MAXWELL:  Gay pride celebration sheds light on people

6/11/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

June is a special month for gay people in the United States. It is when they celebrate their sexuality _ their identity. It is when they show pride. As such, June is when many gay people, including some of my relatives and friends, have “come out of the closet” _ and stayed “out.”

It is when homophobia is put in the national spotlight.

June was chosen to celebrate gay pride to commemorate the June 28, 1969, Stonewall riots in New York City _ the incident that initiated the gay rights movement in the U.S.

As of this writing, hundreds of celebrations are taking place around the country. One of the newest and biggest, which I attended three years ago to support a lesbian relative, is in Key West. In its seventh year, the city’s Gay Pride Week began last Sunday and continued for eight days.

Starting in 1994 as a simple sidewalk parade with marchers carrying rainbow flags, today’s Key West celebration, sponsored by the Key West Lesbian and Gay Pride Alliance, welcomes thousands of people from every part of the globe.

Even with such phenomenal growth, though, the simple purpose of the event remains the same. “It’s to encourage the gay individual to be open and honest about who they are in an attempt to end homophobia, the hatred and fear of the gay community,” Annalise Mannix-Lachner, one of the celebration’s original planners, said at a press conference. “Family and friends have a hard time hating people they love, just because they learn they’re gay. It’s, “If you love me, how can you hate gay people?’ ”

Throughout June, other such events will take place around the nation. But even the Key West event probably would not exist if blood had not flowed during the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village. The New York Mattachine Society, a gay civil rights group, facetiously calls the riots “the hairpin drop heard ’round the world.” The riots also are called the “Rosa Parks” of the gay rights movement.

A few hours after hundreds of Villagers had attended the funeral of actress Judy Garland, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular bar among homosexuals that was run by the Mafia.

It was one of a handful of establishments in the city that openly welcomed gays and lesbians. But these also were the days when merely dancing with a person of the same sex and cross-dressing were illegal. As always, the police used the Mafia connection as the pretext for the raid.

To the police’s surprise, however, patrons inside the club fought back. As plain-clothed cops hauled out a group of men wearing dresses, the flashing lights of the paddy wagon became a lightning rod for the large, angry crowd.

According to news accounts, the police were especially vicious, clubbing and shoving their subjects. As the crowd mushroomed, people screamed and tossed coins at the police. Soon, rocks and bottles filled the air, and, ironically, the police sought refuge inside the Stonewall.

Outside, the crowd continued to swell, and during the next several days, more than 4,000 gays and lesbians and their supporters occupied the streets. More than a dozen were taken to jail.

A few days after the riots, the New York Mattachine Newsletter asked this question: “Why the Stonewall and not the Sewer or the Snake Pit? The answer lies, we believe, in the unique nature of the Stonewall. . . . It catered to a large group of people who are seldom welcome in, or cannot afford, other places of homosexual gathering. . . . When it was raided, they fought for it. . . . They had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and open-minded gay place in town.”

Miraculously, no one died during the riots, and, as we all know, the sexual-orientation landscape has never been the same.

Seymour Pine, who was deputy inspector in charge of the New York Police Department’s vice squad, told the Progressive newspaper: “For those of us in Public Morals, after the Stonewall incident things were completely changed. (Homosexuals) suddenly were not submissive anymore.”

The rest is history.

Because of Stonewall, the U.S. is a better nation. As more gays and lesbians “come out,” we understand their lifestyle a little bit more, and with understanding comes tolerance and even acceptance. Most states, for example, have passed legislation protecting gay and lesbian rights to some degree. Even the U.S. military adopted a policy whose controversial aim is to protect the rights of gay and lesbian personnel.

Some cities, such as Wilton Manors, near my hometown of Fort Lauderdale, have openly gay mayors. I lived in Key West when voters there elected their first openly gay mayor _ a man I came to respect and know well because of his support of Florida Keys Community College, where I taught English and journalism.

As the June celebrations of gay and lesbian pride continue, my hope is that genuine understanding continues also, that we douse the flames of hatred and start seeing all people for what they are in essence: people.