Stonewall Showed the World Our Resilience

LGBTQ people finally seized control of the narrative about our lives.

Posted Jun 24, 2019

As any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) person can tell you, we sexual minorities are among society’s most traumatized women and men. From the time we’re kids we are abused, beaten up, insulted, rejected, and thrown out of our homes simply because we are not heterosexual or may not conform to traditionally defined gender roles.

Sadly, and not surprisingly, being treated like someone who is “less than” can seep inside our minds and hearts. It’s too easy to think we don’t deserve to be treated with exactly the same respect, aren’t worthy of the same legal rights, as people who happen to be heterosexual. It’s too easy to stigmatize ourselves.

That’s why it’s not coincidental that a disproportionate number of LGBTQ men and women live with mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety.

That’s why it’s also not surprising that gay men, particularly young African-American gay men, continue to bear the greatest impact of HIV in the US. “Horniness” alone doesn’t account for the choices some gay men make to engage in high-risk sex, or use alcohol and other drugs to anesthetize themselves into a state where high-risk sex doesn’t feel as dangerous as it is.

Research suggests that our risky choices have a lot to do with depression, substance over-use, and damaged self-esteem. Research also suggests that HIV prevention and treatment adherence messages must address gay men’s mental health challenges if they are going to be effective.

Photo by Diana Davies, copyright owned by the New York Public Library.
The Stonewall Inn, 1969
Source: Photo by Diana Davies, copyright owned by the New York Public Library.

Despite the challenges—and, paradoxically, because of them—LGBTQ women and men are some of the most resilient people anywhere. That is precisely what the world first saw at the Stonewall Inn on the night of Friday, June 27, 1969.

After the riots, it seemed that overnight, the closet had become an anachronism of a darker time. “Gay liberation” meant throwing off the psychological and spiritual shackles of shame and blame that heterosexuals imposed on LGBTQ people simply for being “different.” It meant “coming out,” proudly embracing that difference, and standing together in solidarity as a community.

Stonewall gave LGBTQ people a new way to tell our story, as individuals and as a community. It flipped the narrative on its head, rejecting the role of victim we seemed always to be cast in—and in which we too often cast ourselves. Instead of continuing to be victimized, we asserted our freedom and right to tell our story in our own voices, from our own point of view.

In the years after Stonewall, gay and lesbian historians—such as John D’Emilio, Estelle Freedman, and George Chauncey—began to document and piece together stories from our past, reframing history to include us instead of excluding us as though we hadn't always been part of it. Their work helped us begin to answer Harry Hay’s questions when he founded the Mattachine Society in 1950, the country’s first “homophile” organization: Who are gay people? Where do gay people come from? Where have gays been throughout history?

After Stonewall we began to value our own history and understand that LGBTQ history is American history and is part of our even vaster human history.

After Stonewall, we could finally assert our pride in the many and multifold contributions we have made in every area of life throughout the ages. And we could begin, at last, to bring our lives and loves into full (at least fuller) public view, no longer afraid to say out loud that we love, too, and happen to love a person of our own sex.

Heterosexual Americans could see how deep and real our love was as we tended our friends and lovers in the dark AIDS years and openly, even flamboyantly, mourned our dead in the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

In a mere half-century, we have been tested by legalized homophobia intended to strip us of our constitutional rights and a deadly health crisis. But we have prevailed in society-reshaping challenges to the laws that oppress us, most dramatically in the 2015 Supreme Court decision to permit legal same-sex marriage nationwide.

We have a tremendous amount to be proud of at this 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Best of all is we have what I call a heroic legacy of brave men and women to claim for ourselves.

Because of Stonewall, we can tell our stories not as tales of pain and struggle, but of survival and resilience—of becoming Stonewall strong.