Applause / Out of closets, onto streets
“It’s not ghettoization, it’s celebration,” said Mark Lamos, Westport Country Playhouse’s artistic director, citing the special “LGBT Night Out” previews of shows at the Playhouse for the LGBT community.
But he could just as easily be referencing the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the firestorm that ignited LGBT civil rights.
For the first time, New York’s annual celebration of Stonewall is part of international World Pride. Starting with an Olympic-sized event June 26 in Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, featuring Whoopi Goldberg and Cyndi Lauper, the merriment closes June 30 in Times Square. Add in a Madonna concert, museum and library exhibits, a new opera (“Stonewall”), a new memorial book (“Pride”) and you have what promises to be the biggest Pride festival ever, attracting millions.
It all began on a hot night in a historic year that saw the first moonwalk, the Mets as World Series champs, Woodstock and the start of “Sesame Street.” Just past midnight on June 28, 1969 — barely a week since gay icon Judy Garland died — the police pulled one of their frequent raids of gay bars. this one against the Mafia-run Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.
As they routinely did, the cops slammed people against walls, hurled epithets, searched clothing to make sure women, or those posing as such, wore at least three articles of feminine clothing (often examining and molesting them in the bathroom). Men could not wear women’s clothing and males who even appeared to be dancing together were considered behaving lewdly. Everyone was subject to arrest and, indeed, many were herded into paddy wagons. The bar, accused of serving liquor without a license, was subject to closure.
Raids were taken for granted by a community long used to harassment and worse. But not this night. Patrons fought back, shoving, shouting, throwing bottles, bricks, beer cans, stones and garbage pails. Led by transgenders, drag queens and homeless youths, the mayhem continued for three evenings.
Said Mark Campbell, Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist of “Stonewall” who lives near the saloon, “It was the beginning of the LGBT movement by a group of people who said, ‘Nope. We had enough. They’re not doing this to us anymore.’ ” New York’s Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill apologized just days ago.
Stonewall’s place in LGBT history is assured. Before the raid, many gays lived secretive lives filled with denial, censorship, shame and family shunning. Yes, there had been the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, two organizations that touted gay life and even publishing magazines (to be mailed in plain brown wrappings). But entrapment was rife, gays and lesbians were quickly fired from jobs, Dwight Eisenhower banned gays in government, movies contained swishy characters and coming out of the closet was too dangerous.
After Stonewall, despite setbacks, came same-sex marriage, “La Cage aux Folles,” “Will and Grace,” “Brokeback Mountain,” an out CEO, Tim Cook, who runs Apple, and an out politician, Pete Buttigieg, who’s running for president.
In 1974, homosexuality was de-listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Supportive organizations sprang up: Gay Activist Alliance, ActUp, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Lambda Legal, Equity Fights AIDS.
It was AIDS that both devastated the community and forced it to fight back. And now there’s PreP, the prevention option; now there are health clinics in Norwalk and Hartford, the Triangle Community Center in Norwalk, the Pride Center in New Haven. In 2008, Connecticut became the third state to sanction same-sex marriage.
The state even has a Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, dedicated to providing “valuable business development opportunities, financial access and educational resources to the LGBT and allied business community in the greater Connecticut area.”
All is not well, not yet. We still have high suicide rates, a Trump administration that wants to roll back rights, resisters who often cite religion as their reason for discrimination (see Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission) and a rise in hate crimes, including murder, especially against transgenders.
On the plus side, a transgender character, played by a transgender performer, figures in the “Stonewall” opera which follows ten characters before, during and after the riot, as they try to figure out the significance of what happened.
With music by Iain Bell, the melodic “Stonewall” was commissioned by the NYC Opera. Described as “a moving and explosive new American opera,” the melodic work is full of hope as well as rage, of humor as well as despair.
For Campbell, it has meaning beyond its artistry. “When the Supreme Court approved marriage equality,” he said in a phone interview. “I went to Stonewall and cried a lot. I could not believe what had happened. I like to believe the world is moving only forward though not quickly enough. We can’t go backward.”
That the revolution is not yet complete is a theme of “Pride,” the informative and intriguing book of New York Times’ photographs, clippings and decade-by-decade essays written by a former Times editor, David Kaufman.
Speaking by phone, he said, “As much as it can be, at times, trendy, especially at this precarious political moment, to harp on how much more work there is to do, I think it’s very important to show how far we’ve come already. There has been incredible change in how LGBT people live their lives in this country.”
Take John Tica-Sneeden, executive director of CTGLC who, with husband Brian, is bringing up five children. “I’m encouraged that the LGBT community will continue to be strong, to challenge, to educate,” he said.
Another father is Fairfield’s Jonathan Tolins, raising two children with husband Cary. Tolins’ 2003 play, “The Last Sunday in June,” occurs the day the Pride March traditionally takes place.
“I guess if I wrote it today, it would be much more about gay family life,” said Tolins in an email. “I do think it’s the question of how gay people navigate living what used to be seen as the ‘traditional family life.’ What is given up and what is gained? How is it different from challenges for straight people? Or is it exactly the same?”
The answers will come, just as the evolution from fear and loathing to love and acknowledgment has come. On June 30, as the Pride Parade moves past the Stonewall Inn — designated a national monument by former President Barack Obama — a line from the film and stage play “Network” comes to mind as a summation of this historic anniversary of celebration and promise: “All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a human being. My life has value!’ ”
Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.
“Stonewall” is at the NYCOpera at the Time Warner Center, Broadway and 60th St., June 21, 22, 27 and 28. Call Centercharge at 212-721-6500 or visit nycopera.org
“Pride” is published by Abrams Image. 224 pages, 350 photographs., $24.99
For information on Pride activities, visit 2019-worldpride-stonewall50.nycpride.org