One of the things I find interesting about teaching (and being aunt to) people who are around 20 years old is that most of them did not grow up in a world where no one they knew was gay. For folks of my generation and older, it was assumed that no one was gay, and when someone came out, it was a surprise, and very difficult. It is hard to explain exactly how “deviant” homosexuality was considered, especially when it was criminal and considered a mental disorder. You can get some idea from a documentary like Stonewall Uprising, but still, it’s difficult to get across.
But in 1973 – the same year homosexuality was taken out of the DSM – 32 LGBTQ people burned to death in an intentional fire caused by arson. A molotov cocktail was thrown into a building that housed a gay bar and the local meeting place of the MCC church. There were 60 or so people in the room, and half of them found a way out, but the other half died in the fire.
What’s more horrifying are the stories and jokes – yes, jokes – told about the fire after the fact. I won’t repeat them here but if you have stomach enough, you can read them here.
And that’s the part of the story that sobered me up. I remember fruit jokes. The ones I heard weren’t about this fire, and maybe weren’t about anyone in particular. But I remember the kinds of jokes that were told, how dehumanizing they were. It’s almost hard to remember, but a story like this one makes it a little clearer what this has all been about.
It’s been an amazing pride month for me as a New Yorker, that’s for damn sure. 42 years after Stonewall, New York has made marriage equality happen. But still, there were some bodies in that fire that weren’t claimed, and it’s not that long ago that families of men dying of AIDS pretended they had no sons.
So yes, there’s been huge amounts of progress. HUGE. But I don’t want us to forget, either, how it used to be: that’s why the riots at Compton’s and Stonewall happened, after all.