OPINION: 'Why don't you guys do something?"
Those were the words that sparked the gay liberation movement.
It was the summer of 1969 and in New York City's Greenwich Village there was, to quote Bob Dylan, "music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air".
When the New York Police Department (NYPD) raided the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn, a favourite haunt of the Village's gay community, on Saturday, June 28, trouble was not expected - and yet, trouble came.
A young lesbian woman, beaten and manhandled by the NYPD's finest, challenged the swelling crowd of gay street kids and transvestites to "do something" and all their pent-up frustration and rage at the petty humiliations routinely inflicted by the authorities spontaneously erupted into a series of riotous protests that were not finally brought under control until nearly 72 hours later.
It is a measure of the sea-change in American politics that, on Tuesday morning, the re-elected president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, included the Stonewall Riots among the seminal moments in the history of the struggle for gender, racial and sexual equality in America.
To the nearly one million people gathered in the Washington Mall to witness the second inauguration of America's first black president, Obama declared: "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths - that all of us are created equal - is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."
Many gay Americans must have wondered if their ears deceived them. Could their president really be saying that the Stonewall riots belonged alongside the world's first women's convention, held in the little upstate New York town of Seneca Falls in July 1848? The gathering which gave the world a "declaration of sentiments" signalling the birth of feminism and the long struggle for women's rights? Yes he was.
Nor were the billy-clubs that battered the patrons of the Stonewall Inn to be in any way distinguished from the billy-clubs that battered Martin Luther King and the hundreds of black civil- rights marchers he led into Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. They were all instruments of oppression: instruments to be overcome.
Could the man standing on the Capitol steps really have said such things? Yes he could. And he said more - much more.
"It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law - for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
In the same week that the head of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, Garth McVicar, asserted that gay marriage would lead to an increase in New Zealand's crime rate, Obama's words were not only timely, but inspirational.
They give notice to all those who, like McVicar, regard the great struggles for human equality and freedom not as markers of humanity's progress towards the unconditional love Christ commanded, but as harbingers of Western society's imminent collapse, that the crippling social conservatism of the past 30 years is at an end.
The "rainbow coalition" that Obama has woven out of blacks, Hispanics, working women, trade unionists, gays and youth - those Americans whom the Republican Right has worked so hard to marginalise and exclude - now have a president who is not only ready but eager to imbue those first three words of the US Constitution - "We, the people" - with all the democratic purpose America's founding fathers intended.
Radio New Zealand National's Morning Report characterised Obama's second inaugural address as a call for unity in a bitterly divided America. It is far from being that. In his own way, Obama is also asking: "Why don't you guys do something?"
The American Revolution, begun in "a spare Philadelphia hall", continues.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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