I remember the first time I ever walked into Stonewall.
It was 1991, and I was 22 years old. I had just moved to New York City. As I sipped the first of several gin and tonics at the Greenwich Village watering hole, I had no idea that my perch by the bar was located at ground zero of a protest the same age as me: a 1969 riot that launched Gay Pride as we know it.
Although memorabilia on the walls commemorated the landmark uprising, I was more interested in the handsome 33-year-old bartender flirting with me.
I’ll always connect Stonewall to the beautiful stranger who made my first drinks there. However, today it’s significant to me for reasons that have less to do with that night’s crowd than the one gathered at its precursor, The Stonewall Inn, 22 years earlier, on the night that would change the lives of the gay and lesbian community in the next decade and for decades to come.
A different era
Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era. I wonder what it would have been like to have struggled and fought alongside the brave blacks and brave gays in the ’60s, to be able to pinpoint where I was when I knew that as a black man, life would never be the same, and that as a gay man, there was no going back.
In my mind, Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in 1968 and the start of the gay revolution at Stonewall the following year forever will be indivisible. The black civil rights movement offered a template for gays and lesbians, encouraging them to fight to overcome, too.
Now here we are, if not in the Promised Land, in a land with so much more promise. Despite the homophobia that persists in the black community and the racism that tarnishes gay life, my identity as a gay black man — not merely as a gay man, not merely as a black man — and the history I claim as both inform almost everything I am.
For me, Stonewall and the black civil rights movement are as essential to how the 1960s changed the America to come as the two Kennedy assassinations, the Summer of Love, and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.
Just as black pride swelled, with the movement shifting from promoting peace to emphasizing power after King’s death on 4 April, 1968, Stonewall was getting ready to erupt nearly 15 months later.
Stonewall: A people’s movement
There was no one leader to galvanise those demanding change and equality as there had been with black civil rights, so in some ways, the Stonewall riot on 28 June, 1969, made the crusade it spawned the ultimate people’s movement.
It would take nearly 30 years after my first trip to Stonewall for me to truly grasp the gravity of the struggle of gays and lesbians before Stonewall and how that one night made all the difference in our world.
As I spent most of 2018 traveling through Eastern Europe, often in countries where it might as well be 1968, where homophobia runs rampant and gays and lesbians are scared into silence, I came to realize just how far we’ve come in western countries.
We’ve fought some tough battles, and we’re still winning the war. Many of us now can marry legally, a twist that would have seemed impossible in 1969.
Meanwhile, mirroring the increased LGBTI visibility in real life, Hollywood is acknowledging our community like never before. We’re no longer merely plot points on TV and in movies, there to remind viewers of how hard we have it, but (gulp!) happy, multi-dimensional characters.
Last month, Netflix debuted the Jennifer Aniston movie Dumplin’, a tribute to both Dolly Parton and drag queens, and the streaming service’s original series Grace and Frankie wouldn’t exist without the ex-husbands of the titular characters, a gay couple played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.
This Oscar season, our community gets screen time in a number of nominee-worthy films, including Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Green Book, Boy Erased, and A Star Is Born. Meanwhile, If Beale Street Could Talk, based on a novel by the iconic gay black writer James Baldwin, is collecting buzz.
Green Book even briefly explores the intersection of the struggles of blacks and gays in the sixties through Mahershala Ali’s character, a black musician traveling through America’s Deep South with his white driver during John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
Although the race angle has dominated Green Book’s marketing, as I watched, I was thinking not only of the advances blacks have made in the U.S. (despite the regressive thinking of the current presidential administration). But also of how different life is for gay men — for gay black men.
It’s hard to imagine this could have happened without Stonewall. It feels fitting that I, too, will be turning 50 in 2019. As I celebrate hitting the half-century mark on 7 May, I’ll be grateful for making it that far.
I also will be thankful for the black revolutionaries of the sixties, and those gay pioneers at Stonewall, who, less than two months after my birth, helped pave the way to a smoother future for me.
I’m not sure I’m ready to bid adieu to my forties, but how can I fret about the imminent passing of my fifth decade when I’ll be in such excellent company?
Happy 50th to the modern gay-rights movement. I can honestly say, I’d be nothing without it.
Jeremy Helligar’s book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, is available via Amazon.
Stonewall 50 Voices
Gay Star News is commemorating 2019 as the 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall Riots. Our Stonewall 50 Voices series will bring you 50 guest writers from all around the world, with a focus on the diversity of our global LGBTI community. They will be discussing the past, present and future of our struggle for love and liberation.