Our Living History

By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.

The history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people goes back several millennia, arguably to the dawn of mankind, but our history as a unified Community is barely 48 years old.  It has a passionate, dynamic, deeply tragic, but always courageous legacy of strength and resilience; making the wide spread apathy and ignorance by those who so “proudly” include themselves in it today, all the more unfathomable.   

What exactly are they all celebrating at Gay Pride?  Most, especially the younger LGBTs, don’t have the slightest idea where their Community came from, what it has endured, or the battles fought and won for them.  All the more perplexing is that their history, their story is vibrant and alive and all around them.

How shocked would they be to learn about their “fabulous” lives before June of 1969? An era when faggot, dyke, and tranny were probably the nicest names they would be called, and pervert, deviant, and mentally sick was more the norm.  Would they be willing to take their safety and well-being in hand, risking raids by police Vice Squads and being thrown into holding cells with violent criminals just to go to “gay hangouts” or dance with a cute boy?  And when arrested, as was often the case, know they’d have no one to turn to for help or who even cared.

A scene during the 1969 Stonewall riots, as seen in Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s documentary STONEWALL UPRISING. A First Run Features Release. Photo by Bettye Lane.

But there was a rebellion.  What makes it all the more remarkable is exactly how serendipitous the inciting incident actually was.  According to Stonewall Veterans Association, former President, Jeremiah Newton, who witnessed the events in the early hours of June 28, 1969; and years later learned the truth behind the raid from the Sgt. Seymour Pine who lead it.

  • Judy Garland’s funeral that day had a deep and profound effect on everyone
  • It was an unusually hot and sweltering night
  • The raid was not about harassing gays, but aimed at the mafia owners because they were behind in their pay-offs to the Sixth Precinct.

In other words, the police simply picked the wrong night to bother a bar full of hot and sweaty, grieving queens who’d finally had enough and decided to push back.  Imagine, if just one of those hadn’t happened, where our Community would be today.  But how many people know the true story or even appreciate what the founders did that night or that they came back and did it again three more nights?

As Stonewall Veteran, lesbian Mama Jean, recalled in the documentary Remembering Stonewall, “It’s like just when you see a man protecting his own life. They weren’t the “queens” that people call them, they were men fighting for their lives. And I’d fight alongside them any day, no matter how old I was.”

Fighting for our lives has been a recurring theme in LGBT history as in 1981; when a mysterious cancer and phenomena started infecting young gay men, rapidly killing them.  But Reagan era government and health officials, unconcerned by exploding rates of infection or mounting death tolls, said little, and did even less.  

It was activists like Larry Kramer, who sounded the alarm first in the Community and then to anyone who would listen.  When they wouldn’t, he yelled even louder. They started HIV/AIDS service organizations across the country; lesbians stepped up and began caring for the sick and dying men when even health professions were reluctant; and young guerrilla activists bonded together forming  ACT UP and fought for media attention, funding, and treatment, as if their lives depended on it because they did.

In his speech “We are NOT Crumb” marking the 20th Anniversary of ACT UP in March 2008, Larry Kramer said this…

“ACT UP is the most successful grass roots organization that ever lived. Period… Every single treatment against HIV is out there because of activists who forced these drugs out of the system, out of the labs, out of the pharmaceutical companies, out of the government, into the world. It is an achievement unlike any other in the history of the world. …we reordered an entire world’s approach to a disease that would have killed us all.”

Yet how many people dancing with their friends on Pride floats and at parties can imagine the horror of losing nearly everyone they love to an agonizing death, or realize how fortunate they are to be alive and healthy?  Most importantly do they know about the people who fought with their lives so that they could do so today?

Our Community’s battles of the 21st century are not being fought in the streets so much as they are in the courtroom, but they are still about LGBT lives.  The fight continues for security and recognition of family, home, and livelihood with heroes and heroines like Marine Corps. Veteran Eric Alva, who fought to have “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” overturned in 2011, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military; and Edie Winsor who fought before the Supreme Court and had “The Defense of Marriage Act” struck down in 2013, paving the way for marriage equality.

This is the Golden Age of LGBT History!  

There will never be another period in time when the world sees the birth of a global civil rights movement; a community band together against a plague for survival because no one else cared; or the seismic shift in social attitudes and equality as witnessed in the last few years.  What’s more, the men and women who were there at the beginning, who survived the devastation, who fought the good fight and won, are still here to tell about it!  Yet sadly, tragically, more often than not they go unrecognized or have been forgotten all together.  

The LGBT Community has every reason to proudly celebrate its triumphs and achievements; but how louder the cheer, joyful the dance and radiant the love when one knows the struggles and adversity of those who have come before, and shares it with them before they are gone.  These leaders will not be with us forever, so it is time for young and old to fully embrace the living heritage these champions have given our Community, gratefully acknowledge their countless contributions, and vow to pass on their stories to all children, gay and straight, insuring they do live on for generations to come.

Lawrence Pfeil, Jr., is a freelance writer/playwright and frequent contributor to theOUTfront. He has written feature articles, editors, and reviewed theatre on and off Broadway as well as film for media outlets including the New York Blade and Edge Publications.


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