average person on the street only in the past few years as the gay marriage issue has influenced people's thinking. Laws have changed. Any backlash will have to contend with a nation of Generation X and Generation Y and Millennials for whom homosexuality isn't something to be afraid of. But, transgender acceptance is still probably at least as far from reality now than acceptance of gays and lesbians was then, and the possibility that we may be at the tolerant side of a social pendulum swing is real. In Europe, Jews sometimes lived in peace for decades in an area, only to face a pogrom that left some dead and most of the rest of the community exiled. (In 1543, Martin Luther wrote On the Jews and Their Lies, which urged people to conduct pogroms; modern Lutherans do their best to ignore these teachings, generally with great success.)
My neighborhood and its immediate neighbors have now sent at least two openly gay legislators and at least one openly lesbian legislator to the state legislature (I beg forgiveness if I've missed someone), and I count many Stonewall Dems (and a few of their Republican and unaffiliated counterparts) among my friends, colleagues and clients (about 30% of my estate planning clients are gay, lesbian or transgender). Even though I'm aware intellectually that two steps forward can be followed by one step back, I don't subconsciously believe it. A belief that you are right about something, reinforced by personal experience, creates a sense of inevitability.
When Time magazine reported on the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay rights must have surely seemed like a misguided, absurd lost cause to almost everyone. But protesters picketed, made seemingly impossible demands (many still unsatisfied), and demanded that politicians take sides anyway. A sexual revolution was underway, but it would take most intellectuals a couple of decades to come to the conclusion that the sexual revolution and other cultural upheavals of the 1960s (much of which actually spilled over into the 1970s), had as much to do with identity as they did with sex. A counter-revolution of fundamentalist Christian morality, sexually transmitted disease fears driven by AIDS and increased pre-marital sex, a distaste of young marriage and pregnancy driven by increased economic opportunities for women, and increased concerns about acquaintance rape and sexual harassment in an increasingly gender mixed world would start to take hold in the 1980s, taking the shine off the "sex" part of the sexual revolution. But, the gay rights movement did not retreat. It would take another decade still for people to discover the the ironic fact that the anti-gay policies of the U.S. military, which by bureaucratic happenstance dumped many people discharged for being gay in San Francisco, played a pivotal role in creating a queer community with more critical mass than anyplace since early 20th century Berlin. Gay marriage, which seemed like a pipe dream a decade ago, is now reality for tens of thousands of couples in many states, including the bulk of the Northeast. Popular culture portrayals of gays and lesbians have gone from being remarkable and groundbreaking to almost cliche, if they aren't talking about something more than mere sexual orientation.
Another reason for hope is that progress for gay rights hasn't been confined to the United States, which is actually something of a laggard in the developed world on gay rights issues. In the countries that are the usual suspects in the developed world, not just in Europe, but in Japan as well, attitudes are changing.
Progress has not been universal. In Iran and Iraq dozens of gays are executed or subjected to governmentally tolerated extrajudicial killings every year. Africa is as awash with anti-gay hate as any rabidly conservative evangelical Christian congregation in the American deep South. But, no struggle for toleration and acceptance is ever really won everywhere and forever. There are places on this Earth where they still burn witches in the 21st century too. There are still American elected officials who use the Internet to proclaim that Galileo was mistaken when he proclaimed that the Earth revolves around the Sun. The Church of Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ spent last fall pouring money and its doctrinal clout into opposing gay marriage in California and was starting to turn the Boy Scouts of America into a publicly anti-gay organization just around the time I became an Eagle Scout. Life is struggle and the struggle over gay rights is not over. But, gay and transgender rights (and acceptance) are making progress as we start to understand better who we are in a more inclusive way.
In the meantime, viva la revolucion!