Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

The Man Behind Stonewall

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

The Man Behind Stonewall

Article excerpt

JUDY GARLAND WASN'T THE ONLY ONE TO HAVE SPARKED THE 1969 RIOT. THOSE WHO WERE THERE SAY MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. INSPIRED THEM

What sparked the explosion in Manhattan on the streets: surrounding Sheridan Square on June 28, 1969?

The Stonewall riot, whose aftershocks would eventually be felt by gay people on every continent, had a hundred different origins--everything from the sexual revolution to the antiwar movement, the assassinations of our heroes, and the soulful music of rock and roll.

If you were a teenager in the 1960s, there were a thousand things that made you feel for a moment like you belonged to a generation apart. We wore wild clothes, we grew our hair down to our shoulders (and beyond), we smoked marijuana and popped tabs of acid, and we compulsively questioned authority. Our ambition was nothing less than the reinvention of the world, and gay people would come closer to achieving that ambition than anyone else. We reveled in every difference we could identify between ourselves and our parents, and we worshiped iconoclasts like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro, and Allen Ginsberg. But the person who was most important to everyone who believed we were born to build a revolution was the man who did nothing less than set the moral tone for the entire decade.

That man was Martin Luther King Jr.

King had been dead 14 months when the drag queens, the hippies, the hustlers, and even the men in suits poured out of a mundane watering hole to transform the way the world perceived us and the way we perceived ourselves. But it was what King and his followers gave us through their example that made all of that possible.

America in the 1950s was a country in which almost all power was reserved for straight, white, Protestant men. Until 1961 not even a Catholic had been allowed to occupy the White House. Black people went to separate schools and drank from separate water fountains while gay people were invisible pariahs.

The sea change in American life began on December 1, 1955, when a 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks, with "no previous resolution until it happened," refused to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., merely to spare a white man the indignity of sitting in the same row as herself. Her impulsive act of conscience sparked a black boycott of the bus system for 381 days, until Montgomery's resistance collapsed and a 27-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. became the first black man to sit in one of the first ten rows of one of the city's buses.

According to his biographer David J. Garrow, King's own experience with gay people was limited because his only important gay lieutenant was Bayard Rustin, who became the de facto director of the march on Washington in 1963. But many lesbians and gay men joined in the fight for racial equality, partly because they were not yet ready to fight for themselves.

"Many of us who went south to work with Dr. King in the '60s were gay," says Grant Gallup, a priest who was active in the civil rights movement. "I remember a plane going down from Chicago, and three of us were gay. A lot of gay people who could not come out for their own liberation could invest the same energies in the liberation of black people. …

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