Rain on the parade
Even for an old radical, there’s nothing really wrong with Pride as a party — until AIDS takes the person who taught you to see it that way
BY MICHAEL BRONSKI
I AM THE only person I know who was openly gay in 1969, lived in the tri-state area, and does not claim to have been at the Stonewall riots. If you put together all the people who claimed to have been at the Stonewall Inn on the evenings of June 27, 28, and 29, when fighting broke out between New York City police and the enraged denizens of Christopher Street following a raid on the gay bar, you would have enough people to fill Yankee Stadium every night of a World Series. The two most-attended events in New York in the 1960s — the 1964 World’s Fair (held in the aptly named Flushing Meadows) and the visit of Pope Paul in 1965 — have faded from most people’s memories. Stonewall, however, has become an epochal milestone. It looms so large in the contemporary gay imagination that it has become, like rainbow flags and pink triangles, a worldwide signifier of same-sex community. And why not? All political movements need slogans and symbols. Stonewall works just as well as “Make love, not war.”
So where was I on the evening of June 28? Probably seeing a double feature of art films at the Elgin or the Thalia — two run-down but always well-attended Manhattan repertory houses — and then going out for a hamburger. No one announced the Stonewall riots; either you were around or you weren’t. I did hear about the first riot the next day, but figured that it was a one-shot deal and never thought the energy would be sustained — albeit greatly abated — over two more nights. And even then the riot(s) seemed like small news. Although I was to become very involved in the new gay-liberation movement only weeks later, Stonewall did not mean much to me back then. Nor, I must say, does it mean a whole lot to me now. In June 1970, when New York held its first Pride march to commemorate the riots of the previous year, I went with great enthusiasm. But I have not attended a Boston Pride celebration since 1992.
At Dartmouth last year — where, as a visiting scholar, I teach an introductory course in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies — I found myself spending an entire class trying to get students to attach less importance to the Stonewall riots, to stop fetishizing them as something they were not. After the class was over, I sat in my office and began thinking about my own relationship to Stonewall and to the annual Pride celebrations, both in Boston and around the world. There was a time when these events were vibrant and energizing for me. After I moved to Boston in 1971 (back when Pride was still a political rally), I attended every march here and in New York for over a decade. Why had I stopped going to Boston’s Pride?
The causes are both personal and political, threads so interwoven in my life that they seem not simply inseparable, but indistinguishable from one another. The most significant factor was this: Walta Borawski, my lover since 1975, became too ill and too weary to attend. Walta began exhibiting symptoms of AIDS-related illnesses in the late 1980s. By 1992, our yearly Pride outings were beyond his physical capabilities. Even if he used a wheelchair, the heat, crowds, and excitement took more out of him in fatigue than they gave him in emotional sustenance and pleasure. This was extremely painful, because Walta loved Pride. It was a time to dress up (well, more like dress less), to see people he had not seen for the past year, and to get lost in a cyclonic whirl of queerness that had been unimaginable to him growing up as a queer-bashed kid on Long Island. Pride was music, balloons, drag queens, cute men, and spectacle. A time to be out and outlandish. It was a carnival time — what medieval society would call “misrule,” or the world turned upside down. As a poet (who also read at Pride every year), Walta was entranced with the sheer otherworldly fantasy — not just the bar floats, marching bands, and fabulous drag, but the deeply subversive, antisocial, anarchistic side of Pride. Where the radical right would claim that Pride presented a portrait of the lunatics taking over the asylum, Walta saw it as the prisoners taking over — and dismantling — the prison.
Unless you grew up in the bleak, gray 1950s, it is difficult to understand the sheer exhilaration of Pride for someone of Walta’s (and my) age. The sheer size and communal breadth of Pride today was inconceivable in even 1969; in the 1950s it would have been truly unimaginable. For Walta and for many other gay people who were born in the decades before Stonewall, these celebrations were both dream and salvation — the redemption for years of abuse and scorn. That is why, when he became too ill to march, Walta’s pain and sense of loss were so acute. In 1991, he attended Pride with his AIDS support group; he did part of the march in a wheelchair, though he didn’t want to. By 1992, he covered the entire route in a wheelchair. He was determined to march — wheel? — the whole day. But I made excuses to stay home that year. I saw every day how much energy it took for him to get dressed, to eat, to do the simplest things around the house so as not to feel useless. It would have been too painful for me to see him gallantly holding on to this day that gave him such joy: on that morning, his valor, his emotional boldness, was as heartbreaking to me as it was inspiring. I knew that, barring a miracle, this would be Walta’s last Pride, and I was right. In 1993 he was too worn out to go even in a wheelchair, and on February 9 of the next year he died.
I HAVE thought of going to Pride in the years since Walta died. But not very seriously. I thought it would be depressing. I thought it would be upsetting. I thought it would be too painful. I did not want to go to Pride and think about death and dying. I could stay home and do that in the emotional safety of my own kitchen. But I have remembered how much Walta loved the march, our shared excitement about the day. And that led me to reach into the past to reflect on the part Pride marches have played in my life for almost a quarter of a century.
The idea of Pride made sense to me and my friends in the 1970s. It wasn’t because we were going to “celebrate gay pride” — we barely even knew what that might mean — but because we were accustomed to participating in political protest. I was in Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s and worked on anti–Vietnam War projects. The idea of a gay march was simply an extension of being a leftist, a political radical. The 1971 march in Boston went from the State House, where we protested, to the Charles Street Jail, where we protested, to Boston Police headquarters, where we protested. Gay pride was, in many ways, not the only point of these marches: we were angry, and we wanted change; we were disenfranchised, and we wanted power. We were acutely aware of what was wrong with the world, and what our own government was doing. There may have been a degree of self-righteousness in this — although nothing near the self-righteousness represented by the war hawks or American foreign policy itself — but we felt we were right, and in the end we were. We were not, like Bob Kerrey, in Vietnam accidentally or purposefully killing civilians. We were on the streets demanding that yet another injustice, this one aimed at us, be stopped. The undeclared (and, according to international law, illegal) war in Vietnam was the backdrop to our new movement. So were the emerging waves of feminism and the civil-rights and Black Power movements.
One thing I have tried to impress on my students is that without the Vietnam War protests, without “women’s lib,” without the example of the Black Panthers, there would have been no Stonewall riots. There would have been no gay-liberation movement (at least not as it happened in 1969). The queens — and let’s remember that they were aided by the street people in the Village, men and women we would now call homeless — rioted at Stonewall because everybody was rioting; they protested because everyone was protesting. The gay-liberation movement did not comprise a group of nonprofits fundraising and lobbying to change laws; it was grassroots, a groundswell of women and men who had just had enough. The first gay activists’ group was called the Gay Liberation Front — a name we borrowed from the Women’s Liberation Front, which had borrowed it from the National Liberation Front, the Algerian popular front that fought French domination in North Africa. The phrase “Gay is good” was derived from “Black is beautiful.” Gay Power emerged naturally from Black Power. It wasn’t that we were copying other movements, but that we saw ourselves as part of a broader struggle. Gay liberation was possible because the whole society and culture was being transformed. Considering the enormous changes that took place as a result of these movements, it truly was the second American Revolution. There was a decisive break, and afterward things were different for women, people of color, homosexuals, and young people. It may not look like it now — or at least not all the time — but America changed in those years, and all for the better.
I am not — or at least I try not to be — one of those old radicals who complain that Pride has turned into a parade instead of a protest, that the assimilationists have taken over, that the original message of the gay-liberation movement has been lost. Some of that might be true, but I am over complaining about it and can appreciate the floats and the drag queens as well as anyone else. Yet some of my ability to appreciate all that came from living with and loving Walta, who — while having strong, doctrinaire politics — would much rather have donned a Hawaiian shirt and Mardi Gras beads, gotten stoned, and gone to the Pride parade than attended a political meeting or rally. In some deep way, Walta’s death punctured my ability to go to Pride and have fun. The advent of AIDS in my life — and in everyone else’s as well — brought me back to a time when it was clear that Pride events had to be overtly political and angry.
Times have changed. They have changed more than I ever could have imagined at my first Gay Liberation Front meetings in 1969. I never would have imagined Will & Grace on prime-time television. It’s junk, but I enjoy it. I never would have thought that an openly gay male novelist writing about gay people — Michael Cunningham — would win the Pulitzer Prize. I never would have believed that gay proms, gay-straight alliances, and gay support groups would be in high schools. I never would have believed that I could make a living writing (mostly) about gay culture. At the same time, we live in a world in which our most popular and profitable publications sell better by placing straight celebrities on their covers — a decision that makes perfect sense if that is what gay and lesbian readers want to buy. We live in a world where the electronic and print media — even alongside sensitive and smart coverage of homosexuality — have no trouble promoting a completely bogus, unscientific study about “reparative” therapy to turn gay people straight. We live in a world that is still riddled with queer-hating and bashing.
What I tried to get my Dartmouth students to understand is that Stonewall — as both event and historical legacy — was more than something to be celebrated. That Pride was about anger and fighting. And after AIDS came into our lives, it became about death. For me — personally and politically — this is simply the reality of Pride now. It is inseparable in my mind from carrying banners in 1970 that read bring our gay troops home now and wheeling Walta’s wheelchair down Charles Street in 1991 as the Arlington Street Church bells rang out. It is inseparable from reading letters in gay papers in the 1980s bemoaning the fact that drag queens were allowed in the parade, and thinking about the people who would not be there this year because they had died. Life, politics, and time move on. Walta is still dead. Today, gay people fight to get into the army. And drag queens are a mainstay in movies and television. It is still hard for me to think about going to Pride this year, but I am thinking about it. We’ll see what happens.
Michael Bronski can be reached at email@example.com. Walta Borawski’s books of poetry, Sexually Dangerous Poet and Lingering in a Silk Shirt, are available at Calamus Bookstore, 92B South Street, Boston, (617) 338-1931. Or visit www.calamusbooks.com.
Issue Date: June 7 - 14, 2001