Forty Years Since Stonewall

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“Freedom! I want freedom! Let me go!” The woman’s arms were flailing wildly, and she was shouting at a police officer standing guard at the intersection of Christopher and Greenwich Streets. Her gesticulations could have been mistaken for a political protest — she was, after all, among the hundreds pressed against the crowd control barriers, not more than a few feet from which New York’s gay pride parade was moving past: an hours-long stream of floats and dancers coursed down Fifth Avenue and filtered into ever-narrower Village streets before reaching the route’s terminus near the foot of Christopher. But it turned out all she really wanted to do was cross the street and get home.

For all the inconvenience and discomfort of hosting a full-scale urban celebration along its slim sidewalks and underneath the drooping limbs of its trees, though, there could be no more poignant destination for the parade than Christopher Street, where, forty years ago, an uprising began the U.S.’ gay rights movement.

In 1969, homosexuality was still widely suspect in most of the United States, including New York, where gays were subject to discrimination and harassment. Still, they managed to congregate at mob-run bars, like the Stonewall Tavern on Christopher, where the owners — hungrier for profit than praise from the state — turned a blind eye to their activities. The immediate context of the Stonewall Riot, the violent confrontation at the tavern that has been seen as the beginning of the gay rights movement in the US, is confusing — a police raid met with intense resistance from patrons. The effect, however, was clear — a symbolic “outing”, at once social and political, of homosexual culture in New York, which no longer refused to hide from discriminatory laws, but challenged them head on. The next year, in commemoration of the riots, the city saw its first gay pride parade.

It is often said that the gay rights movement has lacked notable national leaders. Part of the reason has been because its fights were, until relatively recently, against local statutes and ordinances — or discriminatory enforcement actions, like the raid on the Stonewall. The congregation of gay populations in cities also made it easier for political action to coalesce at the municipal level. The consequence has been that, more than previous civil rights battles, the movement found expression in urban politics. The 1970s election of openly gay Harvey Milk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — and his subsequent assassination, dramatized in the recent Gus Van Sant film Milk, is probably the most poignant example.

American courts played an important role in ensuring that many gay rights battles stayed local to cities — where gays had greater chances of winning them. The 1996 Supreme Court case Romer v. Evans was fought over the constitutionality of anti-discrimination statutes in cities. Chief Justice William Rehnquist asserted that clusters of gays moving to urban areas constituted a special interest that could take over local politics. Rehnquist thought such statutes should only be made on a statewide basis — allowing rural, more conservative voters to essentially decide an issue that would affect urbanites. But the chief justice lost the court’s vote on the case — a boon both for the rights of gays and the legal powers of US cities.

The state-city conflict has been playing itself out, again, in the fight for gay marriage. Only six US states currently grant full marriage equality; New York and California, despite their large cities (and gay populations) are not among them. An attempt by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom to perform gay marriage ceremonies was rebuked by the California state supreme court, and a notorious 2008 referendum appeared to confirm that, on the whole, Californians could not stomach gay marriage. New York’s cautiously moderate mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is in favor of gay marriage, but in the wake of the setbacks in California, has not tried to advance urban leadership on the issue. With law increasingly dictated from state capitals, Newsom has set his eyes on his state’s governorship in 2010.

With gay rights being debated on planes far above Christopher Street, its blocks’ relevance to the movement have naturally waned. In 2009, it is at the heart of the now irreversibly gentrified West Village, where gourmet cupcake bakeries outnumber gay bars five-to-one. The closure of longstanding institutions like the Oscar Wilde Bookshop have seemingly put the nail in the coffin of the street’s extinct culture. The spectacle of pride parade spectators taking over several blocks on either side of the annual celebration visibly irritates many current neighborhood residents.

Yet the street retains its symbolic value. “Christopher Street Day” is celebrated around the world. More tangibly, the street itself still serves as a magnet for gay minorities, who are often ostracized from their communities in the outer boroughs, and who use the multimillion-dollar stoops of nearby townhouses to meet, flirt, and congregate. The NYPD still keep a watchful eye — enforcing touchy West Villagers’ noise complaints — but, forty years since Stonewall, the animosity between the groups has been stood on its head. The 2009 gay pride parade’s loudest cheer was for the group once seen as New York gays’ greatest antagonist — the police.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Friday July 03 2009at 11:07 pm , filed under History, Politics, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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