June is gay pride month around the world. Originally observed on the first Sunday in June, Pride is now a month-long commemoration, with many cities holding public events and street celebrations. Unlike LGBTQ history month, which has been observed in North America in October since the 1995 resolution by the National Education Association and includes Coming Out Day on the 11th, Gay Pride is directly tied to the Stonewall riots in Manhattan that happened 50 years ago on June 28th.
If you’re heterosexual, it might not be clear what any of that means or what it has to do with you. I will admit that I did not always understand the distinction between celebrating LGBTQ history month in October and honoring Pride in June or the importance of knowing this particularly low note in the history of being queer in this country. As a heterosexual humanist, knowing the origin of Pride was crucial information and cast much light on its importance. Today, though we are closer to guaranteeing equal civil rights to people of all sexual orientations, we haven’t yet arrived at equality. Pride is still necessary, and it’s not just a big party or a parade that makes it hard for you to get crosstown.
The Stonewall Riots were the chaotic outcome of the harebrained raid by the Public Morals Squad, a now-gone arm of the police, the disappearance of which alone is likely cause for celebration. The squad arrived at the Stonewall Inn, a well-attended gay bar in the West Village, and with the pretext of enforcing a liquor law, they attempted to disperse the patrons by means of force and insults.
The gay, lesbian, and transgender Inn-goers, fed up with the particularly adversarial tone and physical roughness from law enforcement, resisted. These types of raids, after all, were common and usually bolstered by contrivances like ferreting out organized crime and prostitution. But this time, things went south quickly when 9 officers lined up 200 patrons just after midnight, checking identifications and becoming physical, as well as taking the liberty of giving anatomical examinations to the attendees.
This particular combination of trampling and transgression opened the floodgates. A movement of people tied together by the belief that their sexuality is their own business, and certainly not something to be policed, came together. As rocks and bottles began to fly in self-defense inside the Stonewall Inn, outside chants of “gay power” started to be heard. The demonstrations in the street continued for days, as did the fallout from the clash, including injuries and arrests. More durably, the gay rights movement coalesced from that painful experience and the history that led up to that night in June 1969, when the pot boiled over.
The half decade between the violence at the Stonewall Inn has seen the LGBTQ community survive institutionalized discrimination and aggression, violence, ostracism, the deadly scourge of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and continue to fight for equal protection under the law. The details of the Stonewall raid and demonstrations for decades were equally contested by law enforcement and demonstrators, the former insisting reports were exaggerated and the latter demanding justice. Recent attempts to extract an apology from New York City Police Department were always declined — until now.
On June 6, 2019, the New York City police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, offered an apology on behalf of his department 50 years ago and its hand in causing the Stonewall uprising. He cited the discriminatory and unjust laws and practices that were put into play that evening, finally articulating the root of the problem and what his predecessors would not. Stonewall was the galvanizing moment that set off the LGBTQ rights movement because it was a clear example of systematized bigotry wielded by the law enforcement arm of the state.
Mr. O’Neill’s willingness to finally concede the police department’s grave error sets a particularly sweet tone to this year’s Pride. Though long overdue, the apology allows the conversation to move forward and closer to a time when gender and sexual orientation equality will be a reality worldwide. Here, from my vantage point not far from Miami’s South Beach, I can easily lose sight of places where being gay is still criminalized, stigmatized, sets one up to be a target for serious violence. As someone not affected in my own being by the bigotry and discrimination we humans are capable of deploying, Pride represents instead an opportunity to place myself in the continuum of our cultural history.
If I had to boil it down to a single exercise, honoring Pride is about flexing our empathy muscle. Even in the absence of celebrations in your town, even if you don’t personally know someone who is gay, there is a good place to begin, the place where I began. As a heterosexual, knowing more about the experience of being homosexual is essential for being able to relate, to truly understand the effect of institutionalized discrimination, and to pick what side of history we want to be on. As women especially, we carry our own set of struggles toward equality and have likely experienced similar obstacles. But we might not know how to do this. Here are some suggestions:
Books and film are an accessible and reliable point of departure. From biographies and memoirs of prominent figures who have come out to documentaries and biopics, you could fill your entire summer reading card with literary experiences of being queer in a heterosexual mainstream. From writers like Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams, to the first actors to live openly as gay, professional sports players contending with the inherent chauvinist, gay people of color, a gay Jew in Nazi Germany, these stories illustrate how the intersectionality between queerness and anything else is exponentially more difficult to navigate through our culture.
If you are moved by the moving picture, the Time magazine has just compiled a list of documentaries that can enhance your experience of Pride month this year. This roster features one film specifically about Stonewall and the history of the gay rights movement, a few on intersectional demographics, one about a transgender activist, classics like Paris is Burning, and a film that covers the horrors of the AIDS crisis. Even this survey leaves out the heartbreaking The Times of Harvey Milk, which follows the tragedy of a political assassination motivated by hatred and homophobia, and many others.
There are still other dozens of books, movies, and plays that illustrate, explain, and otherwise relate to their audience what it’s like to be gay, what it’s like to survive bigotry. Some very powerful ones — Angels in America and A Normal Heart — describe what it was like not to survive. The AIDS virus decimated a whole demographic for about a decade before the people in power turned their attention to what was happening and how to stop it. Rather than immediately looking to medicine and research, we wasted a lot of time as a society debating people’s rights to be who they were born to be. In addition to Stonewall, this episode of our cultural history is prerequisite information for anyone who wonders about the role and function of Pride and how to best honor it.
For those of us who have gay friends and family members, we are lucky to be able to personalize our experience of Pride even further. June is a good time to check in with our brothers and sisters. We can be supportive listeners if they have something to share. Depending on our level of intimacy, we can also ask them how the feel about Pride, about life in general, to share their coming out story. We can hold space for these things to arise on their own. We can hold silence. All of this can be useful.
In the same measure as we can benefit from knowing the stories of people who provide representation with their visibility, knowing more about the experience of less high profile individuals is great information to add to our cache. En route to greater empathy, research from primary sources comprises an important step toward full participation. Of course, if someone you know has a plan for Pride and invites you to tag along, that is the ultimate field research.
The next thing that seems to happen naturally when we interest ourselves in the experience of someone who’s had the deck stacked against them and continues to need advocacy in order to just live their life, is that we begin to feel supportive. How could we not? Realizing that people have no control over their gender or sexual orientation or the body they are born into any more than their nationality, birth order, or skin color, we balk at these stories of injustice and harassment.
On paper, we have come a long way in this country, finally signing marriage equality into law. However, the way things are on paper are rarely how they play out in real life and there are still plenty of places where even the way people speak about homosexuality has not been humanized, much less their behavior towards homosexuals. In too many places, the oppression of gay people is such that they cannot live freely there without fear of grave bodily harm or death. We must pause on that thought. People have obtained asylum here in the United States because of this tragic reality.
Supporting our LGBTQ community involves realizing that there is still a long way to go between paper and life. It also means that if you type the words “gay Pride” and “heterosexual” together into a search engine, as I did, you will see a row of hits about celebrating “straight pride”. This is not helpful or supportive — it’s absurd. No one ever has been persecuted for being straight and so there is no need to celebrate or highlight heterosexuality. The world is built around a heteronormative model, and those who have to work around that limiting model are the one who deserve support.
Part of giving support will mean informing someone near you who is misinformed. Not everyone will take the trouble to learn about the history of gay rights and not everyone will be exposed to someone who is openly gay. Some will choose to hold respectful silence on a topic they do not have mastery over, while others may choose to speak up in front of you, relaying information you know to be incorrect. It is an uncomfortable situation, as it was for me when it arose over lunch with fellow parents at a new school. But when one of them suggested that “choosing to be gay” was a bad idea and the other agreed, I took out my phone and forwarded an article on neurological and genetic research on sexuality (invisibly rolling my eyes—it took a lot), knowing I would likely not change their mind but at least giving them another chance to solve their own ignorance. Educating ourselves and others, on the other hand, is definitely a choice we can make.
The verb-form of the word, to ally oneself to another or to a cause, is a heavy-duty action word. If for no more than the previous steps, all necessary in the process of becoming a hetero ally to our gay community, there is much to be done. Truly empathizing means, at minimum, knowing the struggle intellectually, feeling it in oneself by connecting to the human experience of it, lending support to those who have no choice but to fight in it, and taking a stand when others attempt to marginalize an entire demographic. Empathy is the real work and process of becoming an ally.
You know what allies get to do? We celebrate! As we continue the work of the past decades, still aiming for complete marriage, family, and legal equality, as well as unquestioned tolerance in society, Pride comes around in the summer as a gorgeous manifestation of the ground gained and energy still left to take the next steps. With many cities serving as the kinds of havens of creative expression and political advocacy for the entire rainbow of LGBTQ community, the opportunities for street parties and vibrantly colored parades abound.
A placeholder for a time when such demonstrations of sexual difference and bold outward expression were still unheard and a beacon of what is to come, gay Pride is an important part of the movement as a whole, both an observation and a celebration. Capitalizing on the warm months of summer and the possibility it brings of taking the party to the streets, many places around the world make a whole summer of it.
Like anything, even Pride can be commercial. If your speed is less on the beaten path, consider taking a nature expedition to celebrate Pride. A small group of friends and a hiking trip or lake cabin is also a great way to commemorate, since the intention behind it is what matters.