This weekend, communities across the country will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, when hundreds of queer people, from gay men and butch lesbians to drag queens and street hustlers, battled against a police raid outside of a bar in Greenwich Village. Stonewall rioters demanded the right to live free of harassment, and their actions marked a critical turning point in the history of queer activism.
But it is only part of story. While we spend Pride Month celebrating Stonewall and the heroic stories of queer people who unmistakably changed history — Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Marsha P. Johnson, Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and Harvey Milk — there’s something equally inspiring about everyday queer people who have demanded equality and an end to injustice, even if on a smaller scale than our historical heroes. More subtle acts of defiance matter, too, like transgender people asserting their correct pronouns at work, or activists organizing Pride parades in smaller towns like Hendersonville, N.C. or Jeffersonville, Ind.
These acts seldom make national headlines, but they play a critical role in transforming legislative victories into lived equality, often at considerable risk to their own livelihoods and safety. In an era when marriage equality and corporate Pride campaigns make it seem like LGBTQ rights are a done deal, it can be easy to ignore the risks involved in being visible and public about gay identity. Yet without these everyday activists, many of the rights secured by legislation would have gone unclaimed in the real world.
Consider the story of Mark Bowman and Ron Gebhardtsbauer. In 1983, they lived in a small townhome near the Capitol Park Towers in southwest Washington, D.C., having met at a gay-friendly church service in 1980.
When they first moved in together, Bowman and Gebhardstbauer often escaped Washington’s brutal summer heat at the Capitol Park Towers pool. In 1983, Bowman decided to apply for a “family pass” to the pool, mindful that his two daughters from a previous marriage, Beth and Rachel, might want to swim with their dads on visits.
But Bowman’s application for a family membership was swiftly denied. The property manager, Frederika O’Brien, pointed to the pool policy that described these passes as only available to “traditional” families, made up of a “father, mother, and two children.”
Bowman refused to accept the decision that his family had been demoted to “nontraditional” status by property management. He and Gebhardtsbauer were part of D.C.’s politically active gay community and were well aware of their rights. A decade earlier, gay activists had successfully pressured the D.C. City Council to pass Title 34, a human rights law that banned, among other things, discrimination based on sexual orientation.
On May 23, 1983, Bowman wrote to the property firm and informed them that if Capitol Park Towers did not reverse its denial of a family pool pass within a week, he would file a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights.
One week later, property management responded via letter. The management president was “not convinced that two men living together can ever be a family in the traditional sense of the word.” If that wasn’t enough, the letter ended with a homophobic aside. “Lincoln, so the story goes, once asked his Cabinet how many legs a cat had if one called its tail a leg. ‘Five, Mr. President,’ was the response. ‘No,’ said Lincoln, ‘Calling a cat’s tail a leg doesn’t make it one.’ I agree with Mr. Lincoln, but these are different and strange times.”
Yet fearful of possible legal repercussions, the property management relented after Bowman and Gebhardtsbauer submitted a formal letter declaring that they viewed themselves as a “family.”
Why were they successful? Because they capitalized on the growing political clout of a gay and lesbian rights movement that had been gaining steam for some 30 years before the pool incident. Gay and lesbian activists in the District of Columbia secured the passage of a Human Rights Act a decade before the pool episode. The law did more than help with pool passes. It helped prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in a multitude of ways, from housing access to healthcare benefits to employment rights.
But these laws demanded enforcement at the local level. Bowman and Gebhardtsbauer could have shrugged off the denial notice. After all, they claimed status as a family at a time when that was far less normalized. But they didn’t ignore it. Thanks to the tireless work of activists before them, they had the ability to challenge homophobic policies. Such moments of resistance have made the more famous groundbreaking moments at riots, court victories and the passages of local Human Rights Acts a reality for millions of people.
However, these protections secured in the District of Columbia over 40 years ago are still not afforded to all Americans. Today, over half the American population live in states that offer little or no protections to LGBTQ people. “There’s still plenty of gay people who can get married on a Friday and be fired from their job the following Monday,” Gebhardtsbauer said. Members of the LGBTQ community attending Pride celebrations in Orlando, Louisville or St. Louis can be spotted by their employer and fired from their jobs, with little recourse.
Last month, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act with bipartisan support. The federal bill would extend legal protections to LGBTQ people nationwide. With Republican control of the Senate and the White House, it is unlikely that the Equality Act will become law anytime soon.
The work of marching, lobbying and mobilizing grassroots support for equality is not over. As the nation commemorates the tremendous strides of the past half-century of LGBTQ activism, and as millions attend Pride celebrations in a dizzy explosion of rainbow, we do well to remember not only the towering figures in the history books, but the people who, unnoticed, risked their well-being to claim their equality, whether in a courtroom, office place or a swimming pool.