In 2019, we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, Woodstock Nation, Women’s Liberation, and Gay Pride. And so much more in our brave community of LGBTQ individuals, groups, and organizations. I’ve included Woodstock Nation and Women’s Liberation in order to give background and context to where we are now, and why we can actually celebrate Pride as we do.
This week, we will be celebrating New Orleans Pride. Between parties, the Pride Parade on Saturday evening in the Quarter, and multiple celebrations in every bar or lounge in the area. There will be time to reflect and reboot your energy and awareness of the essence of this holiday. We are fortunate to experience the openness that typically exists in our LGBTQ community, and the celebratory loudness and joyful chants that will be heard from Thursday through Sunday this week. Happy sounds, excited feelings, heightened emotions, and a feeling of awe for the specialness surrounding us.
I’ve had the amazing good fortune to have watched and/or participated in a number of different Pride parades through the years: in Philadelphia, PA; Cincinnati, OH; Washington DC; Augusta, GA; Fayetteville, AR; Provincetown, MA, and New York City. The parades are alive, colorful, edgy, and an open demonstration of how we value our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. The New Orleans Pride Parade has always been unique and energizing, and an acknowledgement of our people in this city.
Pride 2019 is a very special year because it’s the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which began the international Gay Rights Movement. There will likely be a lot written on this issue on the importance of Stonewall and that time in our history, as there has been in the last two issues. We rightfully celebrate and pay homage to those who came before us, and have been so courageous and humble at the same time. The Stonewall Riots occurred as a frustrated response to a series of violent confrontations that began early on June 28, 1969, between gay rights activists and New York City Police. The confrontation took place at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village area of New York City.
As we anticipate this year’s Pride, let’s see if we can recall and reflect on some other events that were taking place around that time in history. If we look at the history of the Gay Rights Movement, we should be informed of what actually bought us to the place where we can celebrate our Pride as members of the LGBTQ community, along with our friends who continue to fight as allies or activists of other movements for the equality of all people.
The late ‘60s were a time of great tension. That’s the best word I can use, and within that small word, I must consider how divided this nation was about the Vietnam War, inequality for women and people of color, and lastly, LGBTQ people. Why last? We were still invisible. While LGBTQ people were slightly visible in a few select areas, we were rarely accepted by others, or even shown “tolerance” (I hate that particular word and concept). Stonewall occurred in June 1969. What happened prior to Stonewall that helped set the angry stage for those riots? Working back only a year, in order to shine a light on some of the events that would have affected our community perhaps more than the rest of the US (given the invisibility of LGBTQ people), let’s reflect on 1968, because we lived through unthinkable things.
There are times when we should value the years we’ve lived, and our experiences throughout those years. I was a young college student in 1968, proud to have lived in that era, and to have seen and reacted to these horrific events. I have included my personal reactions to a number of these events, so I hope you will indulge me. No doubt they influenced my political and social agenda, and my values and passions. They still do.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 blew the remainder of our hope for a more fair and equal existence, and tore our fragile innocence into a million pieces (only five short years before, the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy began the assault to our innocence). Campuses in many parts of the US rioted, including mine. Some southern schools ran the Confederate flag—the “Rebel” flag that I hated—up and over the United States flag. My school did that. Born and raised in the Northeast, everyone I knew and loved despised that flag and what it represented. I remember the sickness I felt in my stomach as we marched. The hated flag was taken down that next day, as were most, by request of the governor and president. That did little to dull the pain of violently losing the man who had embodied hope.
Just two months later, as my family and I watched the California Presidential primary acceptance speech by the would-be candidate for President, we witnessed the horror of Senator and former Attorney General of the US, Robert F. Kennedy assassinated live on television in June 1968. To hear the shots, watch as his bodyguard James Brown pulled Senator Kennedy to the ground after being shot, lying on the floor…The panic, tears, and outrage only fueled the great fire building within us. Sadness was quickly masked by anger. That loss was a different kind of loss, and the hope that had built within the hearts of many who were committed to seeing equality and goodness return to our world was dashed.
Much of that outrange and despair felt by marginalized people culminated on the streets of Chicago in August of 1968, outside the Democratic National Convention. We watched that event on television for days as well, witnessing police brutality at its worst. Somehow the Chicago police took a minute to realize they were being televised live. Chants of “The whole world is watching” are used in many protests and confrontations to this day. That’s where it was born. The blood running down the faces of the young men and women of all races and genders have been seen many times since in the media. This type of brutality had been largely undocumented before that convention, but it was recorded live, and is thus available for people to see for all time. Unfortunately, as we know all too well as LGBTQ people, that still hasn’t ended the brutality. And for some, it has increased of late, as with our trans community and the murders that are taking place daily. The countless LGBTQ people who died at the hands of evil and heartless people, or by their own hand out of depression and despair, remains uncounted. And ongoing.
In a more victorious event that year, 100 women protested the Miss American Pageant in New Jersey. That might be called the beginning of the open Women’s Liberation Movement, or “Women’s Lib” as it was called then. We were just gearing up because our freedom came last, and in many ways our experience paralleled that of the LGBTQ community. We were ready for Stonewall, indeed we were. In some ways, it could have been the beginning of the last straw. But there was competition for attention in 1969. So much transition, violence, hate language. So much mistrust and fear, and rightly so.
Given all of the above, talk about whiplash! In July 1969, there was a moon landing. We watched our small televisions or listened to the radio, and held our collective breath. Many thought it was a stunt, not real, trumped up to deflect attention from the growing unrest around us, but I believe that it happened. In August of 1969, Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music, took place in the small town of Bethel, New York.Sometimes I think everyone knows the story, and understands the importance, of those summers of 1968 and 1969. Woodstock emerged from a small town in the Northeast, bringing huge waves of awareness for all people who were different, looked different, dressed differently, and most important, thought in a unique and open way about other people. And behaved as such, there for all to see, on television. Woodstock seemed to solidify a movement born of frustration, the need for celebration, and the misunderstanding and disappointment felt by all who were diverse. Seemingly a fun, disorganized, meaningless event with arguably 450,000 hippies and leftists, it took a while for some to understand its greatness. In reality, whether you attended or not, Woodstock allowed us freedom, openness, and time for a collective deep breath; a moment of relief from the hellishness of that era.
Surrounded by the Vietnam War, the Gay Rights Movement paralleled the Women’s Movement, and provided for many changes, and for many deaths (of both spirit and people), while at the same time uplifting celebrations no one had dreamed of before. Some say we began with Stonewall. I think we became visible and strong with Stonewall, and we are still fighting and growing. As we celebrate Pride, Stonewall, and our greater New Orleans community, take pride in who you are, where you come from, and how you’ve been able to live your life thus far. PRIDE!