Sunday the 28th marks the day that, forty years ago, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich village, setting the spark to what became a weekend of rioting from the LGBT community fed up with constant harassment and brutality. That weekend became the cornerstone of the gay rights movement, giving voice to a group that until then had been marginalized as sexual deviants, pedophiles or perverts and prevented from having any pride in their identity. Forty years later the landscape of gay rights is worlds away from what it was in the 60s; several countries have fully legalized gay marriage, putting us on the same playing field as heterosexual relationships. Several states in the US have also followed in kind, though the federal government still remains shamefully archaic. HIV, once a death sentence, is manageable now thanks to the diligent work on the part of groups like ACT UP and the people dying from it until as recently as the late 90s. Being gay has moved from the sort of shameful reality you kept from others to becoming more and more accepted every day.
It is easy, though, to become complacent. With the Republicans rendered ineffectual in the US government, expectations are high that Obama will "do something." Petitions are flying to repeal DOMA, Don't Ask/Don't Tell, legalize same-sex marriage and a whole host of other benefits that I think people forty years ago never would have even imagined seeing. Yet, as the activist generation who kickstarted this moves on, giving way to the people of my generation who have largely grown up only knowing Will and Grace, my biggest fear is we will see our status slide backwards, not continue to charge forward.
In NYC, this is Pride Weekend, which for most people amounts to an excuse to drink, do drugs and party with people visiting from out of town. If it follows similar form, there will be few, if any, references to what Pride Weekend was started for, and– more shamefully– only a handful of people my age are likely to notice the omission. My generation has not known coordinated opposition to its identity the way people in the 60s did; sure, isolated harassment happens everywhere, but gone are the days that made it an arrestable offense to express your sexuality in the privacy of your own home, much less in a bar with your friends. My generation has never seen HIV as a concern, even while abuses of drugs like crystal meth are causing new infections to rise for the first time in years. Sure, it's treatable, but most guys my age don't realize how poisonous those treatments actually are– worse still, they are so irresponsibly educated about it that they think it's less of an issue than it is. I still remember a conversation with a guy who forcefully tried to explain to me that all you need is a healthy immune system and orange juice to avoid getting it, condoms don't make a difference. The history of our community is being lost. There are no Harvey Milks, and fewer still who even get the reference.
We've made a lot of progress in the past four decades. But where the black civil rights movement was a sudden catalyst of progression, our rights have come gradually, trickling in so slowly that the history of a time before them is just that– history. There is the expectation that equality will come on its own, and while it probably technicall will, no civil rights have ever been granted without people constantly pushing for them, fighting for them, demanding them. Equality has never come on the back of complacency, and I worry that my generation won't continue to carry the torch lit by the people who came before us. I worry that it will take yet another polarizing, galvanizing assault against our community for people to act, but the danger there is that it's easier to prevent erosions to freedoms than repeal them after they've already gained traction.
And with this gradual acceptance comes the expected pushback within the community itself. The LGBT movement has never been consistent or organized; some organizations demand total equality, some want the boat rocked less. Some want marriage to be the top priority, some are satisfied with civil partnerships. Some rebuke all social convention whole, preferring to remain counterculture and on the fringe. With the disparate voices the focus is lost, the goal is muddied and confused, and it's a lot harder to get what we want. It's evidenced on a "local" level as well if you look at the general opposition among gay people against the effeminate men; as a microcosm, racism is still very much visible in a community that really ought to be better than it is. Transgendered people still "rank" lower on the totem pole than everyone else according to popular opinion. These are all issues that need to be addressed and made a bigger deal of than they are: it's difficult to preach equality through one corner of your mouth when the other is not practicing it towards our own.
Forty years later and we have a lot to be thankful for. As my generation steps up to fill in the shoes vacated by the men and women who made sacrifices so I can write this post without needing to fear losing my job or relationship, I hope that the next forty years position us even closer towards equality, giving those brave individuals something to be proud of us for.