Today is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, typically cited as the first uprising of the gay rights movement. I wasn’t born yet, and I didn’t get a clue for another 30 years, so I had to learn everything I know about it online. (It pisses me off that the third Google result for “Stonewall” is a website called “Stonewall Revisited” which offers “Help for gays and lesbians to leave a homosexual lifestyle for Christianity”. Trademark tarnishment lawsuit, anyone?)
The progressive Christian website Religion Dispatches put out a special “Stonewall” issue of their e-newsletter this weekend. Two articles there reflect the tension between mainstream acceptance and preserving a minority group’s unique culture.
Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., a religion professor at Georgia State University, laments that although our popular culture tolerates and sometimes even celebrates the existence of same-sex couples, two fundamental institutions–marriage and faith communities–largely remain closed to them:
Greenwich Village has a rare beauty in the early summer, when the days tend to be breezy and nights are still cool. I have never seen the place better kept, each and every park and thoroughfare brilliantly manicured with flowers and spices positively exploding into an orgiastic display of midsummer colors. Most all of the storefronts were painted in rainbow patterns that beautifully set off the gardens. It was the summer solstice. And it is the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots that symbolically announced the birth of a gay rights movement in the United States, rights for a community that would no longer be ignored. Quite suddenly, coming out of the closet meant hitting the streets….
…The lifestyle, the identity, is generally accepted now, especially in the generation that has come of age since Stonewall. The whole thing is generational, and that generational kind of tolerance has been achieved after a fashion.
But what does it mean? What does the alchemical magic that turns private sexual activity into a public lifestyle, and then into a social identity, do to the politics of sexuality? Ironically, it turns thoughts to marriage, and not only because it is summertime in New York, and the solstice is upon us.
“Gay marriage,” for a variety of complex reasons, is still the sticking point. Many people—and I overheard this several times in the snippets of conversation inspired by the anniversary on the quiet streets with storied names, like Bleeker, Houston, and Gay—many people happily grant an individual’s freedom to do what he or she wants behind closed doors.
But churches, mosques and synagogues have open doors, at least in theory.
Marriage is a public statement, and it requires a kind of recognition that goes far beyond tolerance. That is harder to grant, harder for gays and lesbians and others to win….
Meanwhile, in the same issue, Nick Street, a journalist who is the LGBT Contributing Editor for Religion Dispatches, suggests that gays and lesbians have become homogenized in the quest for social acceptance, not measuring up well to the bohemian cross-dressing outcasts who started it all:
…The Stonewall riots of late June 1969—as well as the Summer of Love two years earlier, the Woodstock music festival two months later and the debut of the Cockettes at the Palace Theater in San Francisco the following New Year’s Eve—are examples of what Hakim Bey, a queer anarchist social critic, calls the Temporary Autonomous Zone.
“The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State,” Bey writes, “a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.”
Bey’s idea trades on the observation that orthodoxy of any kind—legal, social or religious—is essentially a living fiction, a collective hallucination. Groups that participate in this illusion take its abstractions for reality, and within that margin of error the TAZ springs into being.
And before it can be captured or commodified, the TAZ vanishes, leaving behind an empty husk. Think of Burning Man (or perhaps the Jesus Movement).
The anarchic spirit of the TAZ inevitably calls forth a violent response from those who tend the shadow-fires of orthodoxy. Crucifixions, witch-hunts, and inquisitions embodied this impulse in our historical past, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy during the Consciousness Revolution of the late 1960s also bore its mark.
As did the 50,000 deaths that Ronald Reagan abided before he uttered the word “AIDS” in public.
Today, queer culture is not so much a vector of this spiritual enlivenment as it is a passive beneficiary of it. Rather than dismantling the master’s house, many of us prefer to beseech the master to loan us his tools so that we can construct a tasteful adjoining cottage and two-car garage.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I should hasten to add. Stability has its virtues.
But we have lost sight of something that the most keen-eyed queerfolk of the Stonewall era clearly had in view: the circumstances under which human beings can flourish are innumerable, and cultivating an orthodox view of human flourishing inevitably leads to the oppression of nonconformists and the spiritual degeneration of the culture that oppresses them….
Street has a point, but in making it, he perpetuates some harmful stereotypes of his own. As my feminist consciousness grows, so does my appreciation for GLBT subcultures and queer theory, as well as the carnival of misfits that is Pride. Five minutes of shopping for baby clothes reveals how thoroughly we’re indoctrinated in gender stereotypes from birth. The gay community’s visible diversity of sexual personae shocks us into questioning the naturalness of these sex-role straitjackets which shame both boys and girls into suppressing one side of their personality.
So I’m all for resisting conformity. I just get so very sick of seeing the equation of marriage with conformity.
Do you actually think the dominant culture values marriage? It values heterosexual couplings, and maybe weddings, to the extent that they’re an excuse to buy stuff. But the actual work of growing in harmony with another person, of shaping your lives to be a joint project of service to one another and the community, is vastly undersold. The joy of an ever-deepening connection that involves two people’s bodies as much as their souls is nearly invisible in the mainstream media.
Instead, we’re largely served a glamorized picture of singleness as perpetual youth, and promiscuity as self-empowerment. We see this in the adult entertainment that most men consume, and in TV series that continually break up their characters’ romances in order to keep the storyline moving forward without pushing the characters to evolve beyond our initial impression of them.
As Garth says, “We fear change.” Marriage is change. It means you’ve moved on to another stage of life, and unless you believe in heaven (and to be fair, a lot of gay people have been told they wouldn’t be going there), you might be afraid it’s all downhill after thirty.
My husband and I aren’t trying to be countercultural or conformist. Butting heads with the dominant culture is just something that happens when we support one another’s attempts to develop our unique gifts, regardless of how society gender-codes those traits. Okay, so I do the laundry and cook dinner while he fixes the computer and removes large bugs from the bathtub (he doesn’t kill them because he’s a Buddhist). But he also gets up early to shop for bottle sterilizers on the Internet while I’m writing my novel about gay men in love. I pick out the onesie with sequins because I want a fabulous son, and Adam puts it back because he read a baby-care book that says they’re unsafe. But we both agree that Disney is Satan and electronic toys are his tools of destruction.
Living mindfully within the institutions of a patriarchal society is hard work. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Instead of this dead-end debate over whether gay marriage is assimilationist, let’s work to make everyone’s marriage a little more queer. There’s no necessary association between a lifetime commitment to your true love and a retreat into apolitical consumer contentment. Think about gender: which traditional roles suit you, and which feel confining? Can your partner help you appreciate all the roles you play?
I worry that the theme of “marriage makes people lose their edge” indoctrinates us into choosing an abstraction over a connection to a real person. This is fundamentally the same bait-and-switch perpetrated by religious conservatives who tell gays and lesbians to sacrifice their lovers in favor of the abstraction of personal righteousness, or obedience to (one interpretation of) Scripture. So…