National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, No. 85: Simultaneity of the Gay & Anti-War Movements

There’s no coincidence that the modern gay liberation movement, that which associates its founding with the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village in late June 1969, arose in the context of the civil rights movement for racial equality and the growing anti-Vietnam War movement.

Post-modernist historians diminish the importance of this confluence by suggesting that, at best, the gay liberation explosion took the other social movements as a model, or occasion, for its own. However, they were intrinsically interconnected, and it is in that interconnection that a crucial component of what it means to be gay is found.

There was a remarkable correspondence of events the weekend of the Stonewall Riots that underscores this point.

Common wisdom is that the riots, which broke out as the Stonewall Inn was closing at 3 a.m. in the warm summer early morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969 were in part sparked by the mourning of thousands of gays on occasion of the funeral of gay icon Judy Garland the afternoon before.

Garland, born in Minnesota as Frances Ethel Gumm, was only 47 when she died in London of an accidental drug overdose on June 22, 1969. The young teen star of “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), she struggled in her adult life, marrying four times, and took comfort from gay male friends, often hanging out in gay clubs, as she bravely undertook comebacks in her career.

Her body flown to New York on Thursday, June 26, more than 20,000 paid their respects at a funeral home that day, an overwhelming number of them gay. On Friday, a closed funeral was held, while thousands held vigil outside. That night, in the wee hours of Saturday, street people lingering outside the Stonewall Inn (not the patrons inside) clashed with police in what sparked a running battle over a number of days.

But something else happened at the same time which, it can be credibly argued, was even more acutely associated with that memorable weekend.

It was the publication of the June 27, 1969 edition of Life magazine, which did a first for its time of dedicating its cover and 12 pages inside to a high-school yearbook portraits-style format of 242 photographs of mostly 18-to-20 year old rosy-cheeked boys who had been killed in just one week, May 28 to June 3, in Vietnam. The feature included one such face on the cover and the blaring headline, “The Faces of the American Dead: One Week’s Toll.”

Life’s plans for the issue received considerable notoriety prior to its publication, and urging from the U.S. military not to do it. Historians of the anti-Vietnam War movement called it “a significant factor in reducing pro-war sentiment.”

As a young gay man on the West Coast who had come out two months earlier by way of my first significant gay encounter, I was unaware of the Stonewall Riots but was mesmerized by that issue of Life. I had just graduated, with honors, with a Masters from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, and in my three years there had seen a lot of demonstrations, riots, National Guard troops and tear gas as the anti-war movement grew.

I was anti-war, myself, though it was the civil rights movement, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in the spring of 1968, that really catalyzed my personal transformation from a small-town boy who completed college on a baseball scholarship into an impassioned political being.

My coming out was facilitated not by post-Stonewall ferment, but by a conference I attended the previous fall of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an outgrowth of the struggles of the earlier gay rights efforts of the Mattachine Society.

My actual coming out on April 24, 1969, and my first intimate encounter then, helped, I believe, to open my physical and emotional sensibilities to respond viscerally to the unspeakable horror of what the June 27 Life magazine depicted. Unlike today’s volunteer armies, most drafted to die in Vietnam were just teenagers.

My younger brother was in Vietnam on a boat that launched swift boats in the Mekong Delta. I’d already learned that two of my friends had died there, including one who had one of the most amazing personalities, with the good looks to accompany it, I’d ever known. Hispanic, he was just a kid, and had no way to avoid the draft.

My affirmation of my homosexuality became inseparably connected to the empathy I felt for the thousands of boys dying senselessly in Vietnam. This is the point that Christopher Isherwood suggested in what I wrote last week; that we, as homosexuals, play a special role in society by virtue of our propensity for loving our own sex, to resist the savage carnage of war and its brutal disregard for the real human beings suffering it.

Not merely a collateral, it is an indispensable part of our gay identity, of who we are.

To be continued.