Today is the forty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots which gave birth to the whole Gay Liberation movement that has brought us to an era where gay marriage will soon be legal everywhere. Think about it: back in 1969, the challenge was trying to have sex or more with another man without it wrecking your career and your life.
I have a very personal connection to Stonewall for two reasons: it was the very first gay bar I ever walked into, and it was that night that I had my first sexual encounter as a gay man.
Living at home in Jersey while I was completing my degree, I was working to pay for college at a now defunct retail store chain called Two Guys where my boss was a dead ringer for Jackie Gleason, that rotund, wise-guy comedian. Only there was something a little peculiar about Charlie. When he said he wanted to do something special for me for my 21st birthday, I figured we’d go out for dinner at the local Italian restaurant where, for lunch, Charlie would have a gargantuan meat ball sub and a “diet Coke, please” since he was on a perpetual nowhere diet. I had convinced him to hire Rob, a crush of mine from college, but I was surprised when the two of them pulled up at my parent’s house to pick me up that Saturday night.
Driving into the City, Charlie revealed his true persuasions to me and Rob (we soon came out to him, too), and how he had been a headliner drag queen entertainer in the ‘50’s. So where did we end up but in the Village and Stonewall. I’ll never forget the beads you had to walk through after the bouncer let you in, and the go-go boys dancing on the bar. It was years later that I read how the place had been run by the Mafia and how it was constantly raided if the payoffs weren’t enough. Had I known then, I would have hightailed it to Port Authority Terminal that night and taken a bus home.
I had hoped I would make it with Rob, but in the end he fell asleep after his first drink, and I ended up getting picked up by some older guy (probably 25) in a white suit who took me back to his apartment a few blocks away. Naïve me, when he whipped it out, my first reaction was, what am I supposed to do with it?
But, I’ve always been a quick study.
Like almost everything else in this once secret life that has gone mainstream, the huge Stonewall parade down Christopher Street in the heart of the Village is no longer our party. The last time I attended was back in 2002 just before I left NYC for Fort Lauderdale, and frankly I felt like an outsider at my own affair. There seemed to be as many str8’s as there was us, and at one point as I was making my way through the crowded streets, a str8 married couple gave me a look as I accidently bumped into them as if I was occupying THEIR space. But at least the NYC parade as I remembered it was more of a celebration sprinkled with reps from a myriad of support organizations; the Fort Lauderdale Pride Parade, held about the same time as New York’s, is much more commercial with mostly bar floats and politicians in mile-long convertibles trying to woo our votes.
For all we’ve achieved in the last four and half decades, I still wonder if we were better off when we were all members of a secret society of brothers (and sisters), and not just another demographic for Mad Ave to hustle.
Hey, but that’s the price of progress, huh?