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THE GAY ISSUE ‌ Dorothy's Legacy

A moment in gay history flung open the closet doors and focused the community on fighting prejudice

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Every generation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people has had to suffer the indignities of prejudice, harassment, violence, and legal discrimination dating back before Henry XIII codified sodomy under English Common-law, through WWII when homosexuals interned in the Nazi death camps under Germany's notorious Paragraph 175 were forced to complete their sentences following liberation in 1945, to the anti-gay marriage amendments of the current electoral cycle.

Each generation has fought with a variety of tools, from litigation and publishing to secret networks and public protest. But the Stonewall riots of 1969 changed everything, spurring the gay community to take prejudice head-on.

Stonewall, known as "The Hairpin Drop Heard 'Round The World," has become the stuff of legend, a watershed moment that propelled the Gay Pride and Gay Power movements into the public arena.

The weekend of the riots began with the funeral of movie star and gay icon Judy Garland, which took place in New York City on the Friday morning of June 27, 1969. An estimated crowd of 20,000 people stood outside the church during the service — of this, 12,000 were thought to be homosexual.

Sometime after 1 a.m. on the 28th, New York police entered the Stonewall Inn, a Mob-controlled gay bar in Greenwich Village that catered primarily to minority drag queens, transvestites, and lesbians.

The raid was predicated upon a charge of the illegal sale of alcohol. Bar employees were arrested, and patrons roughly ushered to the street. Some cite a transvestite with throwing a bottle at officers as the start of the fight, while others say a butch lesbian took a swing at her arresting officer.

The initial verbal abuse hurled at police was quickly replaced with rocks, bottles, and coins (meant to signify payoffs extorted by the cops from gay bar owners). Drag queens serenaded the police with campy ditties, but matters grew more heated and the fight devolved into a riot, with many more gathering as news of the revolt against the cops spread through the Village.

The original group of officers was overwhelmed by the crowd and retreated into the Stonewall Inn. Some in the crowd tried to use a parking meter to knock down the door. Riot police were summoned and an estimated 400 officers faced off against an angry 2,000.

Rioters quieted down as morning approached, but 1,000 people gathered the next night and continued the violence and property damage on a smaller scale. That following Wednesday, a similarly-sized crowd again indulged in property damage at The Stonewall Inn. Smaller demonstrations were held in the Village sporadically that summer.

On July 31, 1969, the Gay Liberation Front was formed, declaring: "We are a revolutionary group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing sexual institutions are abolished. We reject society's attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature."

Over the next 12 months, like-minded groups formed across America in response to the Stonewall riots. This culminated on the riot's anniversary as "pride" groups in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago sponsored parades celebrating the new militancy.

In the culminating years, many inroads were made in the fight for gay rights — medical professionals began recognizing that homosexuality was not a disease, openly gay candidates were elected to office, and communities began addressing gay rights issues. The movement was not without its detractors, though, most notably Anita Bryant, who led a successful campaign to beat back anti-discrimination initiatives in Florida.

Ten years after Stonewall, an estimated 100,000 gays and lesbians made the first national march on Washington, D.C. In those days, gay marriage or any benefits for couples were a distant dream. Gays and their supporters were focused on sodomy laws targeted at homosexuals and equal protection in housing and employment. But more than anything, it was about being recognized: "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!"

But the noise over rights for gays would be overshadowed in the '80s by a decimating epidemic.

The outlandish "Go-Go 1970s," notably in the male bathhouse culture of major cities, came to a screeching halt on June 5, 1981, when Dr. Michael Gottlieb coauthored the first published report of a medical mystery in the Center for Disease Control's "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report."

Gottlieb detailed five young men in L.A.-area hospitals who had congenital immunodeficiencies and "Pneumocystisis carinii" pneumonia who had presented themselves that spring for treatment. By May 1981, two of the five were dead.

All were homosexual.

The fight for rights was replaced by a fight for life, as the misinformation of AIDS spread far faster than education about the disease and public support for treatment remained anemic, at best. Well into the '90s, the perception in small-town America was that gay men were fated to die an early death.

Early on, support groups, such as the Gay Men's Health Crisis, were formed by GLBT people to provide AIDS services, fundraising for research, and a public rebuttal to the denunciations of Robert Grant's Christian Voice and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, who claimed that AIDS was God's wrath for homosexuality.

Medical advances against the disease were arduous, and the Reagan administration was perceived by the gay community as largely indifferent to the sufferings of the afflicted as AIDS spread from the queers to the poor.

By 1987, Larry Kramer, a writer and founder of the GMHC who had left the organization, was angry and had had enough.

On March 10, Kramer delivered a speech at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City attacking the GMHC as "politically impotent" and asked the assembled audience, "Do we want to start a new organization devoted to political action?!"

Two days later, 300 people showed up to form the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

On March 24, 250 ACT UP members disrupted the New York Stock Exchange trading floor to protest BorroughsWellcome, patent holder of the new antiviral AZT. Citing U.S. government subsidies of initial AZT drug research and clinical trials in the 1960s, ACT UP accused the pharmaceutical giant of profiteering over patients' $10,000 annual cost.

ACT UP was criticized for its heavy-handed militancy, especially following a disruption of Mass by 4,500 protesters at New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral in which soiled condoms were thrown on the altar and members chained themselves to pews on December 10, 1989.

The changing nature of the pandemic, successful treatment options, and internal strife eventually led to ACT UP losing its steam and AIDS losing its stigma.

The difference allowed the gay community to return its focus to rights and protections. While Bill Clinton brought the Democratic Party to middle America, his attempts to bring the gays as well stumbled somewhat. He had made a campaign promise to let gays and lesbians openly serve in the military, but the president found very quickly that it was easier said than done.

A compromise resulted in the military's current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy — hardly a success for the gay community — but Clinton's attempts to reach out to GLBT voters exposed the inequities that gay people face and increased coverage of the issues.

The "Gay Nineties" were shocked out of complacency by the gruesome murders of Brandon Teena on December 31, 1993, and Matthew Shepard on October 7, 1998, when gay and straight America learned it could be fatal to be young and homosexual in the United States.

Teena, born a girl but living as a male, was raped and murdered in Falls City, Neb., by friends following their discovery of his true sexual identity. Initially, the story surrounding Teena's murder was largely contained within the gay community and local news outlets, due largely to the national media's discomfiture with transgendered people and Teena's low economic station. His tragedy became famous with the 1999 Academy Award-winning performance of Hilary Swank as Teena in Boys Don't Cry.

The same was not true for Matthew Shepard.

Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was viciously assaulted by two strangers he had met in in a Laramie gay bar. He was robbed, savagely beaten, and left unconscious and tied to a cattle fence with his own shoelaces. Eighteen hours later, the comatose boy was discovered by a jogger who had initally thought Shepard was a scarecrow. He died five days later from massive head trauma.

Police arrested his attackers, who later mounted the "gay panic" defense as justification for their crime. Both are incarcerated for life sentences without possibility for parole and have said that Shepard's homosexuality played no part in their decision to rob him — "gay panic" was the lawyers' idea.

Public outcry was huge and led to calls for hate-crime legislation. Clinton revived an earlier attempt to extend federal hate-crime protections to the gay community and disabled persons. He failed.

With the turn of the century came a whole new acceptance of gays and also a whole new backlash against the gains made over the previous decades. The conservative movement latched onto middle America's fear of gay folks to create a wedge issue that's mobilized the Christian right and has successfully made gay marriage a nationwide issue.

In a few weeks, in South Carolina and seven other states, voters will participate in a referendum question asking whether or not state constitutions should be amended to prohibit gay people from being legally married.

The amendment, which is widely expected to pass, won't change much on the face of things — gay marriage is already against South Carolina state law — but it remains a symbol of the work that still confronts the gay community.

The history of queer politics has always been and will continue to be about bias, both social and legal. The resulting vote, whether for or against, won't do much beyond reinforcing the bigotry and prejudice that gays have faced since the beginning of time. But as the recent modern history proves, gays won't be going back in the closet any time soon. So you better get used to it. —D.A. Smith


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An In-No-Way-Authoritative Look at Modern Gay Culture in 200 Words

Stonewall, “The lesbian menace,” Gay Power!, Midnight Cowboy, Gay Pride, The Boys in the Band, Cabaret, no disease, “Gay agenda,” The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Anita Bryant, Harvey Milk, rainbow flags, La Cage aux Folles, AIDS, Moral Majority, Billy Jean King, Zorro The Gay Blade, Gay Games, Gerry Studds, HIV, Rock Hudson dies, Hollywood Montrose, Maurice, Torch Song Trilogy, Heather has Two Mommies, Thirtysomething, red ribbons, Fried Green Tomatoes, My Own Private Idaho, The Crying Game, The Real World, Don’t ask Don’t tell, Philadelphia, Will Smith plays gay, Angels in America, Tales of the City, Brandon Teena, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, My So-Called Life, Pedro Zamora, Patrick Swayze in drag, The Birdcage, 525,600 minutes, Barney Frank, In and Out, Ellen comes out, Oz, Matthew Shepard, 54, Gods and Monsters, Jennifer Aniston plays a fag hag, Will and Grace, Jack and Karen, Big Gay Al, George Michael in the bathroom, Boys Don’t Cry, Queer as Folk, Civil unions, Billy Elliot, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Six Feet Under, Lawrence vs. Texas, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Gay marriage, Alexander, The L Word, Jim McGreevey, Capote, Transamerica, Brokeback Mountain, Lance Bass

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