In Living Color

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I was 14 years old in the long-ago summer of 1969. My freshman year of high school approached but my concerns were still very boyish: bikes, a lawn-mowing business, Scouts, the upcoming moon landing. The leafy hills of Kansas City’s suburbs were far removed from the rest of the country, but even I knew of hippies, drugs and X-rated movies. Still, for a kid, much of life there was still stuck in the fifties.

It was also the summer my family got our first color television–a huge Magnavox the size of a refrigerator. For the first time, I saw the outside world in cathode color (even if it was a little bluish green). Before then, I’d had watched the world on a black-and-white TV, and despite movies and Life and National Geographic, I’d somehow grown up with a ridiculous concept of the world in grey half-tones. The new set took me to many places in full “living color,” as it was referred to, often via Walter Cronkite and the evening news. Especially Vietnam. Yesterday’s war casualties would march through the living room in gory, shocking scarlet against the humid verdure of the Asian jungle.

One evening, we watched a clip of a technicolor Judy Garland from The Wizard of Oz (I’d presumed the whole movie was sepia-toned, like Dorothy’s bleak Kansas). Poor Judy had just died and her obit was juxtaposed with an equally vibrant film of riot protests in New York City. Through the confusion, I heard phrases: “avowed homosexuals,” “female impersonators,” “covert meeting place,” “queen bees” and other terms I didn’t comprehend. I also heard the word “gay” for the first time.

No one in the family uttered a response, but the splashy images and strange words of that news report shot through me like iced electricity. I knew nothing of this world and where Judy fit into it, but I had looked up the word “homosexual” once before in an ancient dictionary that defined it as “persons unsure of their sex.” That made no sense and it sure didn’t seem to apply to me—I was sure I was definitely male and liked my maleness a lot.

But seeing the color and chaos of Stonewall—its reality in our living room—I knew there was something in it about me. Although fear and confusion regarding my own sexuality would remain for a decade–through high school, university and grad school–I never forgot that apparently, there were people like me out there somewhere.

I didn’t yet know of bits of homosexual progress being made elsewhere: Frank Kameny was petitioning lawmakers to stop firing gay government workers, Great Britain had decriminalized homosexuality in 1967, and the groundbreaking play about gays, Boys in the Band, was being made into a major motion picture. But none of that had permeated the Midwest, nor much of the U.S. for that matter—most Americans remained clueless.

And eventually, like most of us, I’d have to leave home to learn more.

But for that moment, I remained a confused adolescent, crushed by the assassinations, disturbed by the ’68 Democratic National Convention and increasingly worried as the war dragged on and I neared draft age. The future seemed anything but promising although daily life remained familiar for a little while longer: rotary phones, Schwinns and Chevies, dime stores, record players, AM radios, soda fountains. I liked and played sports—it was expected—but spent more time writing, reading and drawing. Tall, lanky and mostly through puberty, I had not yet filled out and considered sending in (secretly) for that Charles Atlas bodybuilding course advertised in comic books. And I worried about girls. Well, sort of. They had all my buddies in an uproar, so shouldn’t I feel the same? I didn’t understand other things I was thinking and feeling—but whatever they were, they became slowly, increasingly connected to Stonewall. It all prompted some naïve research though there was little information about homosexuality in the public library. More apocryphal material was negative and appalling. With little choice, I set it all aside for a while.

I don’t remember if it was Cronkite or some forgotten announcer who reported Stonewall on the new electric color monster. What’s amazing is that I heard about it at all in 1969–no cable, no Internet, just three networks with half-hour news show each evening. The story somehow reached me and lodged there—an anxious teenage boy in a sleepy Midwestern backwater with neither resources nor counseling to figure out what “gay” might mean.

The story of Stonewall is just as powerful today as it was 50 years ago when I first heard it. Stonewall will always conjure that unexpected, unprecedented moment when our forbearers finally stood up to fight decades of brutality, harassment, and ignorance. The rebellion by an improbable combination of bar patrons, passers-by and those on the fringes is perhaps the single most important reason many of us can live as truthfully and openly as we do today. Or at least for now.