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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Before Stonewall: How We Got Where We Are

This amazing half-century:  April 17, 1965, was the date of the first gay-rights picket march in front of the White House, a silent protest led by Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, which for five years was repeated at intervals in Washington at the White House and the Pentagon, and at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Below are some of Kameny's original signs carried in the 1965 picket line, as proudly displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.

And this week ABC published an interview, not embeddable, with Paul Kuntzler, 73, another participant in the picket march, which you can see here.

It's hard now to recall, and for the young'uns amongst us, nearly impossible to comprehend, the overwhelming homophobia of society in those days, and the unceasing, sweaty-palmed fear of being found out - or merely suspected - as a homosexual.  Here in the Deep South, at any rate, it was the Worst Thing in the World, worse than being a Communist, even: a traitor not merely to your country, but to God and the entire human race. Seriously - that was how people viewed gayness back then - the unmentionable, unforgiveable sin. Even when I came out at the end of the 1970's, all my good church friends who were "just like family" promptly dropped me like a hot potato, and shunned me ever afterwards.

And it truly boggles your Head Trucker's mind to look around and observe the vast difference in public acceptance that has occurred in just one lifetime - mine. We have lived through a slow-motion revolution these fifty years, with results like gay marriage that were merely daydreams, flights of fantasy, when your Head Trucker came out. It's been quite a journey; I'm glad I have lived to see this day.

Of course many others followed in the footsteps of Kameny and Gittings to lead the onward march for equality, justice, and dignity, and we owe everyone who has lent a hand to the struggle a continuing debt of gratitude for the rights and freedoms we now enjoy - and, we hope, will be enjoyed by many generations of LGBT people in years to come.

Here is Frank Kameny, the loud, proud, grand old man of the gay-rights movement, discussing how he came to be an activist after he was summarily fired from his civil-service job in 1957 for being gay, and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court a few years later:

After Kameny's death in 2011 at the age of 86, CBS's Mark Irvine commemorated his lfie and work with this report, which includes a clip of the White House picket line in 1965:

And here is the full 1984 documentary Before Stonewall, narrated by author and activist Rita Mae Brown, tracing the evolution of gay life and gay activism from the 1920's onward: a fascinating look at our people's recent past, the once-unspeakable history which ought to be required viewing for all the young folks before they get issued their pink cards:

As the film makes clear, where once to be gay and be yourself, it was necessary to be a disreputable denizen of the so-called underworld, now we can be happy, ordinary, boring middle-class folks just like our straight moms and dads and brothers and sisters, or for the politically ambitious, even Senators, Ambassadors, and perhaps one day soon, President - a refreshing and long-overdue change in my view.


Davis said...

I knew Barbara well and her partner Kay too.

Frank said...

Thank you for this post. It is good to know such history is available at the touch of a computer keyboard for all of us - those who lived it and those who have no idea what came before.

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