40 Years Later, Still Second-Class Americans

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Published: June 27, 2009

LIKE all students caught up in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, I was riveted by the violent confrontations between the police and protestors in Selma, 1965, and Chicago, 1968. But I never heard about the several days of riots that rocked Greenwich Village after the police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in the wee hours of June 28, 1969 — 40 years ago today.

Then again, I didn’t know a single person, student or teacher, male or female, in my entire Ivy League university who was openly identified as gay. And though my friends and I were obsessed with every iteration of the era’s political tumult, we somehow missed the Stonewall story. Not hard to do, really. The Times — which would not even permit the use of the word gay until 1987 — covered the riots in tiny, bowdlerized articles, one of them but three paragraphs long, buried successively on pages 33, 22 and 19.

But if we had read them, would we have cared? It was typical of my generation, like others before and after, that the issue of gay civil rights wasn’t on our radar screen. Not least because gay people, fearful of harassment, violence and arrest, were often forced into the shadows. As David Carter writes in his book “Stonewall,” at the end of the 1960s homosexual sex was still illegal in every state but Illinois. It was a crime punishable by castration in seven states. No laws — federal, state or local — protected gay people from being denied jobs or housing. If a homosexual character appeared in a movie, his life ended with either murder or suicide.

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Eric Francis

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