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How Stonewall Brought the 'Oz' Rainbow Down to Earth

We claimed our right to a happy life here and now, not 'over the rainbow.'

Besides marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that launched the “modern” LGBTQ equality movement, 2019 will mark another big anniversary—the 80th—for the most-watched movie ever, The Wizard of Oz.

Released in 1939, the iconic movie and its pretty young heroine—Dorothy Gale, played by Judy Garland—launched a million sighs of longing for a happy home “somewhere over the rainbow.”

Gay men of the time, many still today, certainly felt like exiles cut off from a safe, accepting home where they could openly express their true inner selves, no longer hide long-loved loves, and not dread that an offhand reference to another man as anything more than a friend could lead to the loss of a job, family support, social status, and maybe even jail.

No wonder so many gay men adored Judy Garland and her signature song “Over the Rainbow.”

The main characters of The Wizard of Oz, L-R: The Cowardly Lion; Dorothy Gale; Scarecrow; the Tin Man.
Source: Public Domain

John Clum, professor emeritus of theater studies and English at Duke University, understands why a wounded diva like Judy Garland appealed so strongly to gay men. “To closeted gay men,” writes Clum in his book Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture, “the diva heroine was a figure of identification. Where does one find magic if one is different and must try to hide one’s difference? The ideal is escape from the provincial, where one is hated, and fabulousness, an antidote to grayness and the strong sense of entrapment.”

In an interview for my book Stonewall Strong, Clum said, simply, “Garland was a wreck, but she went on."

That is what gay men saw on stage and on the screen: resilience. The grit to go on in spite of everything that wants to hold us back. “We were like the divas,” said Clum. “We go on and on, but underneath we’re hurting.” He added, “Divas are survivors. We loved them because they were survivors.”

They inspired hope when hope was desperately needed.

For a lot of gay men before Stonewall, even today, their hope was further inspired by simply realizing they weren’t “the only one.” In his amazing 1977 memoir Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, longtime gay activist Arnie Kantrowitz described his own experience after moving into Greenwich Village in 1966.

After spending the Labor Day weekend moving into his $150-a-month flat on Bleecker Street, Kantrowitz finally went out for a stroll around his new neighborhood after midnight Monday. He checked out the shop windows, marveled at the heavy pedestrian traffic for the late hour, and then walked down Christopher Street. “Everything changed all at once,” he writes, “as if by some miracle I was glimpsing a black-and-white world suddenly gone Technicolor.”

Kantrowitz wondered whether he’d landed in Oz itself.

“The street was literally lined with men,” he recalls, “chatting in clusters, standing alone in doorways, sitting on stoops, leaning against railings, strolling, everywhere. They took no pains to hide their obvious interest in each other. They seemed to eye each other with cool ease, as if sex were merely a glance away. Dressed sensually in clinging pants, an extra button open on their shirts to reveal their chests, they seemed utterly unabashed, saying what they pleased and acting as they liked.”

Although there isn’t a direct connection between the two events, it’s a powerful bit of symbolism to note that Judy Garland’s funeral and the Stonewall riots happened on the same day—as if the departed diva had exited the stage to make way for something far bigger and more powerful than anyone could have imagined.

Wistful longing for a place “somewhere over the rainbow” was giving way to a new insistence on equality here and now.

Mark Segal was an 18-year-old Stonewall regular by the time the riots erupted on Friday night, June 27, 1969. In his own memoir And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality, Segal writes, “We were going to smash that rainbow. We didn’t have to go over anything or travel anywhere to get what we wanted.”

Segal, the founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and a syndicated columnist, says that things changed dramatically after Stonewall. “Up until that moment,” he says, “LGBT people had simply accepted oppression and inequality as their lot in life. That all changed.”

Stonewall marked the demarcation between pining for a home “over the rainbow” and claiming the rainbow flag as the symbol of our freedom to be true to ourselves. Instead of living vicariously through female divas like Judy Garland, we embraced our own power to create the changes that will let us live with integrity and openness here and now.

One thing, though, hasn't really changed. Whether we find it in the reaffirmed embrace of our biological family after we come out to them, among our chosen family of relatives and friends who not only accept us but also have proven their love and loyalty, I expect we’d all still agree with Dorothy Gale’s famous last line from The Wizard of Oz at its 80th anniversary: "There's no place like home."

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