We’ve come a long way, Baby. Thirty-five years ago, the struggle for gay rights exploded into action with a single event. It was a hot summer night on June 28, 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay nightspot in New York’s Greenwich Village. Police raids on gay bars and nightclubs were nothing new. The police would often record the names of everyone in the establishment, and then publish the list in the newspaper after rounding up and arresting as many patrons as possible on charges of indecency.
That night was different, however. The years of oppression and persecution had taken their toll, and for the first time ever, the patrons fought back. There were about four-hundred people milling about when the incident began so there are several versions of what happened next. They all agree that the situation quickly got out of hand, with the crowd first resisting arrest, and then when the officers began beating people, especially targeting effeminate men and drag queens, the angry mob began throwing bottles and rocks at the police. Soon, a full scale riot broke out. Residents of the neighborhood, many who were gay, rushed to the scene and the throng grew as people began to chant, “Gay Power!” Riot-control squads arrived, but they couldn’t break up the crowd. Eventually, the scene quieted down, but years of pent up anger wasn’t that easily quenched, and the crowd returned the next night.
The series of events, which sparked five consecutive days of protests, have become known as the Stonewall Riots. They were the beginning of the modern gay pride movement. Issues hidden and swept under the rug before were now in the open. Forces brewing before the Riots now burst to the surface. Three and a half decades later, we’ve reached another important milestone as gay marriage became a reality in Massachusetts.
We’ve come a long way, but that isn’t to say we don’t still have a ways to go yet. We’re living in the most exciting time in gay history since the Stonewall Riots. Attitudes and views are shifting so quickly, many can’t keep up. As Bob Dylan said, “The times they are a-changin’.”
The struggle for gay rights has never seen as much media attention as we’re receiving these days. The fight for gay marriage has even attracted the attention of the president, and has become a major issue in the presidential race. True, the attention is largely negative, but any attention brings about awareness, and awareness gives us the chance to educate those around us. Last year’s major Supreme Court decision striking down unfair laws against homosexual acts garnered much notice. The recent endorsement of gay marriage by the American Psychological Association received major mainstream news exposure. Even though the majority of Americans are still opposed to same-sex marriage, for the first time ever, the majority does favor equal rights for gays and lesbians.
We’re not just more prevalent in the media, we’re also everywhere on television these days. Will & Grace continues to pull in high ratings; Queer As Folk draws more mainstream attention with every season; It’s All Relative, while now cancelled, was ground-breaking in its portrayal of a monogamous gay couple raising a child. The fictional world isn’t the only realm of gays on TV, however. Reality TV has given a new outlet for gays and lesbians, bringing real-live gay people into the homes of Middle America on a weekly basis. Shows like Amazing Race, Big Brother, and Survivor regularly feature gay cast members, and we’ve even won a few times (Chip and Reichen on Amazing Race and the infamously nudist Richard Hatch on Survivor). The extremely charming and handsome Will is making quite a splash on the current season of Big Brother. Of course, we can’t talk about gays on TV without mentioning the Fab 5 on Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. These five guys have probably sparked more conversation (and debate) about gays on television than all the rest of the above mentioned shows combined. We’re even getting our own network in the near future, the Viacom owned LOGO. While Canada and some digital cable networks have had gay channels for some time now, LOGO will be the first US basic cable channel designed just for the LGBT community. All this exposure only helps our cause in the long run as gays and lesbians become more and more mainstreamed and common-place.
TV isn’t the only place to find the signs of changing times, though. Books are also reflecting the evolution of our society. There was a time when gay-themed books were considered dirty and could be found only at gay bookstores, considered the rough equivalent of porn shops. Now, LGBT bookstores are often vibrant community centers, and gay-themed books sit on the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble. The content of the books in question is changing as well. Once, almost all gay books featured tragic endings, as if the only way gay characters were acceptable was if they met grisly ends. Characterizations of gay characters are now much more positive. In the 80’s and 90’s, Coming-Out books, books with themes of people coming to grips with their sexuality and often overcoming difficult circumstances to find their pride, became extremely popular. Now the new trend is more towards books where the characters are already comfortable with their homosexuality and their sexual orientation is not really a major issue. Even when I started writing five years ago, gay books were more adult oriented, but more and more gay-themed books are being written expressly for the young adult audience. Excellent books like Geography Club by Brent Hartinger and Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, appeal not only to teens, but also to adults.
The battle for civil rights is well underway, we’re gaining exposure and acceptance on television, and books are reflecting those changes. The one area we still face much condemnation and opposition from is religion—and even there, changes are evident. Last year, the Episcopal Church ordained their first openly gay bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson. His ordination caused a rift between the American branch of the Anglican Church and many branches around the world, and even within the American church, but it was a huge step for the LGBT faith community. Many other denominations continue to struggle with their stance on gays and God.
There’s no doubt that we still have a lot of ground to gain before we reach anything approaching equality, or even acceptance. Many more hearts and minds need to be changed, but by knowing and understanding our past and how far we’ve come, we can draw courage and the energy we need to keep fighting. The times they are a-changin’, and we are a part of that change.
© Josh Aterovis, All Rights Reserved
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