It's hard to believe that it has already been 45 years since two epochal societal events took place in the state of New York. One of them was the last gasp of an idealistic dream, the other the first breath of an equal rights and anti-discrimination movement that remains active and vibrant to this day. Everybody is familiar with the first; very few with the second.
Even though the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was a seminal moment in the history of modern music and a discreet focal point for the counterculture generation, it was the culmination of an ideology that would collapse upon itself due to inherent unsustainability. Whereas the flower power era made a difference and helped push a generation to new levels of open-mindedness, acceptance and charity, it couldn't work long-term for any number of reasons, not the least of which being that we are who we are. Peace, love, free this and that can only get you so far until someone has to pay, gets hurt or is otherwise distracted and victimized by our all-too-human frailties.
Bands like Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and others seemed to have that figured out by the end of the 1960s. Factor in Charles Manson and the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders, the drug overdose deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and all of a sudden - poof - Woodstock was but a concept.
If it weren't for the Stonewall Inn riots, it's likely that the gay rights movement wouldn't be where it is today. Stonewall Inn riots? What's that? That's the whole point - no one has heard of them or scarcely remembers, and yet their reverberations continue to linger like aftershocks from an earthquake.
Before June 28, 1969 (a couple of months before Woodstock), a lot of progress had been made in the civil rights arena pertaining to race and "women's lib" was starting to become one of the catchphrases of the day. But gay men and women had nothing and gay rights activism was essentially unknown. The practice of homosexuality was considered depraved, perverted and so taboo in most middle-class families as to be virtually unspeakable. The lifestyle was considered a purposeful choice - not something that couldn't be helped.
Homosexuals (the term "gay" was unknown at the time) had to live a life of secrecy. Being "outed" was a guaranteed personal disgrace, and the outee would more than likely be socially ostracized, perhaps suffer financial harm through waning business, be subject to hateful comments, religious invective and even violent (or fatal) physical abuse.
There were no safe refuges except gay bars - and even they were subject to harassment by police - particularly in San Francisco and New York. But the population of gays attending bars and nightclubs had started to reach critical mass and a burgeoning sense of anger and resentment roiled under the surface.
During the early hours of June 28, the NYPD raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, as had happened before. But this time patrons in attendance had had enough and erupted in violent protest. The officers quickly lost control of the situation, eventually managed to subdue it, but protests rekindled the following evening and yet again several nights later. Within weeks, activist groups were established to allow for gays and lesbians to be open about their sexual orientation without fear of arrest.
Of the Stonewall riots and their aftermath, poet Allen Ginsberg said, "You know, the guys were so beautiful. They've lost that wounded look that (homosexuals) all had ten years ago." One year later, on June 28, 1970, the first Gay Pride marches were held in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. Gay bars would quickly become places of popular destination (remember Charleston's Garden and Gun?), and musical acts such as the Velvet Underground would expose the masses to walks on the wild side, so to speak.
Now, of course, it's cool to be gay. I'd even be willing to bet that some of those who aren't kind of wish they were. At the very least, it ruffles few feathers, which represents an absolutely stunning transformation over a relatively compressed time period - one that arguably got its start at the Stonewall 45 years ago.
Reach Edward M. Gilbreth at email@example.com.
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