Those who were alive to experience the monumental shift in LGBTQ people’s representation after the Stonewall riots in 1969 joined younger members of that community who’ve helped further its ripple effect in a commemorative panel to reflect on 50 years of progress.
Titled “Stonewall 50” and hosted by Falls Church News-Press owner and editor-in-chief Nicholas F. Benton in conjunction with the Social Justice Committee of Falls Church and Vicinity, the panel included prominent LGBTQ state politicians and political allies along with members of the faith community. The panel predominantly gave testimonials about either their direct experience with the Stonewall riots in New York City or how their personal journeys were influenced by the bravery demonstrated that weekend in late June.
Don Davenport, a member of LGBT Democrats of Virginia, was there the night the riots broke out. After running away from home at 17, he landed a job at a gay restaurant in NYC and became a regular at the Stonewall Inn.
Back then, as Davenport explained, the Inn and other establishments that catered toward gay patrons were controlled by the mafia. The mafia paid protection money to the police to keep them from interfering with business, however, new elections brought new priorities to clean up the gay community. Plain clothes police officers executed a sting operation at Stonewall soon after and began to arrest drag queens and others.
Davenport narrowly escaped being detained and witnessed the “shot heard around the world” when one drag queen took issue with police conduct toward a friend and threw a shoe at the officer. What followed was a raucous scene where drag queens broke parking meters and threw a flaming trash can through the Inn’s window in protest. The rioters harassed the police until reinforcements arrived and they dispersed, and unwittingly started the gay liberation movement.
“There were outbreaks over the next couple of days. Most were spontaneous — all were effective,” Davenport said. “Even though we had no idea what would happen next, the LGBT movement had been born.”
The director of children, youth and ministry at the Falls Church Presbyterian, Diane Maloney, discussed how she came to grips with her queer identity as well as her conviction to live a life in the faith.
At 15, Maloney began to lead her youth ministry and knew she had “to be true to what God was calling me to do,” but at the same time, was beginning to accept her queer identity and saw the challenges that lay ahead. She had never met a queer pastor — let alone a female pastor — and also came to learn about “Side B Christians:” those who accept that people may not be hetersexual, but don’t want those same people to act on their non-hetero feelings in their personal or public lives.
“The church is often behind the ball on these types of movements. The church has moved terribly slowly, to include all people in life, worship and leadership,” Maloney said. “While Stonewall took place 50 years ago, the church hasn’t had its ‘Stonewall’ movement yet.”
Virginia State Delegate Mark Levine (D – 45th) related to Maloney’s dual identity of being queer but also faith-driven with his tri-part identity of being gay, Jewish and southern.
“When I was coming out as gay, I knew I was gay and I knew the whole world was wrong,” Levine said. “If they weren’t going to accept me I was going to change the world until they did.”
Levine’s first protest LGBTQ representation was in an unexpected spot for a liberal such as himself — Hollywood. He felt that the gay stereotypes the entertainment industry propped up were holding back homosexual acceptance in society. One Hollywood executive told Levine that “America just wasn’t ready for that,” which he countered by saying the influx of African-Americans on TV in the 1980s was a big boost to their assimilation into mainstream culture. A few years later, “Will & Grace” premiered and Levine counted it as a victory.
He was also a fierce advocate for gay marriage. After helping get Paul Koretz elected to the California state legislature, primarily due to Koretz’s support for legalizing gay marriage, Koretz’s backers slowed their support on the issue. Levine didn’t accept the severely pared down version that was offered in exchange. Years later, he was there to see marriage equality cross the finish line.
Fellow state delegate Danica Roem (D – 13th) spoke extensively about her own transformation and coming into her own as a transwoman.
Roem was open book with the crowd. She shared her comical learning curve of going to gay bars in Washington, D.C. trying to pick up homosexual men while dressed as a woman. And she also elaborated on the scarier aspects of living publicly as a transwoman, including having to be on alert of being “clocked,” or jumped, by aggressive strangers.
In her testimonial, Roem stressed how important it is for those in the LGBTQ community to courageously embrace the daunting unknowns in their lives.
“You have to confront fear, and when you do confront fear, you don’t necessarily know what’s gonna be on the other side of it,” Roem said. “But you know that you would rather confront it than live another day on the path that is not good for you in the first place.”
A short Q&A portion was preceded by Benton recounting his own experience in the movement. He resided in the Bay Area when the Stonewall riots took place and provided historical context about the atmosphere that made the riots possible — the fervent, anti-Vietnam War movement fueled by the draft. Benton also cited how Walt Whitman’s work in the aftermath of the Civil War motivated the anti-war sentiments in the 1960s, and E. M. Forster’s long-unpublished novel about a same-sex couple titled “Maurice,” which he passed onto fellow novelist Christopher Isherwood.
The riots at Stonewall, according to Benton, allowed for Isherwood to publish Forster’s work and inspired his own work “Cabaret.” Among other noted authors, Tennessee Williams, revealed his own homosexuality in his memoirs soon after and furthered the affirmation the LGBTQ movement was seeking.
“Our battle is not over for anybody who represents a point of view or a race or a religion that does not conform with the straight, white, male supremacist worldview,” Benton said.