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Stonewall: The Raid Heard Around the World?

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Flickr: yosoynuts
Flickr: yosoynuts

In 1994 a retrospective New York Times piece deemed the 1969 Stonewall riots "The Raid Heard Around the World." When I read those words in early 2012, in an anthology of LGBT-related Times pieces, I felt surprised and alienated. If Stonewall was "heard around the world," then why had I never learned about it in school? I had read about Stonewall only once in a classroom: in a paragraph of my seventh-grade history textbook. At that point I knew I was gay, so I scanned it, but because my class did not discuss it, eventually I forgot about it. But it was not until very recently that I began to realize what exactly I'd missed by doing that: I was absent essential knowledge of the history of the community I'm proud to say I belong to. Given that it is the week of Stonewall's anniversary, I want to reflect on what this event -- or my discovery of it -- has meant for me, and what it will mean for me going forward as an active member of the LGBT community.

I'm a little ashamed to admit this, but the first time I began to look closely at LGBT history was during this past academic year. What prompted my interest was a speaking engagement in Northampton, Mass. I spoke on a panel after the showing of a documentary about LGBT athletes, answering questions from audience members about my experiences as an out collegiate athlete. During the panel a middle-aged woman said that it was amazing to see any out athletes, and that when she was young, in the pre-Stonewall 1960s, no one had been out. She congratulated the other panelists and me, and started clapping. The rest of the audience quickly followed suit. Driving home, I felt irked and undeserving of applause. How could I be content when there is still so much left to do? For days I returned to her comment, and for days I felt unsatisfied.

A few weeks later, a friend mentioned the anniversary of Stonewall to me and emphasized its importance to the LGBT community. Curious, and frankly embarrassed, that I knew so little about the riots, I began to research. I soon understood why the Northampton woman had applauded. Pre-Stonewall, there was no such thing as being out: Homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois. Before my research, when I pictured a gay bar, I imagined chic décor, brightly colored cocktails, and upbeat glamour. This was not the Stonewall Inn. Because LGBT people were not allowed to assemble publicly, gay bars existed in the shadows, often run by crime bosses who watered down alcohol and increased prices. Still, these bars were places of refuge -- for street kids, drag queens, businessmen, and everyone in between -- because they were some of the only places LGBT people could openly show affection. But they were not truly safe. Policemen raided the bars and harassed the customers, displaying a brutality so common throughout the South during the same decade. But the difference was that there was no LGBT movement yet, no outlet for this vibrant community to fight back. But on June 28, 1969, something snapped.

To this day, little documentation exists of the Stonewall riots at the time they occurred. However, the images have become just as vivid in my mind. Perhaps more. Drag queens, people who are now such a commercialized part of American culture, physically beating New York City policemen. Men and women who were considered diseased and weak, for the first time instilling fear in their oppressors. I cannot picture the faces of the people as much as I can feel their defiance, rage, and newfound sense of power that swept the streets on those nights -- and ultimately catalyzed a national movement.

I realize that my youth does not allow me to know firsthand how far the LGBT community has come, but my discovery of Stonewall has made me hyperaware of two things: first, of making sure I never take change for granted, and second, of the resilience of the LGBT community. In my mind Stonewall is still not "The Raid Heard Around the World," though it should have been. For me, and for many others in my generation, it was the raid heard by almost no one. But I have accepted that. Going forward, as Stonewall's anniversary passes each year on June 28, it will remind me to continue seeking my history, to appreciate the LGBT community's progress, and to never stop fighting -- with the resolve and the bravery of the patrons of the Stonewall Inn -- for equality.