Saturday, June 6, 2009

Remembering Stonewall: Celebration, Yes, But Still A Long, Long Way to Go

I’ve been away from home this week, and I apologize for postings that were written in haste, postings on which I did not have time to labor, when I had difficulty uploading them due to a quirky internet system at our hotel. If you’ve emailed me, please know that I will be catching up on email very soon, now that I’m back home.

Steve and I were in New York, where he was attending a conference and I tagging along (and visiting my niece). One of the highlights of the week for us was seeing an exhibit at the New York public library documenting the emergence of gay liberation with the Stonewall riots in 1969. It was particularly interesting to see this exhibit with my friend Janet, a Presbyterian minister who spent many years teaching in a United Methodist seminary, and who is strongly committed to gay rights.

The grainy, washed-out color photos of impossibly young-looking shaggy-haired youths full of fire and hope; the faded mimeographed agendas; the typed templates for brochures and press statements; the flower-power art decorating said documents: can 1969 have truly been so long ago? Another lifetime . . . .

It was my second year of college, the year in which I was vacillating between a major in theology, in classics, or in English. It was the year in which my father finally announced to my mother that he intended to leave her for another woman, and then promptly died a month to the day following that announcement. ’69 was the year in which I was certain I wanted to be a Jesuit, and then found that dream complicated by the fact that I recognized that I was falling in love for the first time in my life . . . and the object of my affection was not who church and society told me was appropriate.

It was Steve’s first year of college, the year in which he became active in Vietnam War protests, burned his draft card, experimented with drugs, and switched his major from physics to philosophy and religion. ’69 was the year in which Steve was moving towards a decision to drop out of school (he did so in 1971) and then to hitchhike to Mexico, knock about and, he hoped, do volunteer work in a mission in Chiapas about which he had heard through his Benedictine family connections.

It was that fateful decision that brought our lives together, since his hitchhiking brought him to New Orleans, where he met me at one of the charismatic prayer meetings sponsored by Loyola’s chaplaincy office, and decided to stay in New Orleans. I convinced him to return to school, we moved in together with a group of other prayer-group freaks, and then found ourselves living together by ourselves and infatuated with each other, though with no vocabulary—none in any universe we inhabited—to name and own our love.

If, in the midst of our religion-saturated, activist-oriented lives of these years, either of us heard of Stonewall—or of anything gay, for that matter—the memory of such knowledge has gone clean out of my head. New York and Stonewall Inn could have been a million miles away, as far as we were concerned. We were firmly immured—we had immured ourselves—in whatever strange and quite specific version of a closet young gay Catholics of the period, who did not know or speak gay, who could not possibly be gay even when sleeping together, inhabited. A closet for those who did not even know that closets could hold more than shoes and clothes.

Seeing the Stonewall exhibit was sad for us, in a way, then. Looking back is looking at what might have been, had we known more and been less religion-sotted in the formative years of our lives together. At the same time, I’m not sure either of us would trade the particular aspects of our unique journey for some other journey, since it has been our journey, and one can learn to claim only what one lives, struggles through, makes one's own. And with the hope that, in struggling to make difficult, precious experience one’s own, one also opens a space for those who walk this path later: someone has been here; someone has cleared away a bit of the brush and worn a faint path into the wilderness.

Seeing the Stonewall exhibit in New York, and looking back at a life lived outside the cultural centers of the nation during the period of gay liberation from 1969 to the present, it’s impossible not to think both about how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, as a people dealing with the fact that some human beings are gay. For someone visiting New York from Little Rock, it’s impossible not to notice how well integrated gay people now are in the culture of cities like New York, so that there are no longer those subtle but clearly discernible boundary lines between gay this and that and mainstream this and that—between gay culture and the culture everyone else takes for granted.

New York (and much of the northeast) does now live in that post-gay culture about which some commentators on things gay like to talk these days. And that’s wonderful, insofar as it means that one can live one’s life without having constantly to advert to questions about what people notice, how they see and classify, whether being gay is going to present a problem for you in this or that setting. It's wonderful if one can live one's daily life without interacting with folks like the young couple from Huntsville, Alabama, behind whom Steve and I flew from New York to Atlanta yesterday, who seemed to find it amusing that they were seated in front of a gay couple, and whose world is evidently blessed free of such challenges to think about diversity and all that it implies.

The post-gay world of the Northeast (or parts of the west coast) is simply not the world in which many gay people all through this nation (and elsewhere across the globe) live—through no fault of our own. We are where we are because of ties that bind us, roots that hold us in particular places, loved ones and family members who need us. Many of us (Steve and I will soon be there) are simply too old and too confined economically to make an easy transition to a place in which we could live freer, more fulfilling lives—though we continue to dream of throwing over the traces. Who doesn't dream of freedom and fulfillment, when life is made unnecessarily painful because of unwarranted prejudice?

(I have not forgotten and will not forget my statement on this blog, when Mr. Obama invited Rev. Warren to his inauguration, that if we could find a place outside the U.S. to which we could move with a minimum of difficulty and live a more humane life among more humane people, Steve and I would do so—in a heartbeat. Nothing the new administration has done so far has made us any less eager to leave our own country.

Nor would I ever advise any young gay person seeking a fulfilling life to choose to live in a place like Arkansas. The obstacles are simply too thick, the chances for a free and fulfilled life too slim, in places like my home state—not only for those who are gay and lesbian, but also for those with heads on their shoulders, with creativity and an interest in the rich diversity of the world beyond our little state).

Seeing the Stonewall exhibit, and reminding myself of the wonderful progress our society has made since 1969, also reminds me of how far we have yet to go—of how spotty and localized that progress is. The map I’ve chosen as the visual for this posting is one produced by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to identify states that have laws in place to prohibit discrimination against LGBT citizens.

As this map indicates, some 20 states (those in shades of green) have laws banning discrimination against LGBT citizens. The rest—the large majority—of states have no laws prohibiting discrimination against someone who happens to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered in the workplace, in housing, in healthcare provision and in visitation rights at hospitals. In the large majority of states in the United States, someone can be fired solely because he or she is gay or lesbian, can be denied housing merely because he is LGBT, can be refused appropriate medical care or barred from visiting his or her partner in the hospital simply because of his or her sexual orientation.

As we fight about gay marriage (and I strongly support gay marriage: marriage is a human right, and denying the human rights of anyone ought to concern all of us), we should not let ourselves forget the reality with which many gay and lesbian citizens of the country live on a daily basis. Steve and I have experienced brutal, life-altering discrimination in Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, and North Carolina. Simply because we are gay. None of those states affords any legal protection to LGBT citizens.

All have cultures deeply imbued with homophobia. All claim religious sanction for the homophobia many of their citizens freely dish out. In every instance in which Steve and I have found our lives turned upside down due to homophobia in these states, the homophobia with which we coped came directly from churches and church-owned institutions.

Again and again, we have seen those who attacked us and made our lives a living hell in church-owned institutions rewarded for their unchristian and inhumane treatment of us and other gay persons. We have found that United Methodists are no better than Catholics in this regard, in the claims they make about respect for human rights, even as they dish out utterly dehumanizing treatment to gay and lesbian persons.

We’ve come a long way since 1969. And it’s, indeed, marvelous that we have done so. I celebrate the victories we’re now savoring, the striking down of bans on marriage for gay citizens in some states. I look forward to a day in which DOMA will be declared unconstitutional (though I anticipate many fights and many backsteps—and many of these engineered by those who claim to be supporters of the LGBT communitybefore that happens).

But even as we celebrate, we must challenge ourselves to be mindful of the whole picture of gay life in these United States. What one sees from the vantage point of New York City may be quite different from what one sees from places like Little Rock. The whole picture—any accurate picture of what it means to be gay in the U.S. today—ought to be cause not only for celebration, but for renewed calls to action. When the large majority of our states continue to permit overt and persistent discrimination against gay human beings in the areas of housing, employment, healthcare, and so on, and when churches not merely collude with this discrimination but actually foster and applaud it, celebration is not the only, or perhaps most appropriate, response to Stonewall and what Stonewall introduced.

There is much still to be done, before many LGBT Americans can easily live humane lives in this land with the soul of a church.