THE BLOG
09/28/2015 12:29 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2016

Stonewall Is for Idiots. Try Stonewall for Dummies , Instead

In nearly three decades of working working with high school students, I've learned a few things.

1) No matter how science-based the conversation might be, you cannot say the name of any reproductive organ without the room breaking out into giggles.

2) Any word even vaguely foreign to a high school student can be misconstrued as a reproductive organ.

2a) Yes, even "kumquat."

3) Often the best way to teach anything unfamiliar is to explain it in the context of something familiar. (Unless it's kumquats.)

I mention this because as I read the blogs I've written and some of ones I'm preparing to write, each of them makes assumptions about what the reader knows. For instance, when I discuss the rainbow flag, there is the assumption that people know what a rainbow is. Surely a safe bet, save for the color blind and people with religious objections to Care Bears.

Other things, however, are not so obvious, like Stonewall. A pivotal moment in the history of the LGBTQ movement in America, it's gone from being a historical footnote for most, to being featured in an address by the President of the United States, to now being a critically reviled film by just about everyone.

Rotten Tomatoes gives the new Roland Emmerich film an aggregate score of only 5 percent fresh. As reviewers seemingly stampede one another to get to their thesaurus before someone else co-opts the next synonym for "awful." My favorite comes from Vanity Fair: "'Stonewall' Is Terribly Offensive, and Offensively Terrible."
The great pity of this is two-fold:

1) Hollywood, in its unfettered wisdom, will conclude movies about LGBTQ issues are unpopular money-losers and stop making them for a decade.

2) An opportunity to teach millions of viewers about Stonewall has been lost -- and that means it's my turn.

What is Stonewall?

Simply put, and Encyclopedia Brittanica does it well:

Stonewall riots: a series of violent confrontations that began in the early hours of June 28, 1969, between police and gay rights activists outside the Stonewall Inn, a bar in New York City. As the riots progressed, an international gay rights movement was born.

Now, it says more than that. But to read it you have to be a paying customer of the EB, and I'm a fairly cheap person. (Dresses and heels ain't free, ya know.) Fortunately, there are lots of websites where you can explore the legacy of Stonewall.

To really understand what changes Stonewall has brought, however, you have to understand what a different place the United States was four decades ago. For those who didn't live through it, "The '60s" seems to be a time when everyone was a hippie protesting against Vietnam while listening to the Beatles singing "Let it Be."

But for LBGTQ people, it was a difficult time, as many people in the country were not content to let them be. In the medical community, LGBTQ people were listed as having a "sociopathic personality disturbance." In law enforcement, both local and federal personnel tracked people thought to be LGBT. This included raiding the places they gathered, and then exposing the people they arrested in local media.

One of those places was the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village. Just a bit after one a.m. on June 28, 1969 -- as had happened many times before -- police raided the bar. This time, however, patrons fought back, and soon a crowd gathered in protest. Eventually, fights broke out between police and the bar patrons and others who had come from the community.

I could go on at this point about all the details of the Stonewall Riots as they are fascinating. As so many things in the world, I recommend reading the Wikipedia entry on the topic. However, if all Stonewall had been was a riot it's legacy would not be what it is.
For what began as frustration exploding in anger became something else, something more important. As the following night more protests arose, and even more protests arose a few nights later. And that was just the beginning.

By the end of the summer, area residents were discussing how to create places for LGBTQ people to gather without fear. Others began to organize into more political groups, a major force in the early crusade to have society see LGBTQ people as equal. The first pride parade was held one year after Stonewall to mark the first anniversary of the riots.

Despite all of this, however, most people in America don't know what Stonewall is. Regardless of its importance in the equality and rights movement, it is not recognized like Selma, Alabama is within the Civil Rights movement.

Sadly, this goes beyond just a recognition of iconic places. Even within groups subject to oppression themselves, many people have refused to see the LGBTQ equality movement as on par with the civil rights movement.
As I so often like to think, however, there is hope. In President Barack Obama's 2013 inaugural address he said: "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."(6) Couldn't have said it better myself.

Does that mean that everyone now knows and understands Stonewall? Uh, no. But whether on the streets of New York or the steps of the U.S. Capitol, what eventually become obvious has to start somewhere -- even for a dummy like Roland Emmerich.