THE BLOG

With a Little Help From Strangers: Stonewall at 44

06/13/2013 12:05 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

In June we recall the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, when an unorganized group of gay men, drag queens, trans women, and their friends at the Stonewall Bar in Manhattan's West Village refused to go along with another one of the chronic and scripted shakedowns on what should have been simply their night out. Some eyewitnesses claimed it was a "New York butch" who threw the first punch. Others claimed the riots began when a trans woman retaliated against a police officer by smacking him on the head with her pocketbook. None of the witnesses who sprang into action in support knew their names. But these strangers knew that standing up for the dignity and rights of others is the only way to insure dignity and rights for oneself.

Forty-four years later, as we wait for the Supreme Court to rule on marriage equity and DOMA, it's easy to forget that when the riot police descended on the West Village that night, it was illegal for men to dance with other men -- though women were allowed to dance with each other. It's worth repeating: It was illegal for men to dance with men. This was in 1969: 11,780 U.S. troops would die in Vietnam that year; the voting age was 21; the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and the SDS were all making a case for revolution; Apollo 11 would land humans on the Moon; upstate New York would be overrun with hippies at the Woodstock music festival; and the New York Mets would go on to win the World Series.

Forty-four years later and many, many people have stepped up. Many of those who stepped up were never beaten by the police at a bar, were never relegated to the back of any bus, were never denied the vote, were never told who they could not marry.

It's good to pause to celebrate victories, toast accomplishments, note loss, mark milestones. It's important, necessary, and well-deserved. And as we celebrate, it's also important to remember that celebrations are like monuments, erected to point out what happened at a place, during a time, to a people. But monuments are no more than a snapshot of a moment, and moments are not isolated events. We may mark time as before and after the Stonewall riots, before and after Rosa Parks sat where she pleased, before and after Jackie Robinson stepped over the foul line onto Ebbets Field, but those moments were made possible by the vision, courage, and sweat of the many, many, many named and unnamed people who came before.

So when the celebration ends, we don't linger; we get back to work. And when we pass some strangers struggling to roll a log up a hill, we find a spot and push for however long we can and with whatever strength we have. It's how we keep moving forward. It's how we get by with a little help from strangers.