50 years ago this week the now-famous Stonewall riots were erupting in New York City after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay venue in the Greenwich Village. 50 years is a long time. It has been long enough to move me from “oblivious” to “activist”.
I may have been traveling from Thailand to New York City at the time, going through Cairo and Rome. That may be why I did not hear a word about the riots. There is no explanation, however, about why we did not hear about them when we arrived in NYC and stayed in Morningside Heights for 3 days at the end of June to visit mission headquarters at 475 Riverside Drive. I was oblivious.
1968-9 was a time of violent protests following the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy: Watts, Washington DC, Chicago, Paris, Chicago again, Berkeley, Columbus University. Those were massive insurrections against the establishment. Stonewall was small. Stonewall was also by and about being gay, while the “real issue” was civil rights for African-Americans.
Still, I have been pondering why I missed noticing the one violent event that set in motion a movement that changed my life. I think I have a handle on my personal trajectory of discovery.
1965 – I tried to find the best resources on homosexuality, and they all declared that it was a complex matter of choices. Diversion was the best response to those urges.
1967 – I realized in a blinding moment I was powerless over the urges, which “would destroy my career, my reputation, and my future” if I did not take the “only effective deterrent action” and get married.
1973 – The Presbyterian Church and medical societies began to publish studies that altered the view that homosexuality is a mental illness.
1990 – I found solid scientific confirmation of the view that being gay is not a matter of choice. At the same time none of the therapies had worked, not “prayer and fasting,” counseling, a 12-step program, nor any of several others.
2000 – I was put on a new track, not heteronormative, but not radical. It didn’t work. I entered a relationship with a gay man. That worked.
2003 – I “came out” as Kinsey 5, bi-gay, but decided I was too old and too far from the USA to fight for my job as a missionary-pastor without the Presbyterian Church yet willing to stand with me. So I began a new career as a university administrator. My opportunities for activities in the church evaporated.
2009 – My spouse and I got married in Iowa. We moved to our new home in a village in North Thailand, declared our house a safe-space for gay people to escape if needed. I began to write for a gay magazine and became active with LGBT advocacy groups.
2012 – I published a book of anecdotes and stories about gay experiences of Thai people. Pramote and I are part of the only identified gay group in our valley.
In my life I have been an enthusiastic Christian leader, a US civil rights activist, and an LGBT advocate. Two of the three at any one time are the most I have managed.
Meanwhile, since Stonewall there has been a huge change in the wider world. We can say that until Stonewall there was widespread agreement that being gay and lesbian was wrong. All over the world it was thought to be wrong and decriminalization was barely begun. How it was wrong and what to do about it were unclear.
About half-way through the half-century, opinion began to shift on the part of officials and authorities. Churches as well as governments began to come to grips with the reality that LGBT people are a valid, sustained, and significant minority. Opposition to this began to be energized.
Throughout the past 25 years LGBT presence and legitimacy has become the battleground in a world-wide culture war. That war has many fronts, but a lightning-rod drawing first fire on most fronts is something to do with us who are LGBTQIK+ … our right to be married, our right to be equal, or our right to be.
Still, that should not blind us to the fact that we have made progress. The world is immensely different since the time men rushed out of the courtroom where Oscar Wilde was being tried, to vomit in the street. Our humanity and our universal presence are widely recognized. The Pope insisted yesterday that we are people (that’s Papal progress for you). I won’t be pessimistic despite what’s going on in Russia, Kenya, or Indonesia. Killing has started again, but the opposition is losing more battles than they are winning. Their resorting to violence is a sign of their desperation, more than anything.
Pride month is ending. Some of the biggest pride events in history have taken place. More than a dozen cities had Pride Parades for the first time. India took stunning steps this year. Taiwan has legalized a form of gay marriage, the first in Asia. None of these things would have happened without Stonewall.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.