It was 1969. I was 13, bookish and feeling a strange attraction to other girls on the softball team. So, I read Time Magazine on the June 28th Stonewall riots in far-off Greenwich Village: “The homosexual subculture is, without question, shallow and unstable.”
Previously, Time had described homosexuality as “a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life [that] deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste — and above all no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.”
Fifty years after Stonewall — when police and protesters famously clashed outside the Stonewall Inn, a New York gay bar — we need to remember our journey.
I came out as a teenager in Baltimore in the early 1970s. My mother said, “Kissing a woman is like kissing a horse.” That didn’t track with my experience with the cheerleading squad. I found a lesbian bar on Pratt and Exeter called Mitch’s that rocked on the weekends. But police came in regularly to harass us — a terrifying, humiliating, infuriating experience.
By my 20s I was appearing on local TV at gay protests. I remember protesting “Cruising” at the Rotunda — a film that presented gay men as maniacal serial killers. A family friend saw the news coverage and called me a “bulldyke” at Emmanuel Episcopal Church’s coffee hour. My family nearly disowned me.
I fled to New York City, a gay mecca during the Reagan years, and got a job as national spokesperson for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the gay legal group.
At first all I could do was give background because national journalists did not view us “homosexuals” as credible sources. In the early 1980s the New York Times would call me, get information on a Lambda case heading to the Supreme Court, then call a straight person at the ACLU or Harvard Law to get a quote. What we “homosexuals” said or thought did not matter. Our names were certainly not fit to print.
Not until the AIDS crisis erupted did the national press start regularly quoting me and other gay advocates. It was a political breakthrough and a personal heartbreak. Everyone I had grown up with and gone to school with saw me. In the New York Times. In the Washington Post. In USA Today. Personal and professional relationships vanished.
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I was so preoccupied with what straight America thought of me back then. I remember distinctly putting on pearls for a photo shoot with US News and World Report, thinking of my mother in Towson. Then in 1986 the Supreme Court decided “Bowers v. Hardwick,” ruling that it was perfectly fine for the police to enter our homes, go into our bedrooms and arrest us for having consensual sex.
The night of June 30, 1986, I spoke at a swelling, roiling protest in Sheridan Square, calling for a day of national protest. At our massive march in New York City on July 4 that year, I saw a man viciously beaten by anti-gay thugs. When I visited him the next day in the hospital the doctors were trying to save his eyesight. I felt responsible because I had called the march and only found consolation by reading Martin Luther King Jr.: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
I look back on this painful personal and national journey and marvel. Now Ellen DeGeneres is on TV, and Wanda Sykes is touring. A married gay man is running for president. Marriage equality is the law of the land. This June, Pride events happened in every major city and town in America and around the world. As for me, I have my own family, my own children, my own hard-won pride.
Celebrate with me, but remember, my friends, it’s equality only if we can keep it.
Nancy Langer is a global human rights activist who served as associate director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and president of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a LGBTQ youth service group. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.