ditor's Note: Carl Siciliano is the Founder and Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center, whose mission is to help homeless LGBT youth be safe and become independent as they move from adolescence to adulthood. For moreinformation go to www.aliforneycenter.org.]
On Saturday, June 13, the Ali Forney Center (AFC) hosted an event commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It was a panel discussion that involved Martin Boyce and Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, participants in the Stonewall uprising, as well as four young clients of AFC. During this panel the riots were revisited, particularly in light of the crucial role played by queer street youth that night, and an examination occurred of the conditions and realities facing LGBT street youth then and now.
We were given a visceral sense of how things have changed when Lanigan-Schmidt said that if I had organized such an event in 1969 I could have been arrested for corrupting minors; he also indicated that the youth participants could have been forced into psychiatric treatment against their will and given shock treatment.
Some common themes emerged when looking at what LGBT experienced both then and now. Lanigan-Schmidt spoke of coming to New York City homeless and penniless in the mid 60's after experiencing violence from his peers, and rejection from his family in suburban New Jersey. The AFC youth spoke also of rejection experienced in their homes, communities and churches. It was painfully apparent that after all these years, teens who are perceived to be LGBT continue to be at great risk for violence, harrassment, condemnation and homelessness.
Two of the youth participants, Angela and Berlin, were young transgender women. They each spoke of how important it was to have an iPod to drown out the nasty comments they receive when walking down the street. Boyce spoke of being a "scare queen" in the 60's, wearing some female clothing, without making an effort to seem completely female. He spoke of how he and another Stonewall rioter, Birdie Rivera, were attacked by the police as they went to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Boyce was wearing a long "Isadora Duncan" scarf, which the police used to strangle him until he turned blue, while passerbyers spoke approvingly to the police of their attack. Boyce and Rivera picked themselves up after the attack and went into the museum, but Boyce said nobody was paying attention to the art, but rather the terrible red scar around Boyce's neck and Rivera's terrible black eye.
We were all especially riveted to hear Boyce describe the night of the riot. He described being outside the Stonewall Inn as police began to bring patrons of the bar into paddywagons during one of the regular raids. Suddenly a drag queen punched one of the police. Martin said that the scare queens, many of them street kids, began to move towards the police, who backed into the doors of the inn. "We started ramming the door," Boyce said. "You could see in their eyes as they were looking out at us, still with contempt, this rising sense of alarm."
Boyce described a queen who took out lighter fluid and set the door on fire. Boyce said the crowd kept surging forward towards the police. Reinforcements came, and now the rioters were being clubbed from behind. Boyce said "We were all fighting. Every time we would move we were confronted with police attacking us and groups of hecklers, but for the first time none of us ran.... We confronted them! We had had enough. We really were strong. We wanted to be free, not to be attacked."
It was an incredibly moving experience for our kids to hear Boyce and Lanigan-Schmidt describe the night our movement was born. Particularly as Boyce walked us through the events of the riot, for we could all feel the fear and anger and amazement and pride that he felt on that pivotal night. When he finished we all spontaneously rose up and gave them a standing ovation for their courage, and for what they had accomplished for us all.
Most of the young homeless men and women of the Ali Forney Center had not heard of the Stonewall riot before we began to prepare for this event. Yet, how important this event was, in terms of inspiring them to overcome the obstacles they continue to face because of the ways homophobia has damaged their young lives. It is so important that we as LGBT adults begin to think of ways to pass down the history of our incredible march towards freedom and equality as a people. We need to celebrate our heroes, we need to embrace as our traditions the ways in which we as a people have broken the chains that would hold us down. We need to summon the strength of those who came before us, and helped to bring us where we are today.
On behalf of all the young women and men of the Ali Forney Center, I thank Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt and Martin Boyce, and all the heroes of the Stonewall uprising for giving us the strength and inspiration to fight for our freedom and equality. May the day come soon where teens are no longer discarded by their families for being LGBT. And may the day come soon where we as a people are recognized as equally able to participate in the freedom promised to us as citizens of our nation.