Reflections by Sharon Heath, Andrew Ramer and Bart Shulman
A Story Of Liberation
by Sharon Heath
Every year at Passover, Jews remember and re-tell the story of their slavery in Egypt and how God rescued them from bondage and brought them into freedom. The ritual retelling of the Passover Story is called a Seder. What I am about to tell you is the story of the passage from bondage to freedom of gay men and lesbians in the U.S. It is our Passover Story.
As I look around this room this morning, I’m struck by the fact that very few of us can remember how it was before Stonewall. Many of us have lived in San Francisco so long, or were born so recently, that we can barely believe that the Love that Will Not Shut Up was ever the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name! So I want to tell you a short story about How It Used to Be and How It Changed.
From the time of the early middle ages, men who loved men and women who loved women were burned at the stake and persecuted, excommunicated and imprisoned, as traitors, heretics and criminals. Nonetheless, by the turn of the 20th century there existed in most of the large cities of Europe and the U.S. sophisticated, if underground, gay and lesbian subcultures. In Germany in the early 1920’s there was even a movement to decriminalize gay sex and to establish a gay civil rights movement. Berlin was the center of gay culture in Europe, with bars, restaurants, and social clubs catering to gay men and lesbians.
All this was completely destroyed in the Nazi Holocaust. You may know that 50,000 gay men were killed in the Nazi concentration camps. You may also know that the pink triangle that gay men were forced to wear in the Nazi camps has become one of the most powerful symbols of liberation in the modern gay rights movement. But you may not know that, even after the concentration camps were liberated, those gay men who survived remained imprisoned for their so-called criminal activity! It was not until the 1970’s and 1980’s that most European countries decriminalized gay sex between consenting adults, and it was not until 2005 that the U.S. Supreme Court found such statutes unconstitutional in the U.S.
After World War II, the U.S. was thrown into the paroxysms of McCartheyism. Senator Joe McCarthy saw both homosexuals and Communists as traitors—the one as a betrayal of the ideals of manhood, the others as the betrayal of the ideals of democracy. Both, to him, were equally dangerous. Gay people were often prosecuted as criminals and fired from their jobs. The government purges of homosexuals in the 1950’s are still legendary.
But by the 1960’s, social change was sweeping the country, and gay men and lesbians were swept along. Blacks marched in Birmingham for civil rights, students marched in Berkeley for free speech, women marched in New York City for women’s rights, and Americans all over the country marched against the Viet Nam War. But no one was more surprised than the homosexuals themselves when gay people began to march for their own liberation!
Up through the late 1960’s and beyond, police raids on gay bars were a time-honored tradition, in all large cities across the country including San Francisco. It was a way to keep the protection money flowing and to get good press when the cops needed either. Typically, the cops would sweep in, find members of the same sex dancing together or wearing more than three items of gender-inappropriate clothing, and haul everyone off to jail. No one resisted, because no one wanted to make it worse than it already was. But one sultry late-June night in 1969, in New York City, something different happened.
The Stonewall Tavern was a seedy gay bar on Christopher Street in the Village, run by the mob and mostly populated by drag queens, bar boys and butch dykes. Probably a good many of them would identify as Transgender today. That night, the cops came in on a routine raid and began loading the patrons into the paddy wagon. But one dyke began to resist being shoved into the paddy wagon. The accounts vary, but apparently when the drag queens and bar boys who were milling around outside or who were already in the wagon saw what was happening, they began throwing pennies at the cops and making catcalls. Soon the pennies turned into bottles and paving stones, and the story goes that even a few parking meters were pulled up and thrown at the cops. The Stonewall Riot was on! The cops withdrew that night, but came back the next night and the next. The gay community was mobilized, and the Gay Rights Movement was born!
On Sunday, June 28, 1970 the first Christopher Street Liberation Day march was held simultaneously in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. The early parades were quite small and tame. But in 1978, during the fight against the Briggs Initiative (which would have made it illegal for gay people to be employed as public school teachers), 250,000 gay men and lesbians marched in San Francisco, and the parade has been the High Holy Day of Gay San Francisco ever since. Today, marches, parades and rallies are held through-out the country and around the world, from North Carolina to Orange County, from Minnesota to Texas, from Moscow to Mexico City.
I tell you this story because it is important to remember our roots. Jews read the story of the Exodus to remember what it was like to be a slave and why it’s important to choose freedom. Mennonites read the stories of the Martyrs Mirror so we can remember how our ancestors died for following Jesus and why we must continue to stand for peace. And we who are gay must tell our stories as gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people and queer, and as friends and family and fellow church members, so we can remember our history and why it is so important to come out. In many places in the U.S. it is still dangerous to be gay. And, with deep regret I tell you that in many parts of the Christian Church it is still dangerous to be gay. We are blessed to live in this city and to have this congregation where we can be out as gay members and have it be “no big deal.” But freedom is always tenuous, and we must remember how it used to be, so we will protect our freedom with our whole selves. Through the grace of God, this congregation is and will continue to be a graced, safe space for us all.
The Fags Rioted Last Night on Christopher Street
by Andrew Ramer
I graduated from high school in Anaheim in June of 1969, then flew to New York to spend the summer with my father and stepmother. Sunday morning we were about to sit down for breakfast when the phone rang. My stepmother answered. A neighbor called to say – “The fags rioted last night on Christopher Street.” We lived eight blocks away and after breakfast the three of us walked over. The streets were cordoned off. There was litter everywhere. Deep in my own private closet, I couldn’t relate to what happened there the night before. But having spent my early years in a New York City with mounted policemen so high above us that they seemed invincible – what changed my life that morning – wasn’t the riot, the litter, the cause – I didn’t even know the word gay yet. What changed me was seeing those policemen on horseback – on the outside of the barricades – afraid.
There was a wall down the middle of my brain. A wall with no windows or doors. I dated girls, and dreamed about boys. I had a girlfriend in high school who’s a friend to this day, and one for most of college, but it never occurred to me that what I felt about boys – was what others boys felt when they talked about girls. In 1972, during my junior year in Jerusalem, I went to a matinee of the film of D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Women in Love. Two men wrestled together, naked. One spoke of his love for the other. Things I’d never seen or heard before. And there in the dark, as they say about Jericho – my inner wall “came tumbling down.”
I learned the word gay, knew it described me, but I wasn’t read to live it yet. One afternoon in Berkeley during my senior year I wandered into Moe’s Book Store. Face out in the new releases section was a book with a circular rainbow on the cover, unlike anything I’d ever seen – The Gay Liberation Handbook. Every day I went in to look at it, my fingers quickly stroking the cover, too afraid to take it off the shelf. One day it was gone and I searched the store till I finally found it, upstairs in the Sociology section. Standing with my back to the aisle, I read the whole book, too afraid to buy it. But it got me into therapy, got me digging deeply in myself, and I soon met and fell in love with a young man in my co-op, who fell in love with me. Although I’d talked with my girlfriend about my inner struggle, our break-up was painful for both of us, as we’d planned out our lives, our PhDs, the names of our three children.
One day my boyfriend and I were walking down Bancroft Way. Used to being with girls, I took his hand. Richard ran away so quickly that I didn’t catch up with him till I got back to our co-op. He was furious. So were all the other men in what we called then: “A gay men’s rap group.” One of them yelled at me. “You say that you love him. Don’t you understand? You could have gotten both of you killed.” Later, Richard and I talked about what happened and agreed that maybe, in a hundred years, there might be a place in the world where two men could walk down the street holding hands – and feel safe. We both had vivid imaginations, but neither of us ever imagined we’d live long enough to see same-sex marriage legalized. Actually, Richard didn’t. He died of AIDS in 1995.
We were together for a year and a half. After we broke up I moved back to New York, where I lived for twenty years. I knew the word gay and could own it. I was out to my family and friends. The wall in my brain was gone and I’d loved another man in a deep embodied way. But I was heartbroken, alone, and when I saw a flyer on a telephone pole for a new gay men’s political group, I went to the first meeting. It was 1974. At the end of the meeting the chairman, who was in his early forties, passed around a signup sheet and instructed us to not put down our real names. One of the men my age insisted on using his. The leader snapped at him. “Don’t put down your real name! That’s how the Nazis rounded up homosexuals. By raiding the offices of homosexual rights organizations and confiscating the membership rolls!” All the younger men got up, walked out, and started our own group. We didn’t think of ourselves as homosexuals. We didn’t have different, public “bar names.” We were gay. We were out. We were proud. And unlike those mounted policemen on Christopher Street – we weren’t afraid anymore.
Pride Sunday 2019
by Bart Shulman
… it’s ten years later. I’m a student at UCLA. I’m 18. I just came out.
A few films that impacted the LGBT community came out in 1982. The first I saw was “Making Love,” followed by “Victor, Victoria” two weeks later. ‘Making Love’ showed (in part) the seedy, hidden, secretive life of gay men coming out in Los Angeles. It was a comedy only in the Greek sense (the main characters end up happy, sort of). Later, some witty soul I don’t remember said to me, “Yeah, ‘Making Love’ did for gay people what ‘Gone with the Wind’ did for blacks.” When I think of watching this movie, I remember feeling closeted.
‘Victor, Victoria’ was a musical fiction set in 1934. It showed gay and gender non-conforming people living in the relative social freedom of Paris just before World War II. It was funny, at times slapstick, and I remember my friends and I being angry at the rumor that James Garner, who starred with Julie Andrews, had insisted that before his big kiss with the apparently male Victor, there would be a scene where he’d discovered the “truth” that Victor was really a woman. Even so, there was a thrill watching a movie where the main characters were identified as gay couples, happily living their lives. Watching this movie, I remember feeling hopeful.
When I read the first draft of Andrew’s talk, I chuckled when he mentioned “rap groups.” Yeah, in 1982 I attended the UCLA Gay Men’s Rap Group on Wednesday nights. That same year, Dr. Roger Detels, a dean at the UCLA Med School, came to talk to us at the UCLA Gay and Lesbian Association about GRID, “Gay Related Immune Deficiency,” that was causing some concern in Southern California. No one knew quite what was happening, but gay men were getting sick from diseases that the immune system should be able to fight off easily.
That was the beginning of AIDS in my community, but I didn’t know it yet. I was too busy being very politically active as the Executive Director of the Gay and Lesbian Association. In 1984 I was the Conference Coordinator for the Western Regional Lesbian and Gay Student Conference – a gathering of over 200 queer students from 8 western states, 100% paid for by UCLA student government. Yeah, I was a good grant-writer back then. We had a gay municipal court judge, a gay superior court judge, some lawyers, doctors, and a ton of community activists. The community was waking up politically, and starting to feel our power. This is 20-year-old me, feeling my power, leading a workshop on community organizing or something like that.
A year or so later, I was the co-chair of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Chapter, in those days the only chapter of the ACLU not bound by geography or region. At the annual Pride festival in Los Angeles that year, I led a protest that I remember very fondly. I was at a small table, with a little Sony Walkman and a bullhorn. And a sign – “gay weddings.” Young and old couples came over, and I would help them read vows, and pronounce them married in the eyes of the community. I didn’t for a second kid myself that we were on the verge of marriage equality, and indeed we weren’t. It would be almost another 30 years before marriage was legalized in the US. But I would play a gentle love song from Victor, Victoria, and proudly broadcast an act of civil disobedience through a tired old bullhorn. It was one of the proudest days of my life, and still the Pride Parade and Festival I remember the most.
Very soon after that joyous Pride festival, my community would be in tatters. HIV-AIDS was killing men faster than we thought possible, and the government was offering little help, if not outright resistance. Our youthful enthusiasm became the drudgery of warfare, and while we tried our best, it quickly became apparent that our leaders, our elders, were fast disappearing.
What I didn’t really know at the time, being sheltered in the political bubble of UCLA’s diverse LGBT community, was that there had long been a rift between gay men and lesbians. In addition to a long history of racism in the gay community, there were a ton of misogynist gay men, and “man-hating” women, who refused to have anything to do with each other.
Until something changed.
If there had been a terrible disease killing thousands upon thousands of lesbians, I don’t know how the gay male community would have responded. I try to push the thought from my mind of some of the misogynist men I’ve encountered in my life, and what that could have meant. Thank God that didn’t happen. In fact, it was the women, the lesbian community, who didn’t seem to pause for an instant before picking up bedpans and washcloths, tending to the fallen and falling, and mothering gay men in our hour of need. And not just mothering and nursing, but marching and fighting. Raising their voices for those of us who could no longer speak.
We have lots of reminders of the gay rights movement, and lots of memorials to Harvey Milk and other leaders. And rightly so. Without their leadership, the work of so many strong advocates, Russ and I would not be married today.
But I can’t help but think that we’re missing something. Some huge statue at Market and Castro, of a no-nonsense lesbian, rolling up her sleeves, fighting the system with one hand while feeding her gay brother with the other. I’m usually pretty proud to be the son of my parents. But I’m overcome with pride at being a child of the LGBT community that survived the 80’s and 90’s.