Yesterday marked a bittersweet event in the Greenwich Village of New York City. At the famous gay bar Julius' our family held a memorial event for my uncle, who passed away about six weeks ago. It was a time of kinship among friends and family, where we remembered a beloved husband, uncle, and friend. We were thankful for the wonderful memories we all shared, reminded by the many pictures passed around while we ate and drank. Perhaps most significant for me was the living history lesson my uncle and this bar taught me during only the last few months.
You see, it was only my final semester at Rutgers University where I really learned what the Stonewall Riots were and why they were so significant. Wanting to keep a difficult schedule in my last semester, I enrolled in a course entitled "Intersections of Sport and Sexuality", an advanced course that involved critically analyzing elements of sexuality, gender, race, and power in the institution of sports. Readings of scholars such as Michel Foucault and Susan Birrell were common. Part of our early coursework involved learning about the Stonewall Riots and reading newspaper articles about the incident. For those familiar with the riots, who can forget Jerry Lisker's article for the New York Daily Press entitled "Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad". The article is a quick read at only two or so pages long and the agenda of the author is clear, focusing more drag queens upset about their hair than the excessive force of the NYPD.
I learned a great deal about the conforming nature of the institution of sports and how to help shift society from a tolerance to acceptance to "we don't need to talk abut this stuff anymore" mindset. Fast forward to the third week in March where I enjoyed a nice spring break dinner with my uncles. I was excited to tell them of my enrollment in such a provocative and intellectually stimulating class, and of course I mentioned learning about the Stonewall Riots. The next thing my beloved uncle said left me surprised and inspired.
"I participated in the Stonewall Riots."
What ensued was a 15-minute highlight of my uncle's participation. Facing tough times at home, he let his adventurous side take over, scouting out the areas of Manhattan that were gay-friendly, or at least offered some safeguards against a vicious and backward society. My uncle, a mere 16 years old, joined a growing crowd outside the Stonewall Inn that fateful early Saturday morning in late June, 1969. His older friends told him to not get involved, fearful for the teenage boy's safety, but he wanted to stand united with the community he now was a member of. And so he remained, a boy thrust into a conflict between men, one 40 years later is still being fought.
And that is what is so meaningful for me about my uncle's participation in the landmark event of the Gay Rights movement. In the face of discrimination, violence, and perhaps even death, he had the courage to stand against hatred and bigotry at a time when in New York City it was illegal simply to serve alcohol to homosexuals. I doubt that any of the participants in the Stonewall Riots thought they were taking part in an event that would spearhead the Gay Rights movement; in reality, they had had enough of the abuse and just wanted to be left alone. Despite the Stonewall Riots being the decisive event for gay rights, what does it say about our educational system and subsequent educational moral imperative that it took a 400-level course at a high quality university for me to learn about the Stonewall Riots. In my high school Advanced Placement U.S. History class, the most we learned about Stonewall Riots was that it was important enough to be on the list of "Important Events" of the 1960s.
Forty years after Stonewall we have progressed a good deal as a society, at least in certain areas of the country. But we still have a long way to reach the critical social breakthrough, the definitive point where we don't have to have classes on intersections of sport and sexuality because our mindsets and actions have progressed to a level intolerant of intolerance.
A good start would be to implement some of the revelations I learned and embraced in my class - the notion that gender, gender identity, and sexual preference are not Boolean values, but rather dials on a spectrum; the usage of the institution of sport to maintain current cultural norms about gender and sexuality; and methods to break through the cyclical nature of sports as a defense of traditional cultural values - into a high school or even middle school curriculum. Maybe then we can reach our youth before their values and mindsets are close to or solidly irreversible.
I don't know exactly why my uncle calls his departed husband "The only living boy in New York"; that is their moments and memories, and they will remain that way. But a quick glance at the final verse can offer some idea to us outside their bonds of marriage:
Tom, get your plane right on time.
I know youve been eager to fly now.
Hey let your honesty shine, shine, shine
Like it shines on me
The only living boy in new york,
The only living boy in new york.
So thus, let the memory of my uncle live forever. He was a loving husband, uncle, and friend to us all. And never forget that he was an unintentional curious and courageous boy living a part of history that too few of us know.
Rest in Peace, Dear Uncle.
Simon and Garfunkel - "The Only Living Boy in New York":