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Panelists discuss “Stonewall and Beyond” [17 June, 2009]

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The 40th anniversary of Stonewall falls on June 28 this year, the same date of the original riot in 1969.  Since Stonewall, the LGBTQ community has seen the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and the rise of the same-sex-marriage movement in the late 1990s and beyond.  To commemorate the event, the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, hosted an intergenerational roundtable discussion entitled “Stonewall and Beyond” June 11.

Participants were Lott Hill, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Columbia College Chicago; Patrick Sinozich, artistic director of Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus; Monte Staton, a doctoral candidate at Loyola and a Gerber/Hart volunteer; Vernita Gray, a local LGBT activist who serves on Center on Halsted’s SAGE Advisory Council; and June LaTrobe, the Center on Halsted’s transgender community liaison.  LaTrobe was also the moderator.  The discussion was punctuated with performances by Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus.

Each participant provided a different set of details about Stonewall, and the activism that came after.  Gray said that she came out the same year, and that she and her then-girlfriend had gone to New York to attend Woodstock where they found a little tent with information about Stonewall.  According to Gray, the two determined that they would be involved in gay politics upon their return to Chicago.  Gray went on to describe what it was like to be out and gay in the period: “You couldn’t touch in the bar, they’d shine a light on you and ask you to leave.  It was a different world.”

Sinozich discussed the physical geography surrounding the Inn as well as the political powers that dominated it.  According to him, Stonewall was “owned and run by the mafia for several reasons” having to do with liquor laws and bootlegging.  The police would occasionally raid and harass clientele, but mostly in order to demonstrate that they were doing their job when, in reality they were being paid by the mafia to only raid on occasion, when a lot of people were not around.

LaTrobe discussed the spectrum of sexual and gender identity of the patrons at Stonewall.  She said that while most people think of drag queens at the forefront, many identified as such because the word ‘transgender” was not in common usage at the time.  She also explained that, at the time, everyone had to be wearing at least three items of clothing “that corresponded to your birth sex.”  Terms like “fluffy sweater boys” and “flame queens” were ways to demarcate different forms of gender identity and expression.

Staton, addressing the issue of why Stonewall became a historic point of reference, said that “the night of the arrests was different because people stayed around to watch and, as people were put into the paddy wagon, people began picking fights.”  He also said that there were other similar events in Chicago, but the difference was that Stonewall gained a national reputation for its significance.  Lott Hill added that “Stonewall was not the first protest but the one that generated a lot of press, a point where media started to pay attention” to LGBTQ issues.  Hill also spoke about AIDS activism in the 1980s, and the kind of organizing against pharmaceutical companies that cohered after Stonewall.

Referring to the media spin, LaTrobe sought to correct a widespread myth about the event, that it came about as a memorial for Judy Garland who had just died.  Sinozich affirmed that his historical understanding of the event proved otherwise.  For one thing, according to him, clientele at Stonewall that night would have been younger than those who would have remembered Garland singing at Carnegie Hall.  LaTrobe also referred to other events, like the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco three years before Stonewall, that went unnoticed by the media at the time.

In concluding remarks, participants spoke about the state of the current gay movement.  Sinozich said that while Stonewall created a sense “that there be a response, I don’t sense any urgency in the community as a whole.”  Gray, however, said she saw the opposite: “an incredible urgency” in relation to marriage “as a very important issue.”  Hill said that he was ‘very hopeful” and that, in his work with students, he felt that “Proposition 8 is one of those galvanizing moments.”  Staton added that he was “hopeful and optimistic.”  In the question-and-answer session, some of the nearly 30 attendees (plus the members of the chorus) indicated that the discussion had been thought-provoking.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 17 June, 2009

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