Tuesday, June 28, 2016
7:18 PM |
A Brief Personal History of Faggotry. Or: Why Stonewall Happened
Forty-seven years ago today, the first brick that began the demolition of compulsory heterosexuality
was thrown -- and then things changed, in a burst of fury at first, then a protraction that lasted for years, then a galvanisation brought about by a dreaded disease, and then a loosening (or a flowering, if you are more optimistic about things) that followed. And then here we are.
If you are a gay man or woman, we are all living in the repercussions of that violent brick throw. It was an unprecedented act that refocused things, that made people break out of centuries-long torpor. But like many things that lead to revolutions, this particular one began inconspicuously, and in the unlikeliest places: near midnight, in a very seedy bar owned by the Mafia, and in the unfolding of events that weren't even unusual to begin with.
But on the night of 28 June 1969, something snapped
I can understand that snapping. A snapping is a sharp break. A snapping is a painful awakening. It was years and years in the making -- like lava exploding forth from a suddenly restive volcano: the fire had always been there, simmering as it were, but needed that one break in time to display its magnificent explosion.
I try to imagine being a gay man (or woman) cursed with living through history, and seeing "like people" (Felice Picano's term) enduring a culture of compulsory heterosexuality. It wasn't always trying times for gay people like you. After a brief idyll in Ancient Greece, when same-sex coupling between older erastes
and younger eromenos
was actually a widely-accepted practice (in fact, something enforced), the spectre of organised religion -- the trinity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- brought with it a new kind of moral fervour and moralising, condemning certain practices as unholy "perversions," which were liable to land you (they tell you very ominously) in the very depths of damnation. The long darkness cast by religion prevailed, especially through the Middle Ages, silencing you, demonising you, keeping you to the shadows until even you
begin to think everything that you are as a curse that could move even God himself to raze entire cities to the ground with.
So you begin live in secret, in the shadows -- but you never really disappear. You existed throughout history. You were Alexander the Great. You were William Shakespeare. You were Michaelangelo. You were Leonardo da Vinci. You were Abraham Lincoln. You were Eleanor Roosevelt. Sometimes in societies that remained unattached to the aforementioned religious trinity, you were allowed to flourish, even to become fulfilled members of your community. In India, for example, you were the Hijra. In pre-colonial Philippines, you were the catalonans
, the babaylanes
-- powerful figures who were often men who dressed as women and were allowed to live as women, and were considered by everyone as special people who occupied a third gender -- and hence, because they lived in the gray area of sexuality, were considered vessels of the gods. Then, in the Philippines, Christianity came with the Spaniards, and the same moralising story happened: the attendant erasure, the demonising, the shunning from society. It went on the same way with the rest of the world, and you had to hide.
But you could not really be erased. You persisted despite everything. In the late nineteenth century, in Europe, you sought people who were exactly like you, who felt the same way as you, who knew what it was like to live and thrive in the shadows that you know. For better or worse, you started forming communities. You even started having a kind of a shared culture. It must have been a visible development because a German-Hungarian sexologist named Károly Mária Kertbeny saw such communities thrive in 1868 -- you called yourselves, among other things, Uranists -- and gave you a term that aspired to the clinical. He called you a "homosexual." And for the longest time, it was a term used to describe a possibly psychologically damaged person who was in fact an "invert," somebody whose deepest desires, perverted as they were, was to become the opposite sex. The term stuck, and much later, in 1892, its counterpoint was also invented: the "heterosexual." You see, you had to be "invented" first before straight people could even be invented. Without you, you could say this, straight people could not exist.
And so it was. The 20th century began and in many civilised places in the world, your kind was becoming "tolerated," and you were allowed to flourish. Sometimes you were lonely a farm boy in Iowa, thinking your desires unnormal. Sometimes you were a young stevedore in the American colony of the Philippines, thinking there was nobody else but you, and you were desperately alone in the world. But things change, and world events overtake things. World Wars, for example, would erupt -- and you were suddenly wrested away from your far-away farmlands and tropical islands to city centers, where you are thrust into the middle of a great melting pot -- meeting so many other people, and surprise surprise, meeting others of your own kind. Suddenly, you think, "I'm not alone at all. There are others like me." Still, you are careful. You don't want to stand out. You know very well that affection for the same sex was very much frowned upon. And when you do get found out, and you are in the army, you are dishonourably discharged and are asked to go home. But do you go home back to that Iowa farm, where your father or mother could look at you with new disgust? You don't want to hear them tell you: "They sent you home because you are a faggot?" And so you decided to stay in the port cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York -- today the very epicentres of gay culture. In the anonymity of the big cities, in its tolerance for "deviance" and search for creativity, you found your home, you found the families you chose to have.
But still, for much for the early part of the 20th century, you had to keep to yourself and your kind -- and if by chance you had to live lives in contact with the heterosexual mainstream, you were expected to keep your quiet. You were expected to consider the closet your permanent address.
You had to. The heterosexual world demanded the silence, under the pain of the full force of every sort of institution that made up the world. The Church
considered you a sinner, and destined for hell; they recited Leviticus to you like it was a death sentence. The Law and the Police Force
prevailed that your very existence was illegal: sodomy was a crime, and you could not marry, and the places where your kind gathered were considered "suspicious" -- and thus you were liable to be picked up by the police, to be put in jail and be made to rot there if they so wished, and all because you were a homosexual, a pervert. The Medical Establishment
considered you a psychologically-sick individual, someone who had mental illness: as such, it was perfectly right for your family to put you in mental hospitals where you could be administered electric shock for a "cure" therapy, and in the worst cases, a lobotomy. You know what a lobotomy is? They open up your skull, and slice parts of your brain, all to make you "ungay." They only almost succeed in making you a vegetable.
And since it was a sexual orientation that invited condemnation, its secrecy was contraband. Your secret gayness could be used against you, and many of your kind lost their jobs, lost their families, lost everything else because they were "found out." At the turn of the 20th century, Oscar Wilde -- already a celebrated writer in London -- lost a risky lawsuit he initiated in the first place, and was declared a "sodomite," which was an illegal thing to be in the England of that time: he was jailed and placed under forced labor, and died soon after a broken man. (But not before publishing his scathing confession De Profundis
.) His case became the prime example that made gay men and women everywhere see what could
happen to them. And so they hid some more.
In the late 1930s, William Haines, the biggest box office star in Hollywood, was forced to abandon his male lover by his studio, and forced to go on a publicity blitz that would convince everyone he was straight. He refused to do so, and subsequently lost his acting career.
In the 1940s, World War II ended prematurely by three years because of the efforts of Alan Turing, whose mathematical genius allowed him to crack the Nazi coding system, and helped make the Allied forces win the war. Despite that achievement, he was tried for being gay right after the war, and was found guilty. As a punishment, Turing was chemically castrated. He committed suicide soon after.
In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy's witchhunt in Washington, D.C. targeted gay men and women working in government: because they were gay -- and that had to be kept a secret -- McCarthy reasoned that they were liable to be blackmailed by outside forces like Communist Russia, and thus could be used to become spies working against the government. Many people lost their job in the purge.
Of course, many gay men and women retreated to the shadows further. Many of them even married, had kids -- all to save their skin and their reputation, and effectively hide their sexuality from the world. Most of those marriages ended unhappily, resulting to divorce, to broken homes, to untold domestic betrayals.
But everywhere else, despite the fact that they "hid," gay men and women still found time to be with others of their kind, sometimes in alleyways, sometimes in abandoned warehouses and factories, and most often in clubs and bars that gave their kind service. Here, in these places, they could drink, sing, and dance among their kind, free to be themselves. Often these bars were seedy, like Stonewall in New York, but you kept what was allowed of you.
And so yes, you -- the butch gay men, the feys, the dykes, the drag queens -- partied in bars like Stonewall. And yes, you became used to the occasional raids by the police. And yes, you became used to the occasional arrests and the landing in jail. Bad things like that became a cycle, a round of abuse you took to be things you had to accept as "normal," if you insisted in living your authentic life.
But sometimes, just sometimes, all these things come to a fore, and you begin to think, "Why is this normal? Why must this club be raided? Why must I be arrested? Why do I have to land in jail?" And you begin to think things were not exactly right, and you begin to think that perhaps it was time to fight back.
And on June 28th, 1969, that was what exactly happened. The police came to raid, the patrons came to be rounded up, and they were led outside of Stonewall to the waiting police cars while the rest of the officers were inside the bar to take care of things -- just some routine, really. Except this time, some of the drag queens had had enough. And one of you, a firebrand by the name of Marsha P. Johnson or Storme DeLaverie, finally picked up a stray brick and threw it against the windows of the bar, breaking the glass, alerting the police inside. [There is an alternative theory about who threw the first brick.
] The shattering sound galvanised everyone, and soon this small army of gay men and women -- the butch gay men, the feys, the dykes, the drag queens
-- started to barricade the police inside the bar. And the protesting crowd grew and grew, and spilled over the entire street, and then spilled over the entire night, and then spilled over several days, and then finally spilled over history.
I can understand that "snapping." It is the sound of an angry people who could finally say -- despite their centuries-long conditioning in silence -- that enough is enough. To start feeling human again, there has to be pride and acceptance of who you are.
This is how Pride started -- and the marches, and the protests, and all the rest of the extravaganza have been designed to tell everyone else that "we're here, we're queer, and we cannot be forced to go back to the old silence anymore." We are not mad people you could lobotomize. We are not criminals you could hang or jail. We are not the inheritors of your biblical razed cities that you could send off to hell.
And the changes did come, slowly. By 1972, the American Psychological Association struck homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. By 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly-gay politician elected to office. (He was soon assassinated.) Except in the Islamic world, sodomy laws were slowly being effaced everywhere, and finally a few years ago, Queen Elizabeth II issued a belated but much-needed apology for the United Kingdom's treatment of Alan Turing. Gay marriage sprouted slowly, and finally last year, the United States Supreme Court struck down the law that effectively denied gay men and women the right to be married.
The world has come a long way -- but that doesn't guarantee an absence of backlash, especially from Christian and Muslim rightists. And this month, during Pride Month, the most horrible demonstration of that backlash exploded in Orlando.
Does the Philippines have its own Stonewall moment? I cannot think of a singular event that has galvanised Filipino homosexual men and women to take up activism in the name of equal rights. Our gay bars are still being raided regularly, and its patrons constantly paraded by the police in front of TV cameras to make the evening news. No Stonewall among them. We still live in a country with no divorce, and with no same-sex marriage -- and in a culture dominated by a crafty Church, any of that doesn't seem at all forthcoming. Is the Philippines a gay-friendly country? In the outset, that sounds true -- but once we scratch the surface, the old homophobia is perfectly entrenched. Consider the overall response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year. Filipinos took to social media to register their dismay. It pitted suddenly friends against friends, family against family -- and the wound has been left to fester until now. Ang Ladlad, the political party for gay rights founded by Danton Remoto, finally earned accreditation by the COMELEC to be considered not
a nuisance group, but it still failed to land a spot in the roster of elected party lists, defeated even by the group that advocated for the rights of security guards. Apparently, security guards are more a legitimate minority needing a voice than gay men and women
. And we still get many people like Manny Pacquiao calling us "lower than animals" -- and find, to our horror, that some of our friends and family agree with them. He is now Senator of the Republic.
I don't know whether our Stonewall would come. We have borrowed the American culture war and its icons simply because of their cultural impact and their accessibility. I hope we won't ever need a local version of a Stonewall and its attendant violence -- and still come to have a country that is more open, more generous, more loving. I hope.
Labels: history, queer
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