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What the Straight World Learned From the Stonewall Riots (It Was Indeed "a Flash at Midnight")

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Many years ago, in that mythical age called the nineteen sixties, my wife and I were taking our after-dinner walk down Lexington Avenue where we lived when we came upon a perplexing sight, one that came along with a perplexing problem. We considered ourselves young progressives marching against the Vietnam War, marching for Civil Rights, working for immigrant rights, and in our small way challenging any injustice that came across our path. We thought we had covered most of the bases that represented American injustice at that time. And then we saw him. The young, blond, blind man tapping his way down the street towards us, wearing his dark sunglasses, and showing in his body language the confusion of the lost.

My wife, always the first to rise to a challenge, went to the man and asked if we could help him in some way. He replied that he was looking for a bar called Uncle Charley's that was located on this street but he was unable to find it. Indeed, Uncle Charley's was a gay bar that occupied a storefront on what was then the unfashionable East side of Lexington Avenue. My wife and I looked at each other wondering if the blind man had mistaken the name of this bar for another, or worse, was the victim of some cruel practical joke. I asked, "Are you sure that's the place you want to go?" And he replied that indeed it was. So we led him across the street and took him inside Uncle Charley's.

It was dark, smoke-filled, and full of young men standing about the bar and seated at small tables laughing, talking, and flirting -- beer in hand -- just like any other bar, except that it was filled with gay men, and a few gay women, not mixed couples, or middle aged men with stubble on their chins watching some sporting event. And Broadway show music playing on the jukebox. The voice of Ethel Merman belting out a tune covered the noise of the conversation. Assured that our new friend was safe and happy, we left the bar, more than a little disconcerted. In our reluctance to insult him we never mentioned the words gay bar and what if we had led this blind lamb to the wrong place.

Now we had known many gay men in our young lives, but no blind ones. At college they were a group that was drawn to the theater department -- and this included several WW2 vets. Since it was Bard, a progressive college, their presence did not cause a ripple in the community, except when one of them, a young, good looking black student, committed suicide. As I began to work in the theater in my post-college life I began to count many gay men and women among my close friends. But I had kept my blinkers on. I had a good idea of the sexual component of their lives -- they made some great jokes about it -- but I did not wish to know much more. Spare me the details.

The Kinsey Report and Masters and Johnson were eye-opening documents that provided those details, but it was not until the Stonewall Riots that our eyes were opened to the persecution and discrimination that my friends faced. The answer to their problem seemed so simple to the straight world, "Just pretend that you're not," and be discreet. In other words, lie about your basic human needs and nature. The psychiatric associations that labeled homosexuality deviant behavior at that time supported this view and gave it scientific respectability. The advice of the straight world could be summed up in three words, "Get over it!" This meant that every kid who knew that he or she was gay grew up feeling that there was something deeply wrong with him or her, and not wrong with the society that persecuted them if they were to reveal their sexual proclivities.

The Stonewall Riots occurred when that gay community could no longer tolerate the police brutality that they experienced -- on one particular night when gay idol Judy Garland's death was being commemorated. The police had gone a step too far for once. Loading kids and transvestites into the paddy wagons could not put a stop to the alleged offenders -- and the Mafia owned gay bars could no longer protect them from Billy clubs and bullets - and thus the community had reached the limits of its endurance. So they rebelled. And as a result of that rebellion the world -- my wife and I included -- were forced to face the facts of a discrimination that was as insidious in its own way as racial and religious discrimination, although, unlike racial discrimination, often hidden from view. Here were people who were born with certain feelings that were as natural to them as heterosexual feelings were to others, being persecuted for those feelings and for the actions that sprung from such feelings and desires. It would take over forty years before the Stonewall walls truly came down -- for they were like the Berlin Wall -- a strong prison set up to keep the inhabitants inside and away from the liberties that they deserved and desired.

And so today we have the ever-widening acceptance of gay marriage and my wife and I were delighted to be honored guests at the wedding of our old friends Ken and David last year. Stonewall had taught us more than we thought we had to know, but we had to know it. It let us know that living among us were decent human beings who were forced to deny their own nature by the laws of the land -- and the consequence of that denial was often self-hatred, suicide among gay youths, and when they allowed their true nature to be revealed there was too often violence towards them. The Stonewall Riots were the beginning of something that could not be stopped by a fearful society who had to learn that being gay was not a communicable disease that children caught from their gay elders but a part of their essential nature. But we must not get too smug about the gains made. Friends of mine tell me about the homophobic slurs that they can meet if they walk down the wrong street -- and such slurs can even come from film stars such as Alec Baldwin who know better -- but whose inadvertent bigotry reveals only his fear and his age. Stonewall made it possible to be young, gay, and fearless.

There is an engaging novel by my friend Robert Armin called Flash at Midnight that culminates in the Stonewall riots. Indeed, this novel is well titled because Stonewall was a flash at midnight -- one that lit up New York and the world -- illuminating a great injustice. It tells the story of Laurie Norber, a young girl of ambiguous sexuality who experiences much of the beat culture of the sixties as a female Candide and finds herself at Stonewall on that fateful night, unwittingly helping to spark the conflict that follows. It is an entertaining and compelling romp through a lost time when a one-night stand with George Harrison might make a vivid memory in a young girl's life -- an adventure story in which the heroine embodies and embraces the spirit of the sixties. The novel demonstrates the longing for personal freedom that was experienced by gay and straight alike. After being brutalized in the riots the heroine goes on to another life, but Armin skillfully sums up the consequences of those riots:

"..., more than two thousand people gathered outside the Stonewall Inn to protest the police assault on the gay community, and over the next few years major changes were made in New York City and State laws that made it more difficult for similar police actions. The Stonewall Riots, as they came to be known, were a turning point in the gradual recognition of gays as a legitimate and legally protected minority."

Ultimately the Stonewall Riots help free the gay community from the stigma of being born gay and remaining alive to their true nature, but it helped to free the straight world from the bondage of fear and bigotry regarding the variegated sexuality of humanity; a fear that held it in its grip. Uncle Charley's gay bar is long gone in the gentrification of the avenue, but there are other gay bars abounding in the city, no longer the object of police persecution, and if some young blind man were to ask us today to lead him to that present day Uncle Charley's I feel assured that we would do so without a moment's hesitation.