Owning our heroic legacy at Stonewall 50

Guest Commentary: Flipping the victim narrative on its head, Stonewall liberated us to tell our stories in our own voices. There’s healing power in that—if we claim it.

The last weekend of June will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn that launched the “modern” LGBTQ equality movement.

This month we also marked the 38th year since HIV-AIDS began both to drive and sidetrack the movement as it cut a deadly path through gay male communities across America.

Anniversaries are good times to assess the present against the past, consider what has changed for better or worse and retell the stories that make up our personal and community history. How we frame those stories makes all the difference in how we live our lives.

As any LGBTQ person can tell you, we are among society’s most traumatized women and men. From the time we’re kids we are abused, beaten up, insulted, rejected and tossed-out.

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Sadly and not surprisingly, being treated like someone who is “less than” can seep inside our minds and hearts. It’s too easy to think we don’t deserve to be treated with exactly the same respect, and possess the exact same legal rights, as people who happen to be heterosexual. It’s too easy to stigmatize ourselves.

It’s not coincidental that a disproportionate number of LGBTQ men and women live with mental health challenges like depression and anxiety.

It’s not surprising gay men, particularly young African-American gay men, continue to bear the greatest impact of HIV in the U.S. Consider this: Research finds that half of gay men are sexually abused as boys, and an even higher percentage of African-American and Latino gay men. This suggests that our risky choices are probably driven by depression, substance over-use and damaged self-esteem at least as strongly as “horniness” alone. It also suggests that HIV prevention and treatment adherence messages must address mental health challenges.

Odd as it may sound, LGBTQ folk are also some of the most resilient people anywhere. And that is precisely what the world first saw at the Stonewall Inn on the night of Friday, June 27, 1969. The riots became the historic touchstone they are because of what followed them.

It seemed that overnight, the closet had become an anachronism of a darker time. “Gay liberation” meant literally freeing ourselves — throwing off the psychological and spiritual shackles — of the shame and blame heterosexuals had imposed on LGBTQ people simply for being “different.”

It meant “coming out,” proudly embracing that difference and standing together in solidarity as a community.

Stonewall gave LGBTQ people a new way to tell our story, as individuals and as a community. It flipped the narrative on its head, rejecting the role of victim we seemed always to be cast in — and too often cast ourselves.

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Instead, we asserted our freedom and right to tell our story in our own voices. Gay and lesbian historians began to document and piece together stories from our past so we could finally answer Harry Hay’s questions at the time he founded the Mattachine Society in 1950, the country’s first “homophile” organization: Who are gay people? Where do gay people come from? Where have gays been throughout history?

Finally, after Stonewall, we began to value our own history and understand that LGBTQ history is American history and part of even greater history of the human race. We could finally assert our pride in the many and multifold contributions we have made throughout the ages, in every area of life.

And we could begin, at last, to bring our lives and loves into full (at least fuller) public view, no longer afraid to say out loud that we love, too, and happen to love a person of our own sex. Heterosexual America caught a glimpse of how deep and real our love was when they saw us tending our friends and lovers in the dark AIDS years, and mourning our dead openly and even flamboyantly in the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

In a mere half-century, we have been tested by legalized homophobia aimed at stripping us of our Constitutional rights and a deadly health crisis. We have prevailed in society-shaping challenges to the laws that oppress us, most dramatically in the 2015 Supreme Court decision to permit legal same-sex marriage nationwide. And we, our community’s activists, have been instrumental in pushing and pulling political and scientific leaders along to the point that HIV is now a chronic manageable condition, not a death sentence.

We have a tremendous amount to be proud of at this 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Best of all, we have what I call a heroic legacy of brave men and women to claim for ourselves.

That’s why my message is this: Own the history of Stonewall for yourself. Feel proud of our community’s awesome organizing, caregiving and fundraising in the AIDS years. Weave the legends and lessons of Stonewall into your personal story. And tell your story, and our story, not as a tale of woe — but as a heroic journey of triumphing over adversity to find healing and create a life that is Stonewall strong.

John-Manuel Andriote’s latest book “Stonewall Strong: Gay Men’s Heroic Fight for Resilience, Good Health, and a Strong Community” is now available in paperback. He is also the author of “Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America” His work has appeared in print and online publications ranging from The Atlantic to the Washington Post. He writes the “Stonewall Strong” blog on gay men’s resilience for Psychology Today. For more information, visit jmandriote.com.

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