Last week I had the pleasure of going back to my alma mater, the State University of New York at Oswego. My college adviser, who had a freshman literature class at what my 18-year-old self would have thought to be the ungodly hour of 9:35 a.m., asked me to come talk to the kids before I headed back to warmer climates.
She asked me to explain to them what The Advocate was and where it came from. I said The Advocate was a pre-Stonewall publication. And then I thought, Oh, yeah -- by the time these kids were born, Steve Urkel had already jumped the shark. Some of them may have already known the lore, but for most, I could tell Stonewall might as well have been the name of a wacky character on a Disney Channel show from way back in the day -- you know, 2007.
I told them some significant activism had occurred before 1969 (including the protest that led to The Advocate's beginnings in Los Angeles), but Stonewall is largely accepted to be the moment that launched the modern gay rights movement.
"It was illegal in many parts of this country for a man to dance with another man. Women would be thrown in jail for holding hands with each other in public, and police would raid bars to basically find people breaking the law," I told them. Some of them looked at me like, That's crazy talk, lady. I continued, "But on one night, after a bunch of police raids, the people at a gay bar in New York called the Stonewall Inn fought back. For three days! So that moment has become what is known as the catalyst of the modern gay rights movement. It's essentially the reason we have Pride parades every year."
Now, I've read The Advocate's account of what happened at the Stonewall rebellion of 1969. It's a colorful, fascinating read. The raw energy of the riots pulsates through the pages decades later. (Yes, even to someone who was born when Scarecrow and Mrs. King was killing it in the prime-time ratings.) But that account was published for this community, by this community. A search in TheNew York Times this week yielded three tiny articles from June 28 through July 3, 1969, based largely on police reports, with no quotes by any of the LGBT people on the scene. In the past I've read New York tabloids' unsurprisingly terrible coverage of what happened. But it's a moment that has stuck with us forever.
Fast-forward 45 years later, and I cannot describe the vast range of emotions boiling inside me after taking in everything happening with the situation in Ferguson, Mo. My incredible in-laws have been using their positions as Presbyterian pastors to work on advancing social justice for decades. Race, gender, LGBT rights, education, labor, poverty -- you name the progressive cause, and they've been waving their picket signs in the name of God for decades over it. Believe me, I know I'm lucky.
But when my mother-in-law (who is white) asked me to chime in on Facebook about the situation in Ferguson over the summer, I couldn't. I didn't want to argue about it with some of her friends who might not understand what the Big Deal is. To me, the death of an unarmed 18-year-old is not something to argue about. I'm not ignorant; I'm not claiming to ignore the facts surrounding this case. But the truth is that Mike Brown's death and its aftermath form just one little atom in an unquantifiable mass of problems this country has with race, class, gender, and inequality that have been bubbling for centuries. All that can't be broken down to a quippy Facebook post, this column, or a book. I feel it too much. This column is my best attempt to find the words to adequately express how I feel; I am so scared that humans are losing their ability to have empathy for those who are unlike them.
What pains me the most is the fact that so many people can't see outside of themselves to understand why this is all happening. It's the same empathy that was sorely lacking in 1969 when New York City's notoriously unforgiving news media couldn't see the long road of inequality that finally led to the Stonewall rebellion.
I wonder what it would be like if our modern news cycle had around-the-clock embedded and aerial coverage of Stonewall. What would we think of it? How would Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow and Robin Roberts talk about it? Would Don Lemon use the term "embarrassing"? Would straight people be unable to understand why queer people were raging in the streets? Would they be telling us to "Get over it, already"? Would they be pointing and laughing at the drag queens throwing their shoes at the cops? Would Nancy Grace interview a forensic scientist about the trajectory of said shoe-throwing? Would Fox News have a bunch of frightened straight people shaking their heads at us and then bringing in Tony Perkins and Brian Brown for commentary? Would some of us be embarrassed by it? Would some of us be ready to book the next flight to New York City to join in the action? Would the president get on TV and talk about peace? Would the National Guard have been called? Would the police show up in riot gear? Would there be tear gas? Would there be endless tweets and Facebook posts about the whole event? Would journalists embed themselves for their chance at a Pulitzer or Peabody? Would coverage of the peaceful protesters be completely overshadowed by the violence that broke out? Would there be grand statements about why we need to talk about sexuality and gender in this society, that are inevitably unmet with any actual healthy dialogue?
Would things have changed?
Obviously we'll never know; the elements that led to the Stonewall riots and the Ferguson riots have vast similarities and differences, but they both stem from deeply rooted systems of inequality that minorities have endured for decades away from the lenses of television cameras.
Stonewall was an event that is steeped in legend and told like a folk tale. Stonewall was complicated. Stonewall was poorly covered by a media that largely saw "homosexuals" as a fetishist subset of society.
Ferguson will eventually be an event that is steeped in legend and told like a folktale. Ferguson is complicated. Ferguson has been thoroughly covered by shallow media that often can't afford to go in depth on centuries-old issues like racial segregation and income inequality.
It's certainly not the first racial riot, and sadly will probably not be the last.
But even with my sense of hopelessness, I know I still have to find hope. Somehow. I have to have hope because I want to have children. And those kids will be partially black and Latino, and since queerness might be hereditary, who knows? I might have some brown, queer little ones. I have to have hope that when they're born, people will be better. People will understand each other better. They might understand the "whys" of racism and sexism, and heterosexism and income inequality just a little bit better than they do now. My parents had to have that optimism to have black daughters. My in-laws had to have that optimism to keep shaking up the religious status quo. I'm sure Mike Brown's parents wish they could have that optimism again. So I will have to find it too.
MICHELLE GARCIA is the managing editor of Advocate.com. Follow her on Twitter @MzMichGarcia.