National Commentary

Stonewall & the Vietnam War

This coming weekend marks the actual 50th anniversary of the famous riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York City that historians, pathetic revisionist ones and otherwise, mark as the launch of the modern movement for the enfranchisement of gays and lesbians, and a roster that has grown in recent years to rightfully embrace bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer if you prefer, non-binary, intersex and any other precious human being who does not fit neatly into the social fabric as defined by militant straight male chauvinists with their subservient wives and children.

The longer the acronym grows from LGBT to LGBTQ to LGBTQ+ and who knows how much further, the more it becomes clear that this is not just about a cause for affirming the sexual freedom of everyone, but it is about a class of persons in society who do not conform to the straight male supremacist paradigm. For too many straight males (including those who feel threatened by their own internal conflicts about sexual orientation) this widening class of persons represents a threat, not to religious norms or public laws, but very personally to how they were raised to view their role in the world.

If they can’t be tyrants, and can only dream about that (or assign that role to a “hero” like Trump), they can’t be the boss at work, or the top bowler on the company team, then at least they can bark at their wife and kids, who better not show any sissy signs growing up.

Add economic pressures onto these people, and maybe some recent addictions to painkillers of one kind or another, or brain damage from high school football, and you have very frustrated and angry persons who fantasize while watching violent kickboxing or other forms of people-maiming on TV.

They manifest the same kind of anger that southern men did after the Civil War, when out of pure revenge at being made to feel inferior to those they’d brutally enslaved for centuries, lashed out for decades of lynchings, Jim Crow legal oppression and efforts to glorify their Confederate traditions.

We now, in the summer of 2019, have a White House and Republican Party that is reflecting the angry-man sentiments of that Jim Crow era, and the era of reaction against the civil rights and anti-war movements, too, of the late 1960s, the Nixon era when the Stonewall Riots happened.

It was the effect of the civil rights and anti-war movements that sparked the riots at Stonewall. It was the thousands of homeless runaway youth who hung out in the Village in those days, afraid being drafted into the jungles of Vietnam and killed, who slept in the parks or piled on top of each other in run-down rooms, who panhandled and hustled, who really fueled the three days of rioting around the police raid of that dingy, Mafia-run gay bar.

That same week in 1969, the oversized Life magazine ignored pleas from the military establishment to, in its June 27, 1969 edition, dedicate its cover and 12 full pages inside to high school yearbook-style head shots of 242 18-to-20 year old rosy cheeked boys in a feature entitled, “The Faces of the American Dead: One Week’s Toll.”

This was just a year after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.

As I wrote in a column in 2012, “My affirmation of my homosexuality became inseparably connected to the empathy I felt for the thousands of boys dying senselessly in Vietnam.” I could have added something like, “and the fear felt by all those rioters at Stonewall.”

It was exactly that kind of empathy that drove the poet Walt Whitman to write a new kind of poetry about his experiences as a nurse helping maimed and dying young soldiers in hospitals around Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia in the Civil War. His courage to write openly of his love and compassion for those young men actually played a major role in spurring the rise of the movement for homosexual affirmation in the subsequent decades.

Such love was indispensable for him as a driver of a love for democracy and the preservation of freedom for all.

Nicholas Benton may be emailed at