Commemorating Stonewall at the White House
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 -- when patrons at a New York city gay bar fought back against police brutality and harassment and set in motion a wave of activism -- have been commemorated in various ways. There have been protests, rallies, academic lectures and parties. Today is the first time Stonewall will be remembered in the tony quarters of the White House.
I have to admit I was ambivalent when I received the invitation, with its fancy curlicue script (truly, just like my sister's wedding announcement) and a return address that read simply "The White House." The problem is that I haven't been as excited as I'd like to be about President Obama. I'd been excited by Candidate Obama. His campaign invited people like me and my husband Doug -- gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans -- into his aspirational vision of America the Possible. But, as President Obama, he has presided over an administration that has stumbled -- sometimes symbolically, sometimes substantially -- in its commitment to include us on the agenda.
Indeed, some gay community members advocated boycotting the White House's Stonewall event. "Co-optation by Cocktails," read one blog post. "Traitors," blathered another. While my heart wasn't filled with such animus, just disappointment, I could understand their anger.
When I told my 17-year-old son Javier about the reception, he could sense that I was torn. From across the dinner table, he looked straight at me: "Papi, you need to go to the White House, and you need to take me. It's the President." Not persuaded by that one, kid. "It's the President, and he needs to see our family, too. To remind him that we're counting on him."
What's true for President Obama is also true for those Americans who still struggle with stereotypes and misperceptions about gay and transgender people. We know that interpersonal connections -- getting to know gay people, their lives, their struggles and concerns -- are one of the most important ways for everyday Americans to understand that we are in every family, in every workplace, on every street. And that we're counting on them to value our contributions, too, and to support our equal treatment.
It's why, even in a place like my home state of Massachusetts -- where I was able to marry my husband in 2004 -- these conversations are still necessary. Even in Massachusetts, where a gay family like ours is virtually equal under state law (though not under federal law), we see our two sons growing up around stereotyped images, abusive language and unfortunate abhorrence of people like their two dads. Legal advances help, but full equality requires us to move our culture through each personal Stonewall -- though conversations, through storytelling, and through media representations that move us toward ever greater regard for the dignity and value of all people.
"Stonewall" has come to mean many things to many people. For me, it commemorates the moment in time when my powder blue Homecoming tux got soiled with the Coca-Cola that Brad the Surfer poured on me in front of the cheerleaders, just before hurling an f-lettered epithet at me in front of half the school. It wasn't the first time I'd been called that hurtful name, but for the first time I answered back: "Yes, I am, Brad -- and so what?" Instead of feeling afraid, I felt wonderful. Elated. I was sitting on top of the world. My own personal Stonewall.
But, as my son made me realize, commemorating the Stonewall Riots isn't about, or just about, our own liberation. It is a call to action for each of us to change the world by telling our stories. Speaking up so that Stonewall can become no longer a part of our present, but truly a part of our history.
The writer is the incoming president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and a former Massachusetts state senator.