Coming Out, and Rising Up, in the Fifty Years After Stonewall
A day or two after the Stonewall Riots, in June, 1969, Virginia Apuzzo, a twenty-eight-year-old nun and college lecturer, went down to Sheridan Square looking to shed her shame. The shame had been with her since she was ten and proposed to a girl who was perhaps a year older, a neighbor in an apartment building in the Bronx. “She called me ‘crazy’ and I felt red-faced, shriveled,” Apuzzo wrote in an e-mail to me. Now, down in the Village, where queer people stood up to police during a raid of a gay bar, “the energy and atmosphere gave me my first sense of Pride, of having the right to breathe out loud.” She quit the convent and joined the newly created gay-liberation movement.
Just six years later, when Richard Burns, a student at Hamilton College, came out, gay-liberation groups had proliferated. There was a tiny one on campus, and Burns joined immediately. Gay life, gay activism, and gay pride were no longer inconceivable—they were even, with some trepidation, occasionally written about in the newspapers. What remained inconceivable was a positive image of gay life and love in the mainstream media: in those rare instances when homosexuals appeared in movies or on television, they were pathetic, ridiculous, or frightening. So for Burns, when he became an activist, the goal was “being able to come out, find people to love, and safety,” and this seemed revolutionary, because nothing of the sort was reflected in popular culture.
Seven years after this, when I came out, as a fifteen-year-old in Boston, the image of gay people in the mainstream media was not much better, and was about to get a lot worse: homosexuality would soon be perceived as firmly linked to a terrifying, deadly new disease, at first called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. But queer role models were available to me. Boston was an epicenter of gay and lesbian activism, whose own epicenter was the weekly Gay Community News, the only national gay newsweekly. G.C.N. held envelope-stuffing parties every Friday. I went there to volunteer, eat pizza, and silently gawk at brilliant gay activists. Burns, who had served as managing editor at G.C.N., was one of them. In 1982, he was a law student at Northeastern University, as was a lesbian activist named Urvashi Vaid. (They met on their first day at law school, in 1980.) I thought they were gods. We are acquainted socially now, and are even members of the same book group, but I don’t think they know that I had a one-sided relationship with them back then. I wouldn’t be who I am if it hadn’t been for them and about a dozen other queer people I met in the nineteen-eighties—including Apuzzo, who was then the head of the National Gay Task Force. (The organization changed its name to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1985 and is now the National L.G.B.T.Q. Task Force.) I have probably conducted more than twenty thousand interviews in my life, but I remember the first time I interviewed Apuzzo over the phone, in the late eighties. She said that, at that stage in her life, she was interested in working politically with young people, and this set my heart aflutter.
The writer Andrew Solomon has proposed a distinction between “vertical” and “horizontal” identities. The former, like religion, ethnicity, and hereditary conditions, may be passed on from generation to generation. The latter separates children from their parents but connects them to people outside their family of birth. This type of identity may be sexuality, a condition like deafness in the child of hearing parents, or any number of other identities that parents—and, often, other older relatives and community members—cannot model. Like most queer people, I had to look outside my birth family (and run away as fast and as far as possible from the Russian-immigrant community) in order to understand who I could be and how I could live. Many of the people who were my unwitting guides have died, several of them of AIDS. But on the eve of Stonewall 50, I got in touch with the people who are still here. I asked them to think back to the time when they became activists and recall what they imagined then that the future might be like—and compare that to now.
Burns, who is now sixty-four, told me over the phone that, as he recalled, “The holy grail was nondiscrimination laws—then we’d be done. There was no understanding yet of the duality between legal equality and lived equality.” The gay movement faced a backlash and setbacks before it made any measurable gains. In the late nineteen-seventies, a Christian singer named Anita Bryant toured the country campaigning against “homosexual propaganda” and spreading the fear of predatory homosexual pedophiles invading American schools. In the nineteen-eighties, AIDS began killing gay men and turned the living into pariahs. In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld the Georgia sodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick, a case that began when the police entered an Atlanta bedroom, found two men in bed together, and arrested them. The court ruled that the police had been right to do so, and that the right to privacy was reserved for heterosexuals. (I didn’t have to look that up: thirty-three years later, I remember the names of the participants, including the lawyers, the details of the case, and the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach when the decision came down.)
In the minds of gay people there could be no doubt that we lived in a country that despised us. But, Burns pointed out, the gay community mobilized in response to every calamity. The first gay and lesbian march on Washington, in 1979, marked the beginning of a national movement. AIDS showed more-assimilated gay men that they were not protected, and brought them to activism. In 1987, ACT UP was born in a speech by the writer Larry Kramer that he delivered at the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Center, where Burns had begun his twenty-two-year tenure as executive director. The second march on Washington, in October of that year, took ACT UP national. Every time something terrible happened, Burns said, the movement got stronger: more people joined in response to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, and after a 2000 Supreme Court decision that upheld the Boy Scouts’ right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
The tide took a long time to turn. In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court reversed the Bowers decision, striking down remaining sodomy laws throughout the country. The following year, Massachusetts became the first state where same-sex marriage was legal. Burns was not an early proponent of the marriage-equality fight. His roots were in gay liberation, which had its roots in the great social movements of the nineteen-sixties. “We didn’t want to get married—we wanted to dismantle the nuclear family. We didn’t want to serve in the military—we wanted to disband the military.” Now, he said, he is a “very happy beneficiary” of the expansion of the right to marry. He and his partner were married, in 2015 (Burns had to check the inside of his wedding band to make sure that he remembered the date correctly); the comedian Kate Clinton, who is Vaid’s partner, officiated. The biggest reasons to get married, Burns said, were “age and health concerns.” And love, he then added.
Back in the day, the scholar and activist Karla Jay told me on the phone, “We had much more radical hope. Our hope was that society would have changed in a dramatic way. I’m not talking about the legalization of marriage—I’m talking about a society in which sexual orientation wouldn’t matter, because people would view others as simply human beings.” It was a vision of transformation and convergence more than acceptance and integration. Jay was a member of the Gay Liberation Front, an organization born of the Stonewall riots, and its first female chair. A favorite slogan was “We’ll never go straight until you go gay.” At a time when holding hands with your lover in public was unthinkable and same-sex dancing was illegal, Jay said, “we imagined decriminalization rather than legalization.” They wanted all love and sex to be deregulated, not to have same-sex love included in the regulatory system of the state. But when the larger world suddenly opened the door to same-sex couples, inviting them into the system, the movement giddily marched through that door, abandoning its earlier dreams and leaving behind many of its most marginalized members. “Transgender women of color, poor elders, homeless youth, people who don’t want to live in a couple, single people, asexual people, threesomes, communes—all those people have been thrown under the bus,” Jay said.
To teen-age me, Jay showed that you could be it all: a street activist and an academic, butch, and unapologetically focussed on queer issues. Jay, who is seventy-two, was a professor at Pace University for thirty-nine years and has written and edited several key books on queer history and theory. She has maintained her radical views. But in 2004, when Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, Jay and her partner travelled to Northampton and got married. They had four witnesses, a blueberry pie with two plastic bride figurines on top, and, she said, “thirteen hundred rights that we got, but I don’t feel good about that.” Still, they did it for the legal protections marriage offers. “If there is anything I can do to spare the woman I love any pain if anything should happen to me, I will do it,” Jay said. “I will walk on coals.”
This weekend, Jay will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall at a private reunion of G.L.F. to be held at the Center, following a panel with some other former members of the organization. She expects fireworks—it was always a contentious group. “Some of the people I struggled with are still among my closest friends,” she said, “because they love the world the same way I love the world.”
About six months into the G.L.F.’s existence, a group of dissidents split off from the organization, which they felt was spending too much time on too many different social-justice issues, and formed the Gay Activist Alliance, to concentrate on gay liberation. In the winter of 1971, a textile designer named Jonathan Ned Katz went to a G.A.A. meeting. “I was terrified,” he told me on the phone. “I knew it was going to change my life, but I didn’t know how.” Katz joined the media committee, which convened to discuss “how we were going to get our new consciousness out to the public.” Katz, who grew up in a radical-left household in New York, with a father who had taught him about the history of race relations in the United States, had written two documentary radio plays about slavery. “And I thought, There must be gay history!” Katz wrote a documentary play—agitprop is how he thought of it—called “Coming Out!,” which also served as his coming out to his mother, via an ad for the production in the Village Voice. The play led to a book, “Gay American History,” and a now nearly fifty-year career as a historian of homosexuality in America.
A decade after Katz went to his first G.A.A. meeting, I was lurking in the library stacks at Brookline High School, reading the thousand-page “Gay American History” in single-afternoon portions. It was the only book in the library that had the word “gay” in the title. This book meant everything to me: it was proof that, as a queer person, I had a legacy, and it was also a way to connect to people who shared it. I don’t know how many other kids read the book in the stacks—it was well worn, despite having shrink wrap over its red glossy cover—but only one girl had had the courage to check the book out of the library. She had done it repeatedly; her name was written on the lending card over and over. I tried to find her, but she had dropped out of school. I did meet her eventually, after I had also dropped out and she and I were working as bicycle messengers at the same gay-run company.
When he first started going to demonstrations, Katz told me, he had no hope for effecting change. “I did it because it was nice to be with other people—it felt good,” he said. Then again, he had felt hopeless when he was attending peace marches in the early sixties, before there was a mass antiwar movement—whereupon he stopped going, because his body didn’t seem to matter so much. The gay movement grew and changed, too. “I underestimated the ability of capitalism to take in certain rights movements, to view them as new consumer groups to market to,” he said. “I’m not against it; it’s just not the vision of human liberation that a lot of us had.” That vision was of a full realization of democracy, complete with equal resources and opportunity.
That said, Katz, who is eighty-one, wanted me to know that he has had just the best almost-fifty years and is still full of joy. “It’s great that I no longer have to live in shame and go to my therapist and say, ‘I want to be a heterosexual.’ I have so much fun discovering gay history. I’m Jonathan Ned Katz, detective historian! I wouldn’t have become that if I hadn’t gone to that G.A.A. meeting.”
When Urvashi Vaid became an activist in the nineteen-seventies—first in social-justice and anti-racism movements, then in the feminist movement, and finally in the queer movement, she thought that victory would come when women’s liberation was achieved, and that this victory was inevitable. “We were going to change sexual hierarchies, would end capitalism,” she told me on the phone. “I thought we would all be living in communes, and we would create new economic structures.” With every decade of activism, she has tempered her goals. Vaid, who has served as executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, worked in the foundation world and in academia, and now runs her own consulting group. There has been less policy change and less accumulation of political power than she had expected: somehow, the math, which showed that women and progressives were in the majority, has not resulted in a redistribution of political power. But there have been unexpected gains, too—many religious communities have come to accept homosexuality, for example. And there is marriage.
“If you had told twenty-year-old me that I would be married, I would have laughed in your face,” Vaid, who is sixty, told me. “Marriage is property; property is theft!” She and Kate Clinton have been married for five years, together for thirty-one. “It’s an amazing thing,” she said, of marriage. “It transformed outlaws into in-laws. It domesticated us, which is a complication.” And yet, she believes, same-sex couples are also changing the institution of marriage, simply because “we don’t do gender roles the same way. We just don’t.”
It wasn’t the focus on marriage that left the more marginalized members of the L.G.B.T. community behind, she believes—it was the lack of focus on economic justice, gender, and race. But while that may not be changing in the mainstream L.G.B.T. movement, something else has happened that excites Vaid far more than marriage. “Queer people are the leaders of the progressive movement,” she said. “I always expected it, and now it’s happened.” Queer African-American women founded the Black Lives Matter movement; queer organizers are central in the fight for immigrants’ rights; and two of the country’s largest labor unions, Service Employees International and the American Federation of Teachers, are led by lesbians. “The left didn’t get race, didn’t get gender, didn’t get sexuality in the seventies, eighties, and nineties—and then it changed.”
After I dropped out of high school, I spent a year living on Beacon Hill, one of Boston’s gay neighborhoods. Everyone knew one another—it was an intricately interconnected multigenerational community, mostly of gay men, but with a sizable lesbian minority. These were the lesbians who liked to dance and who idolized Bette Midler; the other lesbians, who hosted potlucks and listened to women’s music, lived across the river, in Cambridge and Somerville. Everyone I knew had a story of rupture with their family. Many of my friends had run away from home—a couple were teen-agers, like me, and several were in their twenties but had been on their own for a decade. Older men gave shelter to younger men and boys. My girlfriend had got away from her family by enlisting; she was now going to college on the G.I. Bill. I moved to New York to go to college, at Cooper Union. In the spring of my freshman year, I read about a gay high school opening in the city. There were twenty students, the article said, mostly effeminate boys and butch girls who had trouble fitting in at their old schools. I remember feeling like I had missed out—I wanted to go back to high school with other queer people. At Cooper Union, I didn’t know any students who were queer, though I did run into my sculpture professor at the lesbian club the Cubbyhole almost every weekend.
Even though I never went to Harvey Milk High School or the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth (now the Hetrick-Martin Institute), a resource center for homeless gay and lesbian youth that preceded the school, I felt somehow connected to them. I was still the same age as the teen-agers who were there; back in Boston, I’d left friends who had been turned away by their families. The founders of these institutions showed that we could take care of our own—something that we would see on a much greater scale during the AIDS crisis.
Joyce Hunter, a co-founder of the school and a founding member of the institute, was herself once a high-school dropout estranged from her family. When she went to her first women’s dance, run by the G.A.A., in 1971, she was married to a man, working at a factory, and raising two kids. When she became an activist, her biggest concern was getting to keep her kids—at the time, many women lost custody once they came out as lesbians. Hunter’s kids stayed with her. She went back to school and then started her own school. Now eighty, Hunter is living in Sunnyside, Queens, with her partner of thirty-nine years. They married two years ago. “My grandkids married us,” Hunter told me. “We decided we needed to, because of our age and financial issues. But we are lucky because we have families that love us.”
The Harvey Milk School, on Astor Place, is now one of the many small high schools run by the Department of Education. “But for kids who don’t live in Manhattan, it’s still hit or miss,” Hunter said. “They may see gay people on TV, but they are still on Staten Island, where they are different.” Still, Hunter is probably the most hopeful of the people I interviewed for this article. It was always at the core of her work with young people—she created places where they could feel hope, and observing them gave her hope. “I feel strongly about the hope,” she told me.
That feeling I first experienced at eighteen, when I read about the queer high school—the feeling of missing out on something that should have been my life—was a preview of witnessing social change while aging. The writer Sarah Schulman told me that she felt it in 2003, when the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws. “I knew that I would never personally benefit from that decision,” she told me on the phone. She didn’t mean that she feared being prosecuted for homosexual sex—it was the court’s acknowledgment of the basic humanity of queer people that came too late for her. “I had been devastated by familial homophobia. I had a totally marginalized career. This was never going to go away.”
I met Schulman in 1990, the year her novel “People in Trouble” was published, and I walked around the city with lines from the novel playing in my head. Schulman, who was thirty-two then, was everything I wanted to be: an activist, a writer published by a big New York house, a popular speaker. She seemed like the trailblazer of the big gay writing breakthrough. In retrospect, she said, this was the period when publishing discovered niche marketing. Barnes & Noble now had a gay section, and this was where Schulman’s and other gay-themed books were shelved. They went from being writers to being “gay writers.”
The problem with being a “gay writer” is the assumption that your writing is interesting only to gay people. Schulman said that, when she went to her high-school reunion, she could instantly tell who among her old classmates was gay: they had read her books, while the straight attendees asked her what she did. Schulman has received enough conventional honors—she is a distinguished professor in the CUNY system, a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities, and currently a fellow at the MacDowell Colony—to have a sense of how much more recognition she would have had if she were not perceived as solely a lesbian writer. “I am never called upon as a public intellectual, except on gay topics,” she told me. “Only recently have straight people started to read my work.” The New Yorker wrote about her 1990 novel in 2017. I asked Schulman if she has a revenge fantasy, or at least a fantasy of finally getting the accolades she deserves. She said that, if it came, it would probably feel like it was too late, like the Supreme Court decision, a bittersweet and insufficient resolution to a lifetime on the margins.
When we spoke, Shulman was at MacDowell, revising a draft of her monumental history of ACT UP, an organization in which she was active and the memory of which she has maintained by working on a large oral-history project and a documentary film, “United in Anger,” which came out in 2012. A lot of the media coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall has seemed to obscure the AIDS epidemic, to mention it as almost a footnote, or at least just one chapter in a story of many losses and more gains. For queer people of my generation and older, the epidemic shaped our understanding of life itself. When we talk about AIDS, it seems, we can talk about nothing else, because nothing else looms as large. It seems that there may be no way to talk about AIDS in a way that reflects its impact on the gay community, the L.G.B.T. movement, and, indeed, American culture and politics. For younger generations, though, and for writers and historians crafting a longer narrative for the current festivities, the AIDS epidemic has become a self-contained historical episode.
In fact, some forty million people in the world are living with H.I.V., more than a million of them in the United States. In 2017—the last year for which statistics were available—almost a million people in the world died of AIDS. In the United States, tens of thousands of people become infected with H.I.V. every year; most of them are gay men, and most of these men are either African-American or Latino. This is happening twenty-three years after researchers announced that AIDS would now be a manageable chronic disease. It is true that current treatments help a majority of people with H.I.V. who take them, but millions of people who need it do not have access to treatment, and many more don’t even know that they are infected. It is also true that H.I.V. transmission can now be effectively prevented—both by treating people who are infected, until there is no virus in their bodily fluids, and by taking anti-H.I.V. medication preventively. But a majority of Americans who would benefit from preventive treatment do not receive it. Still, the conventional narrative is that AIDS is a plague that began and ended a very long time ago.
For me, Larry Kramer, the writer who founded ACT UP, is a model for turning one’s fears and feelings of helplessness into anger and action. He was the first to raise an alarm, in the gay media, in 1982, about gay men dying of a mysterious disease. Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a service group devoted to taking care of sick and dying men, started in Kramer’s living room. In 1987, he gave a speech that managed to be desperate and inspiring at the same time. It started ACT UP. Now Kramer, who is eighty-four, once again finds himself unable to think about anything but AIDS—and his own anger.
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“AIDS activism and writing about it have been my whole life,” Kramer wrote, in an e-mail. “The future I hoped for was its elimination. Instead it has only got worse. We have lost the war against AIDS and are continuing to do so. It’s all getting much much worse for us and this won’t stop.” He added, “Too many people hate us and are accelerating this hate.”
Political activism, if it is successful, benefits younger generations more than the people who created the change. Kate Bornstein, the writer and performance artist, told me that she expects the gender revolution that she has been working toward to happen in my lifetime, but not in hers. She is seventy-one. In 1991, she was the first person I saw speak about the possibility of being neither a man nor a woman. The idea was fairly new to her, too. She had begun transitioning from male to female in 1984. Her therapist suggested that she get out and meet people by joining an activist group, and she went to the National Gay Task Force, which was then a small office in New York where people were planning for the 1987 march on Washington. Bornstein thought of herself as a transsexual lesbian woman and, she said, “I just wanted to disappear into the lesbian community. It was warm: they had potlucks and game nights. It was family.” But the AIDS crisis ended the cozy lesbian life that had welcomed her in Philadelphia and San Francisco, Bornstein noted. “Potlucks and game nights became phone trees and ‘Who can take care of Don.’ ”
The idea of a transsexual lesbian was novel, and Bornstein’s new friends asked a lot of questions. Mostly they wondered how someone who had not been socialized as a girl and a young woman could become a woman. The questioning was not hostile. “They asked me, ‘How?,’ ‘What?,’ ‘Explain, please.’ And the more I was explaining, the more I realized, You are right, I’m not”—not a woman, a lesbian woman. At the same time, Bornstein knew very well that she wasn’t a man. “And that was the scariest time,” she said. “That left me with no ground under my feet.” To find a way to talk about herself, Bornstein started writing and performing her thinking about gender. (She now identifies as nonbinary.)
There was, in fact, a history to what Bornstein was living, writing, and acting. Before Stonewall, queer people were subverting gender roles, playing with gender roles, and camping it up. (The documentary “Before Stonewall,” restored and rereleased this month, provides more than an hour of delightful footage of largely this.) At Stonewall, said Bornstein, “there were people who were nonbinary. There were transsexual women. They were not closeted or middle class.” But she was not there. “I was a middle-class white Jewish closeted transsexual.” It was the year Bornstein graduated from college. Fifteen years later, she said, “I grabbed onto Stonewall’s coattails.”
Some of the people I interviewed are marching this weekend—a few with the official Stonewall 50 march, but more with the Queer Liberation March, which will have no police protection and no corporate sponsors. Schulman is sitting the festivities out at MacDowell, and Bornstein is staying home because she is not well enough to march. I will be joining both marches with my daughter and her friend, two teen-agers who are growing up in a world that is not quite what I imagined: I thought we would have retired the concept of sexual orientation by now and would have made a bigger dent in gender. Still, this world is much better than the one I came out in—for now.
“We have achieved so much more legal equality than I ever thought we would in my lifetime,” Burns said. “And now a lot of that is under attack. I always assumed, naïvely, that, when we made progress, it would be permanent. We are always going to have to fight to keep the gains we have made.” In the insanity of the Trumpian news cycle, the threats are barely registering: the Administration is packing the federal courts; proposed regulations in Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development would legalize discrimination in housing and health care on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. “This will have devastating consequences, especially for transgender people, who are the canary in the coal mine,” Burns said.
“I am ambivalent about the fiftieth anniversary,” Apuzzo wrote to me. “Seeing so many young people being so relaxed in their sexuality, so free to express their right to be who they are—I celebrate that enthusiastically! I celebrate the fact that we have learned that ‘getting government off our backs’ isn’t enough by a long shot. In fact, we had to learn how to make government responsive to its people, and that we must demand the right to be involved in the decisions that affect our lives. I can celebrate the fact that, for the most part, we have gone from a political ‘issue’ to a constituency.” But, she continued, “In these days, when the ground is always shifting, when truth is obscured by so many layers of lies and the very institutions utilized to get us to a fiftieth anniversary are being undermined and their power diminished, what’s the plan?”
Several of the people I interviewed for this article admitted that they have only recently stopped assuming that progress was linear and irreversible. Indeed, Bornstein pointed out, queer people have been here before. “A similar moment happened in Weimar Germany in the thirties,” she said. “Gender and sexuality exploded. The arts were amazing. And fascism was on the rise. And then fascism won.”
But this time, she said, things will be different, because changes in the legal status of L.G.B.T. people and the perception of gender and sexuality are a global phenomenon. She is convinced that change will continue. The next frontier is a total reconfiguring of gender, and it will be like nothing we’ve ever seen.