June 21, 2004
This week marks the 35th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which sparked the modern gay and lesbian movement.
On June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a New York City bar frequented by gays and lesbians. At that time, it was illegal to cross-dress or dance with a partner of the same sex.
I was 3 years old during the Stonewall riots, but the place matters to me, as it does to so many other gays and lesbians. It made our lives possible.
The riots began after one of many police busts. But this time the people fought back, and their defiance was contagious.
The riots ended, amazingly, with no one dead. But the impact was immediate. "After the Stonewall incident, things were completely changed," said Seymour Pine, who was deputy inspector in charge of the New York City Police Department's vice squad. "They suddenly were not submissive anymore," he noted in the book "Becoming Visible."
The news spread, and four months later, Time and Newsweek featured stories entitled "The Homosexual: Newly Visible, Newly Understood" and "Policing the Third Sex."
As a result, gays and lesbians won national attention -- not as abhorred freaks, but as human beings who insisted on their dignity.
In recent months, gays and lesbians have again attained national prominence. But the terms of the debate have changed.
Thousands of us are getting married. And, for the first time in American history, those marriages have legal weight -- at least in Massachusetts.
In Wisconsin, where I live, same-sex couples are declaring themselves "engaged till it's legal."
Like Stonewall, this is a watershed moment in gay and lesbian history. But unlike the Stonewall rebels, who must have felt lonely, participants in these weddings have the support of many heterosexual Americans.
In 2001, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll discovered that 73 percent of the American people believed it was legitimate to give inheritance rights to same-sex couples. Sixty-eight percent had similar feelings about Social Security benefits. More than two-thirds of this country thinks gay people will, in the future, have the legal right to get married.
And in another promising sign, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that the percentage of Americans opposed to gay marriage, at 53 percent, has dropped since 1996, when 65 percent opposed the idea.
People are starting to understand that same-sex marriage does not mean giving gays and lesbians special rights.
It means equality.
A 1996 congressional study found that marriage confers more than 1,000 legal rights. These include many things people take for granted: the right to see your spouse in the emergency room; the right to keep living with your spouse if you are so ill you can't communicate; the right to inherit the house you share; the right to custody of your children, if your spouse dies. Many lesbian and gay couples cannot count on any of these things.
The struggle that Stonewall kicked off is running into resistance, however.
Four states -- Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Nebraska -- already have amendments banning same-sex marriage.
In February, at a convention of Southern Baptists, President Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages across the country. Debate on this issue in Congress is set for mid-July, right before the Democratic Convention.
Between now and November, similar bans are appearing on the ballot in Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Utah and probably Montana, says Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Many of these proposed amendments go far beyond banning same-sex marriage. They seek to limit recognition of domestic partnerships and civil unions, as well.
"There has never been such an organized movement to take away the civil rights of a minority since the end of the Civil War," says Foreman.
But the spirit of Stonewall lives on. And this rollback might prompt even greater activism by gays and lesbians and their supporters.
"They will always remember Stonewall, just like they remember Rosa Parks," Bob Gurecki, the bar owner of Stonewall, told me after it was recognized as a historic property in 1999.
It would be a great place to get married.
Anne-Marie Cusac is a reporter for The Progressive magazine (www.progressive.org) in Madison, Wis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.