They say if you stay in the same place long enough, you get to see everything. So by staying on the same block in Greenwich Village longer than I ever expected, I've seen history being made in front of the Stonewall Inn, not once but twice.
Forty-four years ago I witnessed the famous riot that catapulted gay liberation onto the front pages of every newspaper in America. And a few days ago, in front of the same bar (now listed as a "must-see" in all the guidebooks), I celebrated the historic banishment of DOMA. This time the throng was different, as was I.
June 27, 1969, was a sweltering hot night. Judy Garland had just died in London, and gay men were wild with grief. I was canoodling on my first grown-up bed with the boyfriend of the moment when, around 1 in the morning, we heard police sirens that seemed to go on and on.
Across the street men were emptying out of the Roadhouse, a respectable gay bar (respectable, I thought, because the men wore Lacoste) and moving in a throng toward Bleecker Street.
Boyfriend and I followed suit. Approaching Christopher Street, it seemed like every cop in the city was trying to hold off onlookers from gawking at what was happening at the Stonewall Inn.
Patrons were pouring out onto the road, stopping traffic, including the cross-town bus. A drag queen in a cocktail dress jumped onto the roof of a yellow taxi, riding it like a bucking bronco, as it valiantly tried to make its way west on the block.
Onlookers didn't know precisely what was happening inside Stonewall, except that a routine cop raid went terribly wrong, causing patrons to riot. Some said that Judy's death was to blame. Years later, my friend, drag queen par excellence Marsha P. ("pay it no mind") Johnson, claimed she started the riot by shouting out, "I got my civil rights!" and throwing a shot glass into a mirror. I tend to believe Marsha.
The Stonewall riots continued for several more nights. Pals of mine who lived on the East Side, closeted men in suits, reminiscent of Mad Men, came down to the Village for a look around to see if what they had read in the papers -- that drag queens had taken on the cops, who protected the Mafia, who owned Stonewall -- was true.
It was a thrilling time to be young in Greenwich Village. I walked around every night feeling like I was a part of not just New York history but gay history. And for a long time life was good. The Village danced to a disco beat. And gay men were not afraid to be seen strutting up and down Christopher Street holding hands and kissing. Then AIDS cut down thousands of them in their prime. And everything changed.
Now, anti-retroviral drugs keep AIDS at bay, and gay men and lesbians are able to get what heterosexuals have wanted since Adam was a boy: to marry with full rights granted and joint Social Security benefits.
So it seemed fitting that on the evening of June 26, 2013, almost 44 years after Stonewall, my husband and I and our dear friend Tim Sweeney, who was the executive director of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) at the height of the AIDS epidemic and is the outgoing head of the Gill Foundation, which bankrolled a chunk of the marriage equality movement, join the jubilating throng in front of Stonewall. How could we not?
Yet I felt old, how World War II soldiers must feel when they visit the beach of the Normandy invasion and try to tell their wives what it was like back then. The crowd was young and happy, unscarred by the threat of AIDS and all those memorials Tim, Geoffrey and I had attended for dead friends. Nonetheless, 44 years onward, the Stonewall Inn was the place to be.
We hugged and hugged and cheered loudly with everyone else. We looked around. But we didn't know anybody. And nobody knew us. Tim, for his leadership, should have been hoisted on shoulders, but he melted away with us unheralded. For this was youth, and we were old.
"Hurry up, please. It's time," says the pub owner in T.S. Eliots poem "The Wasteland."
And it is. It's time for the old guard to realize and revel in the fact that they were there! They were a part of gay American history. And they must now gracefully surrender to the youth of all sexualities, laughing, dancing, drinking and toasting a bright future on Christopher Street so many years later. It's hard to do, but it's exhilarating.