At around 1:30 in the morning on June 27, 1969, eight plainclothes cops attached to the Public Morals squad of the New York Police Department made a routine raid on an after-hours club at 53 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. They had barely made their arrests—of the staff for illegally dispensing liquor, of four cross-dressing patrons for "inappropriate attire"—when they found themselves under siege in the sleazy two-room firetrap, hemmed in by an angry crowd numbering in the hundreds: drag queens, potheads, dykes, teen runaways, and random late-night passersby. By the time police reinforcements arrived, some in the crowd had torn up a parking meter and were using it to bash in the bar's front door, while others were working on a way to burn the building down with the cops inside.
So began, as far as the Great American Public was concerned, the cause that came to be known as "gay liberation."
When Stonewall hit the headlines, I'd been engaged in a little gay liberation project of my own—retail, not wholesale—for a little over a year. I can still remember reading Howard Smith's first-person account of the incident in the Village Voice—it's still well worth reading today—and feeling . . . what? Excited, fascinated, inspired even, but mostly absolutely confident that nothing remotely like Stonewall would ever happen in Seattle.
In contrast to other certainties I've seen crumble over the years, this one was borne out. Oh, there were incidents from time to time, precipitated by an overzealous cop or an overzealous drag queen, but they were cushioned, buffered, engulfed by the invisible fog that pervades this town the way real fog pervades San Francisco. Back in the '60s, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse became a paperback superstar writing about the phenomenon he called "repressive tolerance." It was hard to believe, paging through a book like his One Dimensional Man, that Herb hadn't spent at least a few years in Seattle.
At the time, I didn't have any gripe with Marcuse. I still don't, really: if I have to choose between repressive tolerance and repression straight up . . . well, hey, no contest! Call it what you like, thanks to whatever-it-is, I've been able to go about my personal and professional business in this town and rarely be reminded of my involuntary membership in one of its smaller minority groups. Like all the other minorities, we even have our own little officially sanctioned summer festival, this weekend's Pride March—or, to give it this year's full, politically correct title, Seattle's Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Pride Parade/March and Rally.
THIS YEAR, MAYBE I'll go. (I'm not a numerologist, but this year's parade does fall on the exact 30th anniversary of Stonewall; the moon is even full, as it was that night.) But if I do, it won't be with any sense of urgency. At first there was an edge of excitement just standing passively watching, let alone marching up Broadway and into Volunteer Park—a feeling probably akin to what our evangelical friends call "bearing witness to the truth."
But for me at least, that feeling's long gone, done in by routine. By now everybody in town—cops and queers, the exhibitionists who've been working on their envelope-pushing parade outfits for months and the Christians with their poster-painted promises of hellfire, the marketeers with their floats hustling the gay dollar and the straight politicians hustling the gay vote—has his or her particular part in the play down pat. After so many years of unalloyed, tranquil repetition, the event has been drained of any real meaning.
Time was, St. Patrick's Day was as much an occasion to demonstrate Irish political power as to celebrate "Irish pride." A hundred years later it had become an occasion to paint a green stripe down the middle of the Queen Anne Counterbalance. The Pride March has gone the same way: it's our once-a-year chance to paint our lavender stripe down Broadway under the indulgent eye of the establishment before returning for another year to discreet invisibility.
You get a feeling that even the folks organizing this year's march and rally feel something more is needed if the event isn't to go the way of St. Paddy's Day. The flyer sent out by the Freedom Day Committee contains a political "action agenda" for 1999, demanding, among other things, better education, higher teacher salaries, more money for health care, and the end of censorship, discrimination, and hate crime.
It's a great program, but who exactly is supposed to carry it out? Not the Freedom Day Committee, for sure. It has enough on its hands running down volunteers to work the march. Not us—us Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgendered persons, surely? What with overcoming the damage to our psyches of growing up in an overwhelmingly heterosexual gender-rigid society and the day-to-day stress of self-actualization, who's got time for politics?
LAST OCTOBER, the kidnapping and torture of Matthew Shepard produced an outpouring of grief and rage across the nation. Partly this was due to the sheer Grand Guignol cruelty of the act, but partly too to the randomness and gratuity of it. (In fact, such incidents occur frequently all across the country but barely make it to the national front pages.) For a moment, every "pervert" in America was made to remember, as blacks must remember every time they leave the house, that the enemy is everywhere.
"Pride Changes Everything," says the Freedom Day Committee's flyer. But of course, it doesn't. Pride per se does jack. Pride's a fine feeling for a June Sunday on Capitol Hill in Seattle, or on the ferry to Fire Island in August, or on San Francisco's Folsom Street in September; but on Saturday night in Cody, Wyoming, or Cicero, Illinois, it can very easily get you beaten up or killed.
That's one reason of course that places like Broadway and Folsom Street came into being: not just so you can be among a higher percentage of "your own kind" than back home in Bedford Falls, but so as to lower the odds of getting killed by a queer-basher on your way home from the mini-mart.
The trouble with living in a ghetto, though—even one you've voluntarily constructed for yourself—is that it can engender a false sense of security. Matthew Shepard's number came up in Laramie, Wyoming. The same thing could just as easily have happened in Bremerton or Lynnwood or White Center or Tukwila or Factoria or Pioneer Square.
Or for that matter on Capitol Hill. Thirty years of agitation have radically altered the terms of public discourse and helped millions of people to think better of themselves, but it hasn't changed the basic condition under which we live. At least as many millions are convinced that we are the spawn of the devil, a living threat to the integrity of their own and their loved ones' bodies and the immortality of their souls. They are repelled by what they see of our public behavior and disgusted by what they have been told we do in private, and the fact that the disgust is tinged with the fascination of the forbidden and the unknown only makes it more intense. They teach their children in all sincerity to regard us as subhuman. The people they look up to for political and spiritual guidance describe us to them in metaphors deriving from infection and disease.
A parade down Broadway doesn't touch this "community." A candlelight vigil doesn't move them. A letter to the editor or a rally at the courthouse doesn't affect them. Teaching diversity in the schools may have an impact on many students, but not on those who feel they've been licensed by a parent or pastor to act out the terrors and rages of adolescence on the demonized other occupying the next locker.
We all want freedom. We all long to be proud. But how can we be proud of a freedom achieved by proxy? How can we confront the evils that constrain us by acting out a pageant of liberation in a privileged enclave surrounded by hostile territory? When the first black protesters climbed aboard that bus in Montgomery, it wasn't a bus they'd rented for the day. We've made tremendous strides in the last 30 years, we L/G/B/Ts, but the next 30 years are likely to be tougher. The easy targets have already been nailed, the rational and indifferent opposition converted. Our situation is like that of an army that holds the cities but hasn't begun the harder task of heading upcountry where the enemy still dominates the terrain and the hearts and minds of at least a fair proportion of the inhabitants.
I don't claim to know what the next step toward my people's liberation ought to be, but I'm pretty sure it's going to have to involve more than talk. When we remember Stonewall this weekend, let's remember too what actually happened there. Anyone who took part in the glorious, dangerous absurdities of that night has a right to be as proud as one of King Harry's "happy few, we band of brothers." Until the rest of us come out of the cozy closets we've furnished for ourselves for the better part of a generation, "pride" is a word we should use with caution.