In 1969, I Had No Idea a Social Justice Movement Could Center a Kid Like Me

In 1969, I Had No Idea a Social Justice Movement Could Center a Kid Like Me

In 1969, I Had No Idea a Social Justice Movement Could Center a Kid Like Me

Then, miles away from my small Illinois town, Stonewall happened.

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I am 3. I share with my friends that, overnight, my penis has fallen off. I tell them, “So, I’m not a real boy, but kind of a boy.”

I am 6. I kiss Val in the bushes, and it feels perfect.

I am 10. My friend Marg and I play girlfriend and boyfriend—she the beautiful girlfriend and me the tender boyfriend. More perfection.

I am 12. Pooch, a friend’s dad, warns her about me. “Watch out for her. She’s a lesbian.” My friend helpfully shares this bit of fatherly advice with me. I am not insulted; I feel relieved and elated. My truth has a name: lesbian.

I am 14. I see the very butch women in our town and wonder about them, but they are much older than me and strangers, so I don’t approach them. I see the two female golfers who are peculiarly unmarried and very friendly to me.

I am 16. I have grown up in a hot and humid, xenophobic town in west-central Illinois. Of its 6,000 residents, there are two nonwhite families. Of the 400-ish student captives in the horrible high school, a half dozen of us are noticeably gender-bending and, I assume, homosexual. There is Doug, the trampoline artist who looks so fine in his tights. Billy and Dale, inseparable and scorned and mocked by “real” boys. Jane, an odd girl who is smart and fun. Valerie plays trumpet in the band, sings like an angel, and is shy and wickedly funny. Stan, a boy from a very poor family, is sweet, kind, and very fey. And me, working my a-gender hippie rebelliousness to the moon and back.

In October 1969, I pick up one of the three dozen magazines my parents subscribe to, Newsweek. I flip through the magazine and, to my wondering eyes, there is a short article about a riot that happened in New York City the previous summer. I read it 20 times, to ensure that I am not dreaming. No, it is still there: gay people rebelled when cops came to arrest them at a gay bar. The evicted patrons gathered outside the bar and shouted “Gay power! Gay power! Gay, gay power to the gay, gay people!” Suddenly, in the living room of my family’s house, very far away from New York City and–what’s it called?–Greenwich Village, I am carried into my future. I call my friend Rick and explain to him what I had read. He asks me: what does it mean? I reply that I am not sure what it means, but it’s what I want to do. 

I am 16 and know nothing of a social-justice movement centering people like Doug, Billy and Dale, Jane, Valerie, Stan, and me. When I tell Rick that “it’s what I want to do,” I can, for the first time, dream a new world, where we can dance, laugh, and hold our loves tight. But how to manifest it?

I continue to think about the Stonewall rebels. Who were those people? What about them was so different from me that they could, on a hot night far away, chase the cops back into the bar? I see that the Stonewall rebels responded like a village under siege. They were done with being beaten down, done being harassed, and as the nights of rioting continued, their will strengthened as they felt their raw energy in the streets. But most singular of all, the Stonewall rebels named something for me: our collective power to reshape conditions under which we live.

Like the lightning-bolt truth of the word “lesbian,” this uprising arrived like the howl of revelation, roared by queer prophets: We can transform a culture hell-bent on our destruction. This “we,” which I knew included me, redirected and propelled me, eventually turning me, in my fever dream of queer sovereignty and power, into a community organizer.

Stonewall showed me that freedom cannot be secured one by one, demonstrated that our quest for freedom needs hundreds, thousands, millions of us forging a movement. For 50 years, I have held tight that existential glory of our collective power: to be rid of sodomy laws, to win nondiscrimination protections, and finally, to thrive without fear of punishment, persecution, and prosecution for living our queer lives.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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