Misleading notions my teachers taught, Part 2: Protestors were small, unconnected groups
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, often cited as the beginning of the Modern Gay Civil Rights movement in America. It’s a little weird to realize that events which happened within my lifetime are looked on as distant history by a significant number of adults. To be sure, I was only 8 years old with the Stonewall Riots happened—it was the summer between first and second grade for me—and I didn’t hear anything about them at the time. What I do remember being in the national news was mostly the Black Civil Rights movement and the Anti-War Protests.
That was also a summer that I spent with my Grandparents, which meant that most nights I watched the news with my Grandpa, and during the day I listened to the radio, hearing hourly news updates of about 3 minutes duration, and then listening to Paul Harvey at noon. And the impression I had then and over the next couple of years was that there were a very small number of black people who were unhappy about… things. And any equally small number of completely unrelated people were protesting the war in Vietnam because war is bad.
My teachers mostly didn’t talk about any of this stuff until a few years later, and again the attitude was less than sympathetic to either movement. They didn’t go so far as to call the war protesters cowards, like my dad did, or the much worse words he used for the black people, but the overall impression was that people were upset about something that wasn’t a real problem. And, again, it was emphasized that it was a few isolated groups of troublemakers behind it all. Similarly with the Women’s Rights movement and the Native American Rights movements. Each of those things were treated as distinct, unconnected things.
And it only got worse in middle school and high school. By the time I was in high school the U.S. had pulled out of Vietnam and the consensus seemed to be that the whole war had been a mistake, but the people who protested it were still described by many of my teachers as a fringe group that hadn’t really been proven right, but more that their knee-jerk peacenik attitude just happened to coincidentally align with reality. Or something. The woman who taught my high school history class was quite in favor of women’s rights, and had a lot to say about how poorly Native Americans were treated by our society, but seemed to think that the Voting Rights Act of 1964 had taken care of any inequalities facing all other racial minorities.
By high school the Gay Rights movement was at least acknowledge, but none of my teachers (even the ones that many of the students thought might be gay) referred to at as anything but a small fringe group of mentally ill people (almost all of whom lived in California) who wanted their sickness treated a something deserving of special rights. And I do mean all of the teachers. The state-approved text book for my high school health class had an entire chapter on sexual deviancy, and it not only defined all kinds of kinkiness and homosexuality as mental illness, it explicitly referred to it as a single mental illness, in which straight kinkiness would always lead to bisexual and then homosexual behavior which would always progress to bestiality, pedophilia, and necrophilia. Yes, I’m absolutely serious. On the test we had to list all of the stages in the “correct order.” Note that this was in the late 1970s in a state that has been reliably blue for many decades.
But the one thing that all of them still agreed upon was that each of those movements advocating for a better society was a unique, distinct, and totally separate group. Even when I got into college and had not one but two stereotypical uber-liberal history teachers (one always wore turtlenecks, like the other alternated between turtlenecks and ponchos brought back from his summer sojourns into Central America) treated each of those movements as totally autonomous things. They portrayed the Civil Rights movement as solely the work of some African Americans. They portrayed the Native America Rights movement as soley the work of some Native Americans. They portrayed the Women’s Rights movement was solely the work of some women (usually white women). And they portrayed the Gay Rights movement as solely the work of a small group of (white) gay men and lesbians.
The truth was, that the people who stood up to the police and started fighting back at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago were trans people of color. There were a lot of lesbians of various races in the crowd and some gay men. But most of the white faces in that crowd that night were street kids—the homeless teens kicked out by the families who found their way the New York City and did what they had to do to survive.
And the bigger truth was that all of those civil rights movements and the anti-war movement had a lot in common. There were people who participated in all the fights. George Edgerly Harris III, the young man how put flowers in the gun barrels was a queer man who was part of a radical gay theatre troupe. He went by the name Hibiscus, and became famous for wearing the outrageous drag while keeping a full beard—a look that would later be labeled genderqueer or genderfuck. And in 1967 he joined a protest march on the Pentagon. He was active in the anti-war movement and the Gay Rights movements, obviously, and at different times in life worked with or supported the efforts of the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movement.
Bernie Boston, the photographer who took the “Flower Power” picture, was a photojournalist who covered all of those events, at least one time famously getting into a conflict with some KKK members. And by frequently arguing vehemently with cops or MPs or National Guardsmen when they tried to interfere with the coverage. He was multiracial, of African American, Native American, and Irish American descent, and strangers usually assumed he was black. As a journalist, he was trying to cover the events, not be part of them, but sometimes that line blurred.
Just as Martin Luther King, Jr’s trusted righthand man, Bayard Rustin, was an openly gay man long before Stonewall while he was helping organize things like King’s March on Washington, the New York Bus Boycott, and other events. A lifelong pacifist, of course he supported and worked with the anti-war movement. He argued for making political alliances with other marginalized groups, and was active in the Gay Rights movement, various anti-semitic groups, pro-labor groups, and women’s rights groups.
These are just a few examples. But the thing is that all those fights had both goals and people in common. They were (and continue to be) fighting the forces of oppression in our society. We should all be working together. We should not let people divide us and act as if they are separate fights.
Because nobody is free until everyone is.