Editors' Note: Erica Chu is a teacher and student at Loyola University Chicago, seeking a Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Women's Studies and Gender Studies. They manage the blog keepingitqueer.blogspot.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once upon a time, a bunch of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and otherwise queer people liked to hang out in certain parts of town. The world looked down on them - and the most resentful of their presence were the respectable neighbors who lived nearby. Now "lewd and lascivious acts" (including gay sex) were against the law, but that didn't stop people from frequenting cruising spots, gay clubs, and gay bars. Since they distrusted the police, they sometimes solved their disputes in less-than-healthy ways. They sometimes fought, often got drunk, took illegal drugs, had sex, and generally ran amuck in places where they made the neighbors feel uncomfortable, fearful, and even unsafe. In other places, they couldn't find people like themselves. In other places, they had to hide who they were. The young people simply had nowhere else to go. Their parents wouldn't tolerate them, and they found it easier to deal with the dangers of the street than be isolated, berated, or beaten.
If they formed community and gathered in other parts of town, they could have been killed (but even in this part, they were harassed and subject to intimidation and possible physical abuse). Perhaps they should have organized and taken their activities to some private venue - they did, when they could, but the rest of the time it took a lot of effort, a lot of money, and a lot of thoughtfulness for the very people in that neighborhood who wished they would just disappear. And besides, why hide? They hid enough among the homes they escaped from and among the people who took advantage of them just so they could have enough money to live. The night, at least, was theirs. The respectable people were off the street, and at last they could laugh, love, argue, dance, sing, meet and mingle, and generally be themselves.
Cleaning Up the Neighborhood?
Eventually the most respectable people moved on, but those in other neighborhoods and those still living there eventually elected government officials who hated the situation as much as they did. They kept calling the cops. They swirled around accusations, complained about how the parts of the city they loved had become bad after these people had come around. The respectable people kept covering their children's eyes and using their own eyes to stare with intense hatred, resentment, and fear. The cops came and did the neighbors' bidding. They harassed the queers, they entrapped them at cruising spots, they detained them, they verbally accosted them, they tried to get them to show how un-respectable they were. And when the cops were able, they hauled those queers to jail, charged them with whatever they could make stick (and even what wouldn't), and they reported back to the neighbors that they were doing their best to clean up the neighborhood.
The part of the story you've perhaps been expecting is that on a summer night (when all the crazies come out to play), the cops harassed one too many people, and the queers couldn't take it anymore. They broke the law, they committed violence, they set a building on fire, they looted, they screamed through the streets - in short, they released all the rage that had been building up over the years, and they went to the streets - not just at night but in the daytime, saying very loudly, "I will not hide," "I am not respectable, nor do I care to be," "We are not trash. We are people of worth, and you have shat on us long enough."
Joining Together for Tolerance
And so the Stonewall Riots involved a very dense network of neighborhoods, separate groups of people with their own interests and judgments, and individuals - many many individuals - who were each fighting for what they wanted and what they thought they needed. Among the rag tag group of rioters and those who would look to them as heroes, the Riots went down in history as an act of righteous anger, a necessary action to boldly answer the resentment, anger, fear, and intolerance their respectable neighbors had cast upon them.
The oppression they had suffered was intense, but what if we could do something to stop their suffering much earlier in this story? What if we could go back in time to reduce the suffering of these beautiful fag/dyke/queer undesirables? What if fewer people had been forced to live up to other people's standards? What if more people had more options than living and working in the parks and on the streets? What if fewer people had been accosted for not being respectable in the places they sought safety? What if fewer had been made the target of police harassment and entrapment, fewer had been abandoned or even treated like trash by the very people who should have cared most about them?
We - especially we who call ourselves progressives, we who have some power in this world (limited may it be), and we who call ourselves members of the LGBTQ community - we would be irresponsible and actually heartless if we didn't jump at the opportunity to curb the oppression of the "riff raff" in this story.
Well, we have another opportunity.
Revisiting Stonewall Values Today
Many are blaming the "unsavory" groups of poor youth (mostly black) who gather on street corners and other public areas. These youth loiter, they laugh and play loudly, and even engage in sex work or petty crime. Because these youth don't fit in with the "respectable" people in the neighborhood, many assume they are violent criminals. In recent weeks concerns over safety are making many nervous, fearful, and even angry. In online forums, some concerned citizens are directly blaming these youth for committing or attracting these crimes. While safety for all - not the least among these youth - is of importance, many resent and fear the presence of such "undesirables" in the neighborhood.
The violence that has taken place is unfortunate, and the safety of all citizens should be prioritized. Yet how quickly the riff raff become the mainstream and the politics of power become completely forgotten.
Don't get me wrong, violence should not be accepted, but the attitudes being expressed by the majority of the gay community sound all too similar - the majority in 1969 also called for increased police presence, surveillance, and suspicion being cast on the riff raff in that neighborhood.
The situation that brought about the Stonewall Riots is very different from the situation in East Lakeview, Illinois, today. In 1969, homophobia was communicated with such obvious hatred that no one could deny the desire of respectable folk to see queers just disappear. The few knife-wielding youths today may also cause more fear than "moral perversion" in the '60s or even AIDS in the '80s. The political and social circumstances surrounding the situation on Christopher Street and the one in East Lakeview are very, very different, and we'd be foolish to claim that comparisons between the two contexts are unproblematic. That being said, we'd be throwing away the benefits of history if we ignore the similarities between the homophobia that eventually led to Stonewall and the classist and often racist attitudes now at the surface in Boystown.
Prejudice without overt hatred is still prejudice, and it is communicated today with more subtlety than ever before in history. If we fail to acknowledge that resentment, fear, discomfort, and suspicion are just as detrimental to a just society as hate, we do harm to ourselves as well as others. We who claim to be progressive cry out when subtle prejudice mars the name of gays in the media, but we do a much more lackluster job at correcting prejudice regarding economic status and racial/cultural difference in our own community. What's worse, the majority among us would rather believe classism and racism aren't major problems in the gay community.
The weeks following Chicago Pride 2011 will be an important historical moment. It has brought new attention to the problem of community safety, and it has highlighted the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and classism that has been accepted and embraced among a surprisingly large percentage of the LGBTQ community. In the history that will be written, will this be known as a time we concerned ourselves only with "what is mine"? Or will we be able to look back with pride?
It's time we take stock of the failings of our supposedly progressive community and work now to ease the oppression of LGBTQ youth even as we work to protect the neighborhood we - all the beautiful beneficiaries of Stonewall - inhabit.
img courtesy of Erica Chu