In February 2019, I published my book, From A Whisper to a Riot: The Gay Writers Who Crafted an American Literary Tradition. In it, I explore the long, quiet road that writers all over the United States took, the private communications they had, the many friendships they made and allies they found, and the difficult struggles they faced, not just as people but in the path to publication, for decades leading up to the infamous Stonewall Riots.
As a gay man, a writer, and an American, it was important for me to try to understand the history of my people and to share it with anyone I could. It’s important because we don’t tend to think contextually or historically in our everyday lives. We forget about the how and the why and the when of situations, and especially, the how long. Instead, we see only what happens immediately in front of us and wonder, “how could this have happened!?” Or worse, instead of listening to the cries of the people, we lecture them on how they share their pain.
The Stonewall Riots were commenced and successful in large part because of black, brown, and transgender people who had had enough abuse and intimidation. The Riots are important to remember, but they did not not materialize out of thin air. They were not an impromptu party. They were not a parade. And they did not happen as a first resort. In the years leading up to Stonewall, other, smaller protests were taking place in cities around the country because queer people were getting tired of being told how and when and where to live their authentic lives and because they were tired of authorities, mostly the police, invading their spaces to brutalize them, shame them, and expose them. So, yes, before Stonewall, there were other kinds of battles, other kinds of cries, and other kinds of actions, all of which were paving the way for a lasting impression. It is not enough just to remember Stonewall. We have to remember what made Stonewall necessary.
The road to equity and justice for the oppressed is always much longer and rockier than we recognize, particularly when there’s one flashy event happening in our time that is demanding our attention. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “riot is the language of the unheard.” It happens because nobody is listening in the first place. This is why, for Pride Month every June, I try to read and write about LGBTQ+ stories and to encourage others to join me in the process. I do the same in October, in honor of National Coming Out Day, which is October 11 in the U.S. Reading and listening are acts of love. The more we read about others’ lives, the more we truly listen to the history of those lives, the more empathy and understanding we can build, and the better we begin to understand that “riots” and “movements” and “monumental events,” the ones that we celebrate now, well, they didn’t happen overnight, and they were not always celebrated; they were often feared.
The Supreme Court ruling declaring marriage equality the law of this land did not happen because someone asked politely for a couple of years. That fight began decades earlier, and it was bloody and demoralizing. Martin Luther King Jr., who is so often quoted today, especially by white people looking to ease tension and call for peace, was not beloved by white people in his time, despite contemporary fantasies. He was on the list of America’s most hated people. We remember him for his peaceful protests, but by the same flawed logic, we forget that he was assassinated for it. We praise our nation’s progress through the Civil Rights movement, but we forget how long that fight was–still is–and who it is that have given their lives for it.
Angela Davis said, “it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” She is right. Considering all that is happening in our world right now, the murders of black men and women and the all too frequent inability of courts to bring their murderers to justice, I’ve decided not to focus on my story this year, but to amplify the stories of our black brothers and sisters who have been fighting this battle, often alone. White people, in particular, have always had and still maintain a special privilege in this country that allows them opportunity to speak and to be present in every space, without fear. That doesn’t mean we have it easy. But it does mean that the color of our skin has never made it harder. As a gay man, I know what it is to feel not just the active abuses of bigotry, but the severe, daily loneliness of existing differently and the deeply painful process of needing to “come out” every single day. But as a white man, I know that my personal struggles do not compare to those perpetuated by racism. I know that I am not looked at with skepticism, with fear, with distrust, and with animosity whenever I leave the house (at least not unless I signal myself). This racism is everywhere. It is in our systems. It is in our laws. It is even in the best intentions of our good people. And it is important that we stop asking our black brothers and sisters, and other people of color, to carry this load alone. We benefit from it. We need to end it.
I would like to share some resources for learning how to be antiracist; some voices that can be found on social media who should be heard; some books we can read to help us learn; and some ways for all of us to help right now. This list is minuscule, in the grand scheme of things, but it is a place to start. Black lives matter.
If you know of any other important voices, important resources, or important programs that need help, please feel free to share a little bit about them in the comments below. Thank you! Be safe out there.