On an early morning flight from Orlando, after appearing at the 19th Annual Gay Days at Disneyworld, I was “sirred” twice by a cab driver and flight attendant. All before 7 a.m. I would have thought the brand new faux leopard Croc flats I was sporting would have thrown them off. Or that the “Gay Day” banners everywhere would have heightened their threat levels to rainbow.
Usually I find mistaken identification an embarrassment or irritant. In past years I would correct quickly with “That’s M’am not Sir,” and then try to lessen their discomfort. But this 40th anniversary of Stonewall, I wear the gaffe as a badge of pride. I stare them down. Even if they seem remorseful, I don’t help them through their moment. In solidarity with the unsung butch lesbians who were with the fags and drag queens at the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in 1969, I have been doing my own version of butching it up.
It used to be hard to find a NY gay person of a certain age who did not claim to have been at the Stonewall Riots. I am a New Yorker of that certain age, but I most certainly was not at the Stonewall Riots. In 1969 I had just graduated from a small Jesuit college in upstate New York. Insert “Class of 69” joke here.
I was a member of the Gay Resistance. I was trying not to come out. Because of that resistance, I could not and then would not hear the news of gay liberation spreading upstate from Greenwich Village. Though pre-internet, the Stonewall message quickly reached upstate gays in the anti-Vietnam war, women’s liberation and civil rights movement. Before long even my little town in upstate New York had out gay activists organizing, educating and agitating.
And they had the best parties. At one I met a brilliant lesbian Political Science professor, fired from her tenured job because of her anti-war activism. Hesitantly, I invited her and her partner over for dinner in the apartment that by then I “shared with a teacher friend”. On the apartment tour, before I could point out my bedroom, she gleefully yelled to her partner, “Here’s the fake bedroom!” Perhaps it was my cinder block bed with the Indian bedspread that tipped her off.
With my don’t ask, don’t tell cover blown by my out and outrageous new lesbian friends, I slowly began to come out. First to my girlfriend at the time, to more friends and then to family. Finally, to make up for lost time, I just grabbed a microphone and have yapped about it for twenty-eight years.
Of course there had been gays and lesbian activists in the in the 1950s and early 60s: The Mattachine Society, The Daughters of Bilitis, The Society of Individual Rights, the North American Homophile Organization. I am in awe of their courage. The rage and outrage of the Stonewall Inn fags, butch dykes and drag queens, who had finally had enough, kicked the courage of early gay activists to another level of visibility.
Back in the day, only 25% of my generation came out before the age of eighteen. It was 31% in the generation after me. Today 57% come out before the age of eighteen. Our challenge today is certainly to transform gay visibility into LGBT action. The reaction to Prop Hates promises a new generation of rage and outrage that will pass trans-inclusive ENDA, overturn DOMA, abolish Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and enact federal marriage equality.
But just as Stonewall and the gay liberation movement came from anti-war, women’s liberation and civil rights activism, we will only succeed if we reinsert ourselves into those activisms. To pass ENDA we must be part of the labor. To overturn DADT we must work for peace. To repeal DOMA and attain marriage equality we must work with women and people of color.
Think of it as Stonewall rebooted. It’s a size fourteen and a half stiletto. Today in honor of my butch forebears, I’m wearing only two items of women’s clothing.