Erika’s Big Think #2, Part 2: Concluding Reflections on Stonewall

By Erika Grumet

One Sunday in June, I was folding laundry with my mother. The television was on, tuned into evening news, which was reporting on “gay pride festivities” in New York City. I was a teenager, and as teenagers often do,     I held opinions about many things that conflicted with my parents. I have also been told, for essentially my entire life, that I’m “too sensitive” or “overreacting.” So there I am, teenaged me, (who had yet to actually acknowledge the fact that I might actually be part of the Alphabet Mafia, and was instead trying to ignore, suppress, or run away from any thoughts about that,) trying to explain to my mother the whole idea that people at Pride aren’t flaunting anything or showing off any more than she was flaunting her heterosexuality by wearing a wedding ring or talking about her husband (my Dad). 

Fast forward a few years and I’m in college…I’m dating a guy who had three roommates. We’ll call him Alex. His roommates were Alex, Alex and Ryan. Ryan and I had similar taste in movies and music, and got along really well, and ended up spending a lot of time hanging out. Mom calls me one day when I’m on my way out the door to meet him for dinner, and I grab the phone, trying to keep the call short and she says, “You spend a lot of time hanging out with him. Are you sure he doesn’t like you?” When I told her that I was absolutely certain that he wasn’t interested, she kept pushing and I finally told her that he was gay. From then on, every time she spoke about him, his name was accompanied by an exaggerated hip thrust to one side and a limp wrist gesture. I probably should have expected the horrible response I got to coming out when I finally did. But just a few weeks after that conversation, I took advantage of a day off from work and headed into NYC to meet up with Ryan and a few other people for the Stonewall 25 festivities. I’d been working on HIV related stuff for four or five years at that point, but I’d always sort of let Pride be space for my LGBTQ+ friends and not space for me, so it was my first time attending Pride in person. Being there, surrounded by friends and strangers, all being authentic and expressing themselves in so many different ways was powerful and inspiring. It was definitely a turning point for me, the beginning of a shift to understanding where I fit into queer history. 

This weekend as part of Pride festivities, we observe the fifty second anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It wasn’t the first time LGBTQ+ people took action to fight police corruption and homophobia, but it was the time that blew the doors off of the paddy wagon. It was the end of silence and slinking around. There are many myths about Stonewall, about what really happened, about who threw the first brick. We know the names Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, but how many of us know about Brenda Howard, sometimes called the “Mother of Pride”? 

Pride is such a complicated word for some people–we get messages about sin and ego, vs self confidence and appreciation for the hard work we do. There are a few things I keep coming back to though when I think about what “Pride” means. I am proud to be part of a lively, thriving, dynamic community that chooses to make and maintain connections-not bound by blood but bound by the choice to do the work to become whole and complete and authentic. I am proud to be brave enough to go against expectations, traditions and norms because they truly do not fit right. I am proud to continue a legacy of advocacy and activism and a commitment to making the world safer, better, more joyful and more loving.

Queer history unfolded rapidly. In 1969, the Stonewall Riots happened. 1,691 days later, the American Psychiatric Association depathologized homosexuality; an event that took place barely 500 days before I was born. There were fewer than 5,000 days between the Stonewall Riots and the first reports of pneumonia that would indicate the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Queer life as we know it is a very recent thing, but I cannot forget the work that so many people did to enable me to have what I do, and that includes the people who stood up at Stonewall, but also the ECHO action at the White House, the Dewy’s Cafeteria Sit In, the Patch Riot, Compton’s Cafeteria, the Sip In at Julius’s, and so many others.

There are high standards for me to live up to, and a lot of work for me to do, and to teach the next generations to do. But this is Pride month. This is a celebration of a revolution. And for a moment, as we face massive amounts of homophobic and transphobic legislation in many states, I’m going to use the month, and use Pride, to refuel for the next year of fighting by choosing to celebrate the accomplishments, and reminding myself that it’s all about being able to live, and love, honestly. In the words of James Baldwin “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” 

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