It Was Fifty Years Ago Today!
by BG “Ben” Thomas
“I got in an argument just recently with a young man in a club who just flat out denied that it had ever been illegal to be gay. He simply did not know that when I was his age, when I was just coming out, it was a felony. Every police department in every major city in this country had special sections whose sole purpose was to hunt down and imprison homosexuals—for consenting behavior between adults. That’s the reality I came out in.”
~~ Cleve Jones
Early in the morning on June 28th, 1969, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, the police raided a bar called the Stonewall Inn. It happened all the time. Judy Garland, a gay diva, had just died on the 22nd. On top of that, the Stonewall had just been raided, and so everyone knew it was safe, at least for a while. Plus, they had made their payoffs to the police as well.
The Stonewall Inn was a bar that gay people could go to and dance, together, close. Touch. Maybe find love. Imagine, a world where it was illegal to be GLBTQ. Imagine a world where it was illegal to serve alcohol to gay people. A world where it was considered a mental illness. A world where there was no Will & Grace, or Ellen, or Love, Simon or Gay Straight Alliance clubs in high school or acceptance in any way. If you were queer, you either hid it even to yourself, or hid it from your opposite sex spouse and got sex secretly in parks or bathrooms (where you could be arrested and your life ruined) or you ran away to gay ghettos in San Francisco or New York’s Village.
And imagine in that dreaded world, imagine finding community, and finding a bar where you could touch a member of the same sex, where you could dance…. It must have been exhilarating! Liberating! Unifying! And that night, fifty years ago, the Stonewall Inn should have been safe.
I always knew I was different. I was just so sheltered; I didn’t know what the difference was. We didn’t talk about sex in my home. And sex was only talked about in school as in, “Doesn’t she have a great set of tits?!” I was well read and intelligent and yet I had no idea I was gay. It shocks me when men tell me they knew when they were gay that they were in first or second grade. I was so totally sexually unaware, that I didn’t know what I was feeling for guys was sexual. In retrospect, it’s pretty ridiculous that I didn’t know, but I was that sheltered.
For instance, I would have my parents take me to the public pool when I was in sixth grade and I would find any excuse to stay in the locker room the entire time so I could see naked men. Shouldn’t that have been a clue? When I was in Jr High I happened to pick up the annual Sports Illustrated swim suit issue. There was this one page with this woman running down a beach and she was surrounded by naked boys, who were covered artistically in a fine layer of sand. I was mesmerized. I remember pointing the picture out to a neighbor and he was shocked I wasn’t looking at the woman at all. And I was like, “But she doesn’t have anything to look at. Just a swelled-up chest. The boys have something to look at!”
Shouldn’t that have been my clue?
But I was an artist even then. I remember thinking that I was only noticing males because of my artistic eye. I was appreciating the male form as an artist. Except I wasn’t appreciating the female form in the same way.
I also began to hear all kinds of things about “homosexuals” and “queers” that were very unsettling. That they were thieves and they wanted to be women and they were miserably unhappy and that they drove around in vans and kidnapped boys and raped them to death. I wasn’t any of those things! So, any suspicion I had that I might be gay went right out the window.
Then, when I was about seventeen or so, I was working in a bookstore called Kroch’s and Brentano’s and a trilogy came in by a man named Gordon Merrick. I was a mess. Right there on the cover of the first book—The Lord Won’t Mind—a cover with two men looking adoringly into each other’s eyes and reaching out to hold hands, it said, “The famous bestseller about men in love.”. Just inside the cover was a quote from the book that I will never forget. “I say it’s love and the Lord won’t mind. There’s too much hate in the world.”
I was shaking. Sweating. My stomach turned to knots. And I could not stop thinking about it. But what to do?
I wound up finding a book that cost the same amount, buying it, and then switching it in the bag. I went home and locked myself in my bedroom and by the time I got to the first sex scene, it was like the Mother Ship opening up at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As if I were bathed in light. I was sobbing. For I knew that I was gay.
Something I didn’t want to be. I denied it! I denied it and denied it and denied it. I found a woman that wanted to have sex with me. A lot. I was so excited to lose my virginity! I remember howling into the night. But then it hit me…. Is that it? Is that what everybody is so excited about? Is that what the poets for centuries have been writing about? Is that what inspired the book and the movie The Summer of ’43? Is that all there is?
That intellectual part of me? That part that was fully entangled and enmeshed with that part that did NOT want to be gay? Why I “figured out” that it was all some kind of huge societal sociological joke. That no one liked sex. Not really. I mean the closeness and the hugging and the friendship and of course the orgasm were great. But the real reason Shakespeare wrote his sonnets was that he was in mourning that sex really wasn’t as wondrous as it was supposed to be. And the punchline was that no one could admit it…because what if it was just them? What if other people DID like sex and it was just them? Hell, I figured that out and I wasn’t talking!
Ironically it was that lovely lady I was seeing who asked me if I thought I might be “bisexual.” I sobbed again when she asked and to my shock, she held me and told me it was all right. It was normal! She even encouraged me to try gay sex.
Then, almost a year to the day after I met her, I met a young man at a convention. He made it clear he wanted me. I was trembling and scared, but I couldn’t walk away. Then, in a stairwell, he kissed me. A simple, soft kiss. No tongue. No clashing of teeth. A sweet simple kiss. My legs actually went out from under me. My knees buckled. He caught me, like a movie star hero. My heart POUNDED! All that over a kiss? A few hours later we went to my room and I had sex with a man the first time.
AND OH MY GOD!
It was fireworks and volcanos and waves crashing on the beach! It was Shakespeare and The Summer of ’42 and it was wow wow WOW! I went downstairs later literally feeling as if I was floating about a foot off the ground. And I knew I was gay.
One of my dearest friends said then that I didn’t come out of the closet, I was ejected. I didn’t just come out, I CAME out! Fired like a cannon ball!
And that first year was a mad house. That would have been 1981, when it was legal for me to go into a gay bar. I remember calling a few bars and begging them to let me in the year before I was legal. ”I won’t drink! I promise!” Oh, they would laugh, because they knew what I really wanted.
Then I met a gay man, we quickly became chums, and he took me to my first gay bar. It was called BJs and it was at 3231 N. Clark St in Chicago. It was a tiny little place, but nice. Clean. It had a dance floor. Where people could dance with members of their own sex. I stood there, stunned, in a pleasant shock. Everyone in that bar was a man. And everyone one of them was GAY! I was standing in a place where I was the normal one! And later we went to a nearby dance club called Paradise on 2848 N. Broadway. And that night, unlike fifty years ago, BJs and Paradise—where I was asked to dance with a man for the first time!—was relatively safe.
But early in the morning on June 28th, 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a little bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, were not safe. It was a bar where the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community—drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth—were known to frequent. In a Senate investigation Clyde R. Hoey noted in a report that, “It is generally believed that those who engage in overt acts of perversion lack the emotional stability of normal persons.” Between 1947 and 1950, 1,700 federal job applications were denied, 4,380 people were discharged from the military, and 420 were fired from their government jobs for being suspected homosexuals. Customers of gay bars were arrested and exposed in newspapers—meaning their lives were ruined. Cities performed sweeps to rid neighborhoods, parks, bars, and beaches of gay people. They outlawed the wearing of opposite gender clothes, and universities expelled instructors suspected of being homosexual.
And fifty years ago today, in the early morning hours of June 28th, 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn had had enough. The Stonewall was their safe place. And it should have been safe that night! And when the police raided that bar and began to make arrests and force people into the back of their vans, something happened. There are a dozen stories. Maybe hundreds. No one knows who threw the first punch, the first brick. But they fought back. Officers quickly lost control of the situation at the Stonewall Inn. The riots and protests went on the next night and a few nights later. It lasted until at least July first. And a year later, was the first Gay Rights parade.
And guess what? Those patrons were drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, and butch lesbians. They couldn’t pass for “straight” or “normal” for a second. And they didn’t want to! They weren’t big muscle men or army men or lawyers or demonstrators or activists. They were the marginalized and the disenfranchised. Those with little hope. But they finally took hope and shouted a shout that was heard around the world.
They had had enough. They were grieving about the death of a legend and they were grieving that they had to live closeted lives and that they could only dance with a member of the same sex at a few rare bars like the Stonewall Inn.
I didn’t have to worry about being arrested that night when I went to BJs. Just twelve years after the Stonewall Uprising and I was already riding on the shoulders of those brave men and women. But I will tell you this, I started paying attention! And I marched in parades here in Kansas City when I finally really came out another six years later (that is another story). Needless to say, when I did come out, it was like a cannon ball! I was angry and I marched in parades and dared Fred Phelps to mace me. I marched around the Kansas City City Hall building and went up to the offices of the mayor and we had our say, that Kansas City needed to protect GLBT rights. And they listened!
I paid attention. I listened. I learned. Because I knew then and I know now that history can often repeat itself when people say, “It can’t happen here!”
It happened in 2008 when Prop 8 overthrew same sex marriage in California. Many a GLBTQ+ persons were known to say that they didn’t bother to vote because they knew “it couldn’t happen here.” And it did!
And when government officials think they have the right to tell women what they can do with their bodies as they did in Missouri and Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi and Georgia, then we need to wake up and remember the fights for human rights and dignity are not over! There is only so much riding on the coattails of those who came before us can work! Rights for gay people were amazing, people were out and didn’t worry, in Germany just as Hitler took over and 15,000 gay men were sent to concentration camps where gay men were experimented on by Nazi doctors who sought to find a medical cure for homosexuality, and it is believed that as much as 60% of those prisoners perished.
We cannot sit idly by and think, “It can’t happen here.” Not when we have people in government like we do today. When my own mother tells me that I shouldn’t talk badly about the President and I certainly need to stop talking about my feelings online because I didn’t know who might be watching! Even my own mother knows, on some level, it’s evil, although she can’t admit what is really going on.
I try not to get outraged anymore. It worked when I was a young man in my thirties and had tons of energy. But personally, I’ve learned through the years it leads to strokes and aneurysms and for me myself, heart attacks. So what I started doing was taking that energy that surges up in me and I redirect it in a way that I hope opens hearts and minds. Like I’ve done with my daily celebration of Pride Month this past 27 days in my personal blog. Or when I write my romance novels celebrating gay love.
But then every now and then I see assholes online saying things, when asked what they think about Gay Pride Month, that shock me to the core!
Joshua D. Green said that, “I think it is to [sic] much! I get black history month and so forth but to have a whole month dedicated to one group for having sexual relations with their own sex is not right in my opinion!” And Mike Sishmon said, “…I have gay friends and they do not like or participate in the pride month thing. They say it is akin to having a month dedicated to bedroom activities.” Bullshit, Mike! Your supposed “gay friends” NEVER said that. You are using them as your mouth piece! Chandler Good said, “…I also hear alot [sic] of people complaining that they just want to be accepted, and I dont [sic] see how setting aside a month helps them ‘fit in.’” And Lester Milheim said he is, “Tired of having it shoved in my face! You’re gay, BFD. You say that you don’t want to be treated differently, but wear rainbows and demand that others accept you.”
One of my “friends” thinks it’s hilarious to tell me every year, “So now that Gay Pride is over, are you going to go back to being ashamed the other 364 days of the year?” Every f*cking time I hear, “Why do you need Gay Pride Day?” I can clearly say, that as long as you are asking that moronic question, as long as you can vote for people who are against anyone’s rights, no matter color, sex, religion or sexuality, as long as assholes like Joshua D. Green and Mike Sishmon and Chandler Good and Lester Milheim say the bullshit that they say, and ask, “What about straight pride?,” then there is a need and a reason to have Gay Pride Month.
It took me a long time to be proud of myself, and not just my gay self. It took me a long time, due to religious abuse, to believe that God made me just the way I was supposed to be. That I was supposed to love who I loved and love the way I was supposed to love and yes, the right to have sexual relations with my own sex.
Gordon Merrick’s message continues to reverberate and be a truth to me here these forty-one years later: .”I say it’s love and the Lord won’t mind. There’s too much hate in the world.”
Because that’s what it’s really all about! Love! And in the end, love wins. As long as well help. With love. Remember what Martin Luther King, Jr said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Let us all, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, pansexual, straight, male, female, gender fluid, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, seniors, disabled, no matter who and what we are, remember that! Remember to do the right thing. Remember to be proud. To be able to answer Heather Small when she asks, “What have you done today to make you feel proud?”
Because it is only together that we can do it.
Fifty years ago TODAY, a group of disenfranchised and marginalized people cried out for their rights. Just three years before that drag queens and trans people did that same at the Compton’s Cafeteria riot. The Civil Rights Movement has roots that date back to the Reconstruction era during the late 19th century!
We must stay forever vigilant and we must not forget! And we must teach all that come after us what came before so that they will know never to let us lose our rights as human beings!
TODAY I stand PROUD to be a gay man. I would not change it for anything. God made me this way and to be anything but proud would be a slap in the Creator of the Universe’s Face! And I live in heaven here on Earth being just who I was made to be.
Look out world! We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!
And on that tail of that?
And Happy Pride!
BG “Ben” Thomas
About BG Thomas
B.G. Thomas lives in Kansas City with his two husbands—which yes, is different, but amazingly rewarding and wonderfully romantic. They have two sweet rescue dogs named Oliver (who the breed name Dorkie applies perfectly) and Frodo (who is just learning to be a dog). He is missing his soul dog Sarah Jane very much, but she will live on forever in several of his books and in his heart. He is also blessed to have a lovely daughter and they love to hang out.
B.G. loves to read romance, comedy, fantasy, thrillers, mystery, science fiction, and even horror—as far as he is concerned, as long as the stories are character driven and entertaining, it doesn’t matter the genre. He has gone to literature conventions his entire adult life where he’s been lucky enough to meet many of his favorite writers. He has made up stories since he was a child; it’s where he finds his joy.
In the nineties, he wrote for gay adult magazines but stopped because the editors wanted all sex without plot, and edited his set ups right out. “The sex is never as important as the characters,” he says. “Who cares what they are doing if we don’t care about them?” Excited about the growing male/male romance market—where set up and cute meets is where it’s at—he began writing again. He submitted a novella and was thrilled when it was accepted in four days. Since then the romantic tales have poured out of him. “It’s like I’m somehow making up for a lifetime’s worth of story-telling!”
In 2015 he made and entry every day in his blog “365 Days of Silver,” where he found something every day to be grateful for. You can find it right here:
“Leap, and the net will appear” is his personal philosophy and his message. “It is never too late,” he testifies. “Pursue your dreams. They will come true!”
You can read about whatever he’s working on right now or whatever he’s rambling on about at his website/blog at: https://bthomaswriter.wordpress.com/about-2/
You can also find his Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/bgthomaswriter
And his Twitter page at: https://twitter.com/BGThomasBooks
He is always happy to hear from his readers!