Laws have frequently been used to target minorities and marginalized people who are not doing what most people would think of as criminal activity. When writing about the origins of Pride Month, I often mention that before the early-to-mid-seventies it was illegal for a woman to wear pants in public. This seems crazy to most people now, and it sometimes came as a shock to people back then, but there it was.
Other laws sound more reasonable until you understand how they were actually applied. For example, in 1968 the Nixon campaign committee came up with the idea of the War on Drugs as a way to target two groups which opposed all of Nixon’s priorities: black people and those opposed to the Vietnam War. Many years after the fact, Nixon domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, explained it:
“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Long before that loitering laws were used to harass anyone that the powers that be found undesirable. Loitering was usually defined as “a person simply being in a public place for no apparent reason.” In 1972 the Supreme Court ruled that loitering ordinances and vagrancy ordinances were unconstitutional for two reason: they were so vague that a common citizens couldn’t be sure what behavior constituted the crime, and police were able to arbitrarily enforce it on people who were poor, members of minorities, and so forth.
Historically, the laws were almost always used to target minorities.
The Supreme Court ruling led many jurisdictions to replace the ordinances with so-called “loitering plus” laws. These were ordinances supposedly didn’t make simply being in a public place a crime, but rather being in public for various nefarious purposes. And one of the most popular in the late 80s and 90s were so-called “drug loitering” laws. These laws allowed police to demand ID and to perform personal searches on anyone who was in public and behaving in a way that made the cop suspect that maybe they might possibly be trying to buy or sell illegal drugs. Common activities that could get you arrested under these laws were such horrible criminal acts as: looking at the cars driving by on the roadway, waving at someone, appearing to be trying to make contact with other pedestrians on the sidewalk.
And the sad thing is that even though people tried to appeal these laws to the Supreme Court, it hasn’t accepted such a case for review in decades.
The City of Seattle passed one of these laws back in the 90s. I donated money to a campaign that tried to appeal the low through the courts. When that didn’t get anywhere, I donated money and even volunteered to phone back for a campaign that tried to get an initiative on the ballot to repeal the law. We didn’t succeed.
Year after year people brought forward evidence that both the drug loitering ordinance and the prostitution loitering ordinance were disproportionately used to target black people and gender-non-conforming people, the laws stayed on the books. A few years ago a new city attorney was elected he ceased prosecutions on the two laws precisely for those reasons, but it didn’t really solve the problem, because the next city attorney could just start filing the charges again, and cops would know they could start harassing people in the name of those laws again.
Finally, the laws have been repealed: Seattle City Council Repeals Loitering Laws – The council has voted to repeal two loitering ordinances, which they say had racist origins and disproportionately targeted minorities.
This is a direct result of the Black Lives Matter protests still going on in the city. So we’ve made a teensy bit of progress!
There are many other problems to address. The biggest problem is that virtually all politicians and most common people believe that myth that police forces protect the public from crime. Statistically, they don’t. Of the most common categories of property crime (burglary, larceny, auto theft), only between 13% to 22% of those reported result in an arrest. And those percentages have been so low, that by best estimates, less than 29% of burglaries and larceny are even reported—that means fewer than 4% of such crimes are ever solved!. Heck, fewer the 70% of car thefts are reported to police!
Only abut 38% of rape cases reported to police are cleared (and a laughably even tinier percentage result in any conviction). And since only 25%-40% of sexual assaults are even reported to the police, again we’re looking at fewer than 10% leading to an arrest. Only about 60% of murders are ever solved.
Meanwhile, through abuse of asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies steal far more from the people in their communities that all the burglaries and other robbery categories combined!
There are many reasons for this. One is that in most police departments across the country, the units tasks with investigating robberies and sexual assaults get the lowest budgets, and for various reasons even then, they are the departments most likely to be understaffed (as in, fewer officers actually working in those divisions than is budgeted for).
And then there are the cultural issues. K.L. Williams is a former police chief who now runs the Institute of Justice and Accountability, trying to reform police training (among other things). He sums up the police culture problem this way: about 15% of officers will do the right thing no matter what. And approximately 15% percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70% could go either way depending on whom they are working with.
At first glance that might not seem too bad—only 15% of cops are abusing their authority, right? But with 70% willing to look the other way and even cover up for the bad cops, that means that it’s 85% of cops who are bad, nut merely 15%. And surveys of cops have shown that a clear majority of cops admit that most of the colleagues routinely look the other way and often help cover up misconduct by other cops.
It’s just just that systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny leads policing to victimize, rather than protect, minorities and marginalized people—those things combined with police attitudes about the public in general and anyone they perceive as being worth even less than the public means that queer (especially gender-non-conforming) and trans people have been oppressed, harassed, and abused by police forever. And as the article above explains, race, perceived ethnicity (not always the same thing), and perceived immigration status simply amplify that.
Which brings us full circle back to the trans women of color who threw the first bunches, the first bricks, the first shot glasses, that started the Stonewall Riots.
I know this is something I’ve written about before on this blog, but as we approach what would have been the weekend of the Pride Parade here in Seattle (and many other cities around the country)—while the world is engulfed in a pandemic, and many protests about police brutality and racial inequality—it is vital to remember that the first Pride was a riot. Or, rather, a series of riots the continued for several nights after that first uprising in response to yet another police raid on a gay bar. No one knows for certain why that night people started fighting back. I think it was simply that a bunch of those trans and gender-non-conforming women of color were simply fed up.
And no, the Stonewall riots weren’t the first time that queers had protested and rioted over police brutality of queer people.
In 1959 in Los Angeles, for instance, there was the Cooper Do-nuts Riot. Cooper Do-nuts was a 24-hour donut shop located about halfway between two of the city’s gay bars. It was a place where queer people often congregated at night. At the time it was illegal in California (and many other places and would remain so for many years after), for a person to appear in public wearing clothes traditionally worn by the opposite gender. Because cops liked having an easy excuse to harass queer people, the gay bars didn’t like lots of trans people and street queens to be inside. Cooper Do-nuts served everyone, so it was always full of not just LGBTQ patrons, but specifically trans people, drag queens, and other very obviously gender nonconforming people. So the cops routine showed up there, demanded to see people’s ID and would arrest anyone whose legal ID showed them to a different gender than how they were dressed.
And remember, at the time, that law meant it was illegal for women to wear pants.
Anyway, in May of 1959 a couple of cops came into the shop, demanded to see everyone’s ID, and then tried to arrest two drag queens, two male sex workers, and a gay man. As at least one of those being arrested protested, the crowd erupted, pelting the cops with donuts, trash, and in some cases hot coffee. The cops fled the scene without arresting anyone. Unfortunately, the cops came back with backup and blocked off the entire street. A lot of people wound up arrested.
In 1966 in San Fransisco the management of a Compton’s Cafe decided they didn’t like how many transgender people were hangin out in their cafe, and they started calling the police to get the customers arrested. This caused the community to organize a picket line outside the cafe. Cops were called to arrest the trans people again, and this time a riot broke out. The windows of the cafe were smashed, along with a lot of furniture and all the windows of the first cop car. Eventually reinforcements came in and the riot intensified, but a lot of the riots were beaten, shoved into paddy wagons, and thrown in jail.
While the riot didn’t inspire a national movement, it did motivate a lot of homeless queer youth and others to join an organization called Vanguard Street Actions which staged various mostly peaceful protests, and over time the city began to try making changes in policy to reduce police harassment of queer people.
On New Year’s Eve 1967, at a Los Angeles gay bar called the Black Cat Tavern, a busy New Year’s Eve party took place. The newspaper accounts later said the party was “hopping” and the crowd was happy. Right up until midnight, when couples all over the bar started kissing to ring in the New Year. And then a bunch of undercover police started beating and arresting those kissing couples. Fourteen people were arrested that night. There was no riot. Some weeks later there was an organized public demonstration, and organizations that were lobbying government officials for LGBTQ rights raised a lot of money for among other things to try to appeal the convictions of some of the arrested same-sex couples. The Advocate, which remains a leading queer news source, was founded as a newsletter as part of the organized protests because of the Black Cat raid.
Seven months later, at another Los Angeles gay bar called the Patch, police raided one night, and started arresting people. The owner of the bar, Lee Glaze, jumped up on stage and got the crowd to chant various slogans and tried to convince the cops to let the arrestees go. When they didn’t work, they did not riot. Instead, Glaze led the rest of the crowd up the street to a flower shop, where they bought every single flower in the shop, and then marched to the police station, handing out flowers and chanting as they went. The protested peacefully outside the precinct until everyone arrested made bail and was released.
One of the protesters was a formerly-closeted pastor (who had been kicked out of the church) named Troy Perry, whose boyfriend (Tony Valdez) was among those arrested. After making bail, Valdez told Perry that his jail experience convinced him that god doesn’t love queer people. Perry decided to stop trying to fit in at the established churches that looked at his queerness as a sin, and to found a gay friendly church, which is how the Metropolitan Community Church came into being.
And then the next year the Stonewall Riots happened in New York City…
So that night at Stonewall wasn’t the first time that queer people got fed up with police harassment and brutality, but it was the first time where the protests and rioting continued for many days afterward. And probably because one of the newspapers that tried to cover the events objectively, The Village Voice, was read by a lot of professional journalists and academics far outside of New York City, is why Stonewall seemed to kick off a more organized fight for LGBTQ rights. Within a year, chapters of the new Gay Liberation Front had opened in many cities around the country, and within a couple more years nearly every college town in the U.S. had a chapter.
Most of the people targeted by the police in all of those incidents were those who were gender-nonconforming and/or not white. The cops harassed any queers that they could, but those were the people who got singled out every time. And in most of the cases they were the ones who get fed up and fought back.
I’m an old, white-bearded, cisgender blue-eyed white gay guy who is college educated and work in the software industry. A lot of people think that the LGBTQ rights movement is about and for people like me. But the real heroes, the first leaders, were the trans women of color. And just as we should never forget that they only gave us rights because queers gave them riots, we should remember that it was those trans and gender-non-conforming people of color who started and inspired the riots by fighting back against police brutality.
Sometimes a headline sends you into a weird internal spiral remembering traumatic moments, such as: A babysitter was caught on video slapping a boy for being a “gay a** b**ch” & his family went to war – For once, there’s a happy ending.
When I first saw the headline, I didn’t see the subhead about the story having a happy ending. Instead, I found myself reliving the times as a kid that I was teased and/or punished for acting wrong—and usually not understanding what I had done that was so wrong. For instance, I loved singing along to music played on the radio, my parents’ records, or the TV… and sometimes the reaction from family and friends was encouraging. And other times I would get teased or yelled at or even spanked for my antics. And to me there wasn’t a clear difference between the times that my dancing and singing would make people happy and the times when I would get called a sissy or freak or pussy.
The first time I remember anyone calling me a faggot was when I was nine years old… and it was a teacher who did it. He wasn’t my regular teacher. The school district I had just transferred to had elementary students spend a few hours each week doing fairly simply physical education activities under the supervision of a secondary teacher. We were lined up in the gym waiting to be taken back to class one day, and music was playing from somewhere. I don’t remember why, nor do I remember what the song was that was playing, but I recognized it, and I was doing jazz hands and bouncing to the music while singing along when the teacher walked up, grabbed my arm, and (at least how I perceived it at the time) yelled in my face to ask whether I was a little girl or a little boy?
I stammered back that I was a boy. And he shook me and growled, “Then stop acting like a faggot!”
When our regular teacher arrived to collect us, the phys ed teacher explained that I was in trouble because I had been acting up and distracting the other students. So for the next several days I wasn’t allowed to go outside for recess. I had to stay in the classroom with my head down on my desk. I was told that I needed to spend the time thinking about how bad it was to distract other students from lessons.
None of which made sense. The lesson was over. We were standing in line. Absolutely no education was going on, we were just standing in line waiting for our regular teacher to come get us.
That’s not even the worst of it. Because the phys ed teacher had called me a faggot, and it wasn’t a word I was familiar with, I asked my regular teacher what it meant. And I got in trouble even more for saying “dirty words” in the classroom. But I was just quoting another teacher!
It was only a month or so later when a Sunday School teacher gave me my very first own dictionary, and one of the words I eventually looked up in it was faggot. And in that dictionary the word is defined as “a bundle of sticks, twigs, etc bound together used for fuel etc.” Which didn’t help at all. How was me singing along to music acting like a bundle of sticks?
To get back to the story linked above, when it says “The child was participating in a viral “Savage” dance challenge with his sister. He looks longingly at her as she continues to dance.” I really understand that part about looking on longingly as others were allowed to do what I couldn’t do. It wasn’t always gender-based, which is what made it so hard for me to figure out what I was doing wrong all the time.
The end result was that those of us who didn’t conform to gender stereotypes—whether due to sexual orientations, or gender dysphoria, or simple statistical variance—all found ourselves crashing and burning between various metaphorical Scylla and Charybdis with neither map nor compass nor guide to see us through.
Which means that many over us spent years waffling between extremes around our own identity. Which brings me to another headline: Queer Rock ‘n’ Roll Legend Little Richard Is Dead at 87. Some versions of the blog post that eventually became this one started after I saw the first story a few daya ago about the death of Rock star Little Richard.
Little Richard was an extremely flamboyant rockstar whose stage persona inspired a large number of performers ranging from James Brown to Prince. At different times in he career he flirted with being out; other times he blatantly admitted to his queerness—for example when he said that “if Elvis is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll than I am the Queen” as well so the several times he described himself as “omnisexual.” Unfortunately, at many more parts of his career he denounced gay/lesbian people, and transgender people, and referred to parts of his own life as a struggle against sexual sin.
I went through several drafts this weekend of a post about him… and then I found the blog post that covered most of my points more succinctly than I had been able to:
Although rock ’n’ roll was an unabashedly macho music in its early days, Little Richard, who had performed in drag as a teenager, presented a very different picture onstage: gaudily dressed, his hair piled six inches high, his face aglow with cinematic makeup. He was fond of saying in later years that if Elvis was the king of rock ’n’ roll, he was the queen.
…Little Richard will always represent a sad existence to this once-closeted gay boy of the 1970s and ’80s. If it had just been my own self-loathing that made me feel embarrassed for him then I would only fault myself. But his clear struggle between his faith and his sexuality — at one point he became a preacher and more recently he denounced gay and transgender people as “unnatural” — represented everything that is wrong with organized religion, and I found his willingness to go along with it humiliating for everyone concerned. Still, you have to believe that the joy his music brought so many people is something that will be remembered far longer than the harm he caused so many LGBTQ people — himself included — during his 87 years on planet Earth.
When Little Richard appeared on various musical variety shows during the 60s and 70s, he represented a painful contrast. Part of me loved his stage persona and performance, but another part of me was deeply ashamed, because while I was still struggling with my own sexuality, he was clearly far outside of the acceptable boundaries of gender expression. Yet I still identified with part of what he was doing.
It wasn’t until many decades later that I learned that the original version of his first top forty hit, Tutti frutti referred to the kind of black gay man who wanted to be sexually dominated by other types of men. When he decided to record the song, he cleaned up the lyrics, but there were whiffs of the meaning that carried through, nonetheless.
I guess what I’m saying is that part of me understands why Litte Richard was never quite brave enough to come out and stay out. While another (much smaller) part of me understands why he had so much trouble negotiating his shame. But the greatest part of me remains deeply disappointed that he kept retreating back into self-loathing.
Little Richard, Tutti Frutti:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
I linked to this story a couple of days ago: Wall Street Journal Types Wonder Aloud If Nation’s Health Is ‘Worth’ The Economic Hit. And then of course there was this guy: Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick: I and Many Other Grandparents Would Rather Die from COVID-19 Than See the Economy Ruined . And online I’ve seen a number of people grumbling because they think only older people are vulnerable to serious illness. One comment that was extremely chilling: “Why do we have to suffer to keep some people alive who don’t have that many years left, anyway?”
It may not be quite as bad as that time (when I was a very closeted guy in my early-twenties) while my head was bowed in church when the pastor leading the prayer thanked god for the scourge of AIDS which was “killing all the gays” but it came close. Nor is it quite as bad as the time a college classmate said to me, “I know Jesus said to take care of the sick, but they didn’t know what caused all illnesses back then. We know what causes AIDS…”
So, in both cases we are talking about a virus. As I have pointed out, outside of the U.S., the vast majority of people who have been sickened and died of AIDS are straight women and children, not gay men. HIV is a virus, a natural phenomenon which is passed from person-to-person through behaviors that are a natural part of being a human being.
And while you can cherry pick the data to show that older people are more likely to die of complications of COVID-19, they aren’t the only people who do. In fact, that data is looking more and more suspect as time goes on: The Coronavirus Is Sending Lots Of Younger People To The Hospital – It’s increasingly clear that early data out of China was an anomaly: the coronavirus is severely harming substantial numbers of people under 50, too.
We know that factors which increase the likelihood of developing severe symptoms include a lot of chronic health problems that are widespread in the population. About 60% of adults have at least one of those known chronic health disorders. We also know that people how smoke or who are ex-smokers are at higher risk for getting severely ill. We have less data about whether vaping is also a risk factor, but it isn’t unreasonable to think so.
But there’s another risk factor that people aren’t taking into consideration: lack of health care options. Sure, it appears that the death rate is about 3.4% in general… yet we have places such as Italy and Spain that are seeing something closer to 8%, and at least one reason why is that so many people got sick at the same time that there weren’t enough hospital beds for the severely sick, and there weren’t enough respirators for those severely sick people who needed them.
Which is why the shelter-in-place/stay-at-home orders are important. Slowing the spread makes it possible that we might not have too many people severely sick at the same time than we have facilities for.
Though it’s quite likely that several spots in the U.S. are going to overwhelm their medical facilities, soon.
I am worried about my own health, it’s true. I am far more worried about the health of people that I know and love. I am worried about the economic hardships many are already facing, and that a lot more of us may be facing, soon. But most of those economic hardships (and many worse) will happen if infection rates surge to the point that millions die. The notion that ordinary people aren’t going to face disruptions and financial problems if all the orders are lifted and everyone goes back to work is simply wrong.
Humans are social animals. One of our survival traits as a species is that we take care of each other. My community didn’t survive the plague of AIDS by taking an “everyone for themself” attitude. The world won’t survive if you fail to learn the lessons of our ordeal:
Edited to Add: I’d already started the draft of this post before this tweet went across my timeline and I chose to re-tweet it. Decided I should add it here:
This divide, or course, exists on a spectrum. The beliefs of most people within the community fall somewhere between the extremes, but, enough are on one side or other of the middle that arguments happen. For instance, I’ve been accused of being an assimilationist because Michael and I got legally married once we were able to do so, and I watch football. I’ve also been called out in the other direction because I wear earrings, the color purple, rainbows, and call myself ‘queer.’
The tension between these two ideas plays out in many (and sometimes weird) ways—and not just within the community. There are still plenty of people (straight and not), who insist that LGBT+ rights advocates should be civil, and politely make their case about why we deserve equality. They wrongly insist that the radical approach never works. They completely ignore the actual history of the movements: decades of work by so-called homophile organizations in the U.S. and Europe politely advocating for decriminalization—always careful for the men to dress in suits and ties, and the women to were skirts and blouses—and never making any progress. It was the riots by drag queens, transgender people of color, and the like that finally made any change happen at all.
Yes, the other approach works well for raising money and countering backlash to each step forward. So both approaches have their place in the long running battle for equality.
Which isn’t to say that only the non-conforming people matter, or that there is some sort of meaning to the question of whether one person is gayer than another (despite some people trying to drag that distinction into some political races this year), it’s mostly a recognition of the old proverb that the “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Both kinds of LGBT/queer person are valid and just as “gay” as the other.
In the last few years as a small number of mostly-gender-conforming male professional athletes have decided to come out of the closet, you see various media people calling them trailblazers whose bravery will somehow make it easier for non-heterosexual kids to be themselves. Ignoring that fact that the actual trailblazers were blazing those trails for many years. It’s not the macho professional male athlete coming out in the twenty-teens who is leading the way, they are trailing far, far in the dust behind the femmy boys and glittery street queens and butch dykes and trans people of all types who led the way at Stonewall and in the years immediately following. And as has been demonstrated many times, no matter how unthreatening, conventional, and mainstream non-heterosexual people are, as soon as they dare to come out of the closet someone is ready with the slurs and attacks.
The two philosophies I mentioned at the beginning (Assimilationist/Radical) roughly map to two distinctive kinds of experiences many queer people lived through growing up:
- Some of us never fit in. We were bullied by classmates (as well as adults) for the way we talked, or the way we walked, or the things we expressed interest in.
- Others blended in so well that when they eventually did come out, people who knew them when they were younger express genuine and emphatic shock.
Make no mistake: neither kind of kid had it easy. The ones who did blend in realized, at some point, that they were different, and they lived in just as much fear as those of us who couldn’t figure out why we were constantly being called all those homophobic slurs. Both kinds internalized homophobia leading to feelings of self-loathing.
Those of us who couldn’t blend in are somewhat more likely to focus on trying to make society more accepting of all differences, while those who did blend in seem to be more likely to think our goal should be to convince straight people that we are no different from them.
But it isn’t an exact correlation.
I’m saying all of this for context. Now, let’s move on to my point: any time in the last few months that I have criticized the policies and statements of presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg I get accused of saying he isn’t gay enough. As if that phrase even means anything. That’s not what’s happening. My beef with Buttigieg is very few of his statements about policies would sound amiss coming out of the mouth of 2016 Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush. Most wouldn’t sound amiss coming out of the mouth of 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.
Mayor Pete is not a progressive politician. He doesn’t advocate positions that I believe will move us forward. At best, his detailed policies look to undo most of the harm Trump has done, and otherwise only promise to not to let things get much worse.
We can do better than that.
Now, I have some theories about why he doesn’t see how harmful late stage capitalism is to most working class and middle class people of every gender, orientation, and race. And I have some theories on why many of his responses as mayor to issues related to marginalized communities were tone deaf or outright dismissive. The quickest summation is: he is unaware of how the privileges he has had (being a man in our society, being white, having university-educated parents, being from a family well-to-do enough to send him to private school, and then to Harvard, and yes, being the kind of gay who can pass for straight when he wants) has protected him from the problems those less fortunate have had to deal with.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t think he’s gay enough. That does means I don’t think he is either self-aware enough nor empathetic enough to be a good president.
And that 2012 date was for the state of Washington. For the majority of the U.S. marriage was still not available to same sex couples until the Supreme Court ruling in 2015.
I told you that story so I can tell you this one:
A couple of weeks ago I was busy at work updating documents. I had to type the day’s date several times, and one of those times it struck me, “Oh! Wow! Today’s the anniversary of our first date.” It was, specifically, the 22nd anniversary of our first date. As it happened, we already had plans to meet a bunch of friends a couple of days later, at which event I was already planning to hand out some Christmas presents that had not be collected at the party, and a birthday present, and other things, so during my lunch break that day, I ran out to a store and also purchased an anniversary card to give to Michael, along with a silly present to give him with the card (I also ordered a couple the more substantial gifts online).
As it happened, that same day, while typing the date into a database at his workplace, Michael also remembered that it was the anniversary of our first date. He went online later and ordered an anniversary present for me. And, yes, we do that kind of weird parallel thinking a lot, and every time it happens, I remember all the times that close friends said (that year that we finally got to marry for real) that it was a little strange to think of us as newlyweds, because we had seemed to be an old married couple for so very long before hand.
I understand that not many people who have been in long-term relationships remember the exact date of their first date, nor the date of when they first met, et cetera. One reason that we do is because for most of history, queer relationships have been excluded from the societally-approved institutions related to anniversaries. So, for a few years, we celebrated the anniversary of our first date as our anniversary as a couple.
Then, the company I was working for decided to allow same sex partner benefits but only if you registered with some sort of government agency, and it so happened that the City of Seattle was offering such a registry (though it conveyed no legal benefits), so we filed the appropriate paperwork so I could get Michael on my medical and dental… and then a few years after that the State of Washington offered a similar registry, though initially with virtually no legal rights, but we signed up for it anyway, and so on…
So, technically we have a bunch of anniversaries… but which one to celebrate? And that question isn’t trivial. Go back to the story I started with. Without really thinking about it, a person who had just met me had asked how long I’d been married. That is an extremely common question for people who are just getting to know each other to ask once they find out you are in a relationship. And humans are social animals, and social customs often have a much stronger impact on one’s success, health, and similar things than mere laws.
I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been together for 22 years—if for no other reason than that I know what a complete jerk I can be sometimes (I really don’t know why he puts up with me sometimes!). I’m also extremely happy that we were able to get legally married at last, and getting to spend that day with so many friends that we love was just incredible.
There are still people who think that long-term queer relationships don’t exist, or are so rare that they don’t matter. The fact that the people most likely to publicly declare that are pundits and politicians who have divorced and re-married many times (and often have been proven to have engaged in a lot of affairs along the way) for some reason almost never gets reported. Let alone the sociological and psychological damage we’re all operating under because of decades of bullying, discrimination, hatred, and simple erasure.
That graph I include above is informative, but also a bit misleading. That last bit of the graph shouldn’t be green, IMHO, because it is still legal in at least 28 states to fire someone (or refuse to rent a home to them, et cetera) just because they are gay. And don’t get me started on all the state and local officials in various places that are trying to undo the marriage ruling, or at least ignore it.
And for some perspective, just 35 years ago 60 percent of Americans thought it should be a crime for gay and lesbian people to date, and as of last year that number is still 23%! That’s just dating, not marriage!
Some people, like the co-worker in my opening anecdote, simply aren’t aware of how recent any legal or societal acceptance has been (and are also frequently clueless about how much still exists). In some cases, that lack of awareness are exacerbated by the histrionics that some bigots have gone into every single time we made any progress at all. It’s easy to think that because the bigots were screaming about us destroying marriage for two decades before we actually started getting that right to marry, that we’ve had the right longer. And a lot of people still don’t realize that in 28 states it is completely legal for an employer to fire someone simply because they suspect they might be gay.
We’ve come a long way, but there’s a long way to go. Fortunately, several of us have demonstrated that we’re in it for the long haul.
So, forget the lies that certain so-called religious people have started spouting lately: the cops were not rescuing underaged people who were being sex trafficked. The purpose of the raid was to insure that the mob paid it’s bribes on time, and to give the cops a chance to rough up some trans people, masculine-looking women, and effeminate men. That was it.
And for some unkown reason, part of the crowd started fighting back on that night. The cops were so overwhelmed that they had to barricade themselves inside the now-emptied Stonewall Inn and wait for reinforcements. Over the next six days, news spread and people gathered, rioting on at least two more nights. The people who led the fights were the outcasts: the street queens, the people of color, the homeless queer teens—the people least likely to blend in at some white middle-class event.To the extent that the press covered the event, most of it was very condescending. Joe Jervis has been posting the full text of the New York Daily News’ story every June for a few years. If you want to see just how the so-called liberal press felt about gay people, go give it a read. To the extent that the media covered it at all, most of the coverage was either as disdainful and mocking as the New York Daily News, or they focused on the police version of the story. Technically, the riots didn’t start the gay rights movement. There had been several organizations staging the occasional picket lines (with the men in suits and ties and the women in skirts), or other orderly protests for a couple of decades. In fact, some of the organizations that had been lobbying for gay rights for years issued condemnations of the riots. Second: But the riots did have a several important effects. while the mainstream press either ignored them or made fun of queer people, some of the alternative papers tried to show both sides. And these papers were read outside of the neighborhoods they served, especially papers like the Village Voice which was read by many professional journalists and academics far outside New York. Third, the news of the riots spread through social grapevines, and within weeks younger, less affluent queer people who had never ever heard of organizations like the Mattachine Society were gathering and forming groups like the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists Alliance, or the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
Fourth, by the fall of 1969 chapters of the Gay Liberation Front were being formed on college campuses all over the U.S. I know, because I happened to know a man who was a freshman at the University of Washington that year, who was not only a founder of the UW chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, he served as an officer for the next few years.
Fifth: Commemoration led to recognition. The next year, June 1970, on the anniversary of the first riot, a small group met to march in what was then called Christopher Street Liberation Day, but by the time the group reached Central Park, the march had swelled to thousands. And, interestingly enough, the same papers that had been so condescending a year ago were at least less disdainful: “There was little open animosity, and some bystanders applauded when a tall, pretty girl carrying a sign “I am a Lesbian” walked by.”
I mentioned the organizations that had been fighting for gay rights for years. There were enough of them that they had been holding regular conferences for some years before the riots. Several months after the riots the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations passed a resolution supporting the Christopher Street Liberation Day, though several groups abstained. And the only reason the resolution was under consideration was because a group called Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods had started working with the Gay Liberation Front, and brought some GLF members to the convention as guests. The New York Mattachine Society (the people who had been doing that staid picketing for years with no significant changes in the law or attitudes) was one of the organizations that opposed commemorating the riots. But that parade, and others held in other cities all over the country, happened anyway, and they have been growing ever since.
The Mattachine Society had been lobbying for gay rights since 1950 to virtually no avail. The more radical queers who organized after Stonewall made more of a splash: by the 1972 presidential election campaign, there were national Democratic candidates advocating for anti-discrimination laws to include queer people.
Since that first march in 1970, there have been people within the community who call for the parades to be less outrageous. Specifically, they ask people not to wear kink gear, or sexually provocative clothing. Every year I hear someone saying that such-and-such or so-and-so doesn’t belong at Pride. They argue that only if we show the world that we aren’t freaks will we get rights.
I have a few more verbose responses:
First: if we all showed up with the men wearing suits and ties and the women in skirts, and walked calmly down the street the same bigots who claim we are sick and going to hell would still be screaming those lies. Because they did it for the two decades that groups like the Mattachine Society were playing the assimilationship card.Second: have you ever been to a straight parade or festival? Because let me tell you, the first time I ever attended Seattle’s Torchlight Family Seafair Parade I was shocked at how just how many skimpy bikinis were being worn by women on the floats and how many sexual innuendoes other floats were designed to embody. The only reason why LGBT Pride Parades appear to be outrageous and not-family-friendly to people is because none of the sexuality on display is aimed at white straight men. There is no less sexuality being flaunted at most non-gay festivals, parades, sporting events, et cetera, than there is at Queer Pride Parades. None. Third: the whole point of liberation and equality is that everyone should be free to be themselves. No one should have to hide who they are to be treated equally before the law. If you’re trying to keep the kinksters, the dykes on bikes, the drag queens, the scantily-clad go-go boys out of the Parade, you’re on the same side of this battle as the anti-gay bigots. You’re helping our enemies, not us. And I’m not the only person who feels this way. Take it away Amanda Kerri, writing for The Advocate:
“I’m frankly too worn out from this stuff at this point to be nice about it anymore. Saying that kink has no place at Pride is a bad opinion and you should feel bad. First of all, kink was at Pride long before upper middle-class queers decided to take their kids to Pride…. As for those of you arguing about how a bunch of queers running around in collars, harnesses, and body tape over their nipples makes us look bad in front of the straights and supports their arguments that we’re all perverts, well you might want to sit down for this: the ones who think we’re perverts don’t care how we’re dressed.”
Fourth: Pride isn’t a celebration of being gay, it’s an assertion of our right to exist without persecution. What is being celebrated is the fact that we have survived and even thrived despite the oppression. What is being celebrated is the rights of each and every one of us to be who we are without shame.
Fifth: Have you been to a Pride Parade lately? Because most of the groups marching in Pride Parades of late are corporate employee groups. They are queer people usually dressed in matching t-shirts approved by some corporate flunky, along with shorts and sensible shoes. Yes, I think there is a lot we need to think about with the corporations who pretend to be gay friendly for marketing purposes while actively supporting our oppressors. And I would frankly have more respect for the people trying to exclude the kinksters if they also talked about the corporate coopting, but they don’t usually seem to be the same people. Regardless, my point here is that just as straight public events aren’t really any more family-friendly than most Pride events, the Pride events aren’t nearly as outrageous as some of you seem to think.
Bottom Line: Everyone who is there to celebrate Pride is welcome, including straight allies. I’m not saying that you have to show up in a g-string with rainbow glitter on your nibbles to participate. I’m going to be wearing a t-shirt and shorts and sensible shoes, carrying my bright rainbow parasol and looking every bit the short, old, queer, nerdy bear that I am. But not only are the street queens, the freaks, the kinksters, the butch dykes, and all of the other “outrageous” or non-conforming people welcome, they were our founders—and they sure as hell belong.
What doesn’t belong at Pride are oppressive attitudes.
Gilbert Baker was born in Kansas in 1951. From an early age he was fascinated with fabrics and color. He attributed this early interest to the women’s clothing store which was owned by his grandmother. Even with that family connection, though, in small town Kansas in the 1950s no one thought a boy should learn to sew. In 1970 the 19-year-old Gilbert was drafted into the army, where he was trained as a medic and stationed in San Francisco, where he treated soldiers who had been wounded in Vietnam.
“In 1978, when I thought of creating a flag for the gay movement, there ws no other international symbol for us than the pink triangle, which the Nazis had used to identify homosexuals in concentration camps. Even though the pink triangle was and still is a powerful symbol, it was very much forced upon us.
“I almost instantly thought of using the rainbow. To me, it was the only thing that could really express our diversity, beauty, and our joy. I was astounded nobody had thought of making a rainbow flag before because it seemed like such an obvious symbol for us.”
—Gilbert Baker, 1951-2017
In 1970 there was a thriving queer community in San Francisco. Gilbert found other people like himself, and managed to serve out his tour as a medic without getting caught (being gay was a court martial offense), so he was honorably discharged. But having found a community, he chose to stay. He bought a sewing machine and taught himself to sew. He hung out with a lot of other artists. He designed fabulous drag costumes. And he also began designing pro-gay and anti-war protest banners for a variety of marches and rallies. Soon he was known as “the banner guy.”
When Harvey Milk was elected a city supervisor, becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in the U.S., he had worked with Gilbert a few times in relationship to those rallies and protests. And so when Milk thought that the community needed a new symbol to unite around, he asked Gilbert to create it.
Note that Milk asked him to create a symbol, not necessarily a flag. But Gilbert said he settled on a flag very quickly, because a flag represents sovereignty. “A flag,” he said, “proclaims that gays are a people, a family, a tribe.” He chose the rainbow as the basis of the flag because it represented diversity—of race, gender, age. “Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky!”The Gay Freedom Day Committee provided money, and the Gay Community Center provided working space. Gilbert Baker and approximately 30 friends gathered together with over a thousand yards of cotton fabric and a lot of bottles of dye, and carefully created fabric in eight colors: hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise and violet. Gilbert also worked with Fairy Argyle, who was known as the Queen of Tie-Day, to create a square of blue fabric that had tie-dyed stars on it, to evoke the field of stars on the U.S. flag. Gilbert sewed two different flag designs in 1978, the first was the 8-stripe rainbow, the second one looking like the American flag, but with the tie-dyed stars and rainbow stripes.
The two flags were first hoisted into the sky above San Francisco’s U.N. Plaza as part of the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25th, 1978. Gilbert’s longtime friend, Cleve Jones, described the day as having the perfect amount of wind to make the flag furl, but not be unpleasant on the ground: “It was just stunning.”Five months later, Harvey Milk was assassinated, and the community was thrown into mourning. Thousands gathered that night in the Castro, that marched to city hall where they held a candlelight vigil. In the following days, people began asking for rainbow flags. To meet the sudden demand, Gilbert worked with the Paramount Flag company to mass produce flags. They used a then stand available rainbow fabric with only seven stripes: red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet. The Freedom Day committee wanted larger flags for the next Pride Parade, and Gilbert went to work, dropped the hot pink stripe from his larger hand-sewn flags in part because the dye was difficult to obtain, and no one was manufacturing stock hot pink fabric.
And the next year he dropped another stripe. Some say that the turquoise was dropped because when the flags were hung vertically from city light poles the middle stripe wasn’t visible from other angles. Gilbert said that turquoise and indigo fabric was difficult to obtain, so he switched to a navy blue stripe.
I’ve written before that the rainbow flag was not immediately embraced by everyone in the LGBT+ community. In fact, it was considered more a regional thing until a court case in 1989, when a West Hollywood man had to sue his landlord for the right to fly the rainbow flag from his apartment balcony.
In 1994 Gilbert supervised the creation of the first mile-long rainbow flag to commemorate the 25 anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The flag was cut up afterward to make smaller flags. Some sections were sold as a fundraiser, others were distributed to Pride Parade committees in other cities. In 2003, the 25th anniversary of the creation of the rainbow flag, Gilbert was commissioned to create another giant flag. This one was one and a quarter miles long and was carried in the Key West, Florida Pride event. It was eventually cut into 100 slightly less giant flags and again distributed to various cities around the world.
Gilbert often described himself as the Queer Betsy Ross and was sometimes asked to give his blessing to some variants designed by others (such as the Victory Over Aids Flag, which used a lighter violet and had a black stripe to symbolize our mourning for those who have died of complications of AIDS). It is worth noting that except when he was directly commissioned, Gilbert didn’t make money from his creation. In his later years he struggled financially. But the one interview I saw where someone asked him about it, he said it would have been wrong to try to trademark the design. How could it be a symbol of our tribe if it legally belonged to one person?
After 2003, Gilbert started lobbying for a return to the original 8-stripe version, so far to little avail. When Barack Obama was elected President, Gilbert hand sewed an 8-stripe version as a gift to Obama, and during the Obama administration that flag was displayed in the White House.Gilbert redesigned the flag one more time before he died. The election of Trump prompted him to add a 9th stripe, lavender for diversity or resistance. He sewed 39 by hand before his death, and they were used in the following San Francisco Pride Parade.
When I was first coming out of the closet in the late 80s, pink triangles were the symbol I saw around the Seattle queer community. You could find pink triangle buttons and key chains and bumper stickers and so forth in every store in the gayborhood. There were rainbows, as well, but the pink triangle outnumbered them. Then in the 90s, when suddenly there were rainbows everywhere, especially at pride, there was a bit of a backlash. I heard more than one person grumble about rainbows everywhere.
But I think Gilbert was on to something. The pink triangle was forced on us by oppressors; it was also most often used to identify gay men in the concentration camps—therefore many lesbians felt the reclaimed symbol didn’t include them. There is something joyful about the bright colors of the rainbow flag. The different colors side-by-side can signify that diversity Gilbert talked about: different races, different genders, different generations of queer people.
And I confess that as long as anti-gay religious wingnuts have conniption fits about us supposedly stealing the symbol from god, I’m going to take a bit of delight in raising my own rainbow flag. And it isn’t just about sticking it to the haters. Rainbows appear in the sky after a storm. They are beautiful and ephemeral and otherworldly. It’s difficult to look up at one in the sky after storm clouds have cleared and not feel at least a bit of wonder.
As queers we encounter a lot of storms in life. We may be bullied as kids. We may face discrimination and even physical assault as adults. We achieve a small victory, and then face a conservative backlash. In my lifetime there have been campaigns to pass laws to bar us from certain professions, even as courts and civil rights laws open some doors for us. The AIDS crisis killed tens of thousands, and it wasn’t just Republican politicians who laughed at our suffering during the 1980s. But every tempest and onslaught that we weather makes us a stronger. We have setbacks, but we fight on, moving ever forward.
Like the rainbow, we shine on after each storm.