I have been touring the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian province of British Columbia. I happened to be in Seattle on Sunday, June 28, a day of Gay Pride parades across the country commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall gay-bar resistance in Manhattan. It launched, so they say, the gay-liberation movement. While some historians actually believe the resistance began at a gay sit-in at Dewey’s Restaurant in Philadelphia and NOT Stonewall, history has a way of creating “facts” which may not be entirely accurate. I think those heroes at Dewey’s, whose names are buried in history, should be lauded for the non-violent sit-in apparently inspired by Greensboro in 1960. Stonewall was violent but certainly liberating in effect.
I was walking with my backpack to Cafe Presse on Capitol Hill in Seattle when I encountered the preparatory staging of the Pride parade. I could see a marching band rehearsing, corporate-sponsored logos adorning Orbitz Gay travel floats and Microsoft-sponsored platforms. I walked up a steep hill to the Cafe, then north on 14th Avenue to Volunteer Park to see the Conservatory and the Water Tower view of the sparkling city. As I returned to my hotel down Pine Street, I saw the Space Needle again. I had seen it from a ship traversing Puget Sound on its west and through the “Black Sun” sculpture of Isamu Noguchi that is in front of the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. It looks more like a doughnut but according to the New York Times inspired Soundgarden’s grunge anthem “Black Hole Sun.”
As I descended downhill on my return to the waterfront, I reached Union Street again and the Pride Parade was now in full swing some two hours after my initial pre-parade encounter. I had never witnessed a gay-pride parade before or any parade since my parents would take me to a July 4 one on Lindell Blvd. in St Louis. I was able to rush through a space between floats and dash across 4th Avenue when I stopped and watched the parade.
The parade route was mobbed with 1000s of spectators. I noticed a float with the captivating phrase: “Atheists believe in you” and I applauded and saluted the touch. Then appeared HIV/AIDS sponsors as they passed out pamphlets to the crowd. Signs on floats declaring “Use a condom” passed by me as I stood on the corner as a policeperson tried to restrain the crowd from overflowing into the street. Then the United Church of Christ displayed its solidarity with gay Seattle. Folks were screaming with joy and clapping as float after float endlessly rolled by. Yes there were the narcissistic bare-chested-only-underpants wearing men on a float and one or two drag queens but most of the parade messages were quite educational and progressive in substance. “Remember Stonewall.” “Marriage should be Equal.” “Our time has come.” “Don’t Discriminate by Gender” etc.
I did not ask spectators what their orientation was but I was struck at the massive numbers and wondered, “Were they all gay?” Probably not since I am straight and folks, gay or straight, like a good parade. A great parade actually in a very progressive city. The Seattle Times covered the event on page one and listed many Pride events for the weekend.
I did not see President Barack Obama in the parade or Hillary Clinton but I suppose the president was preparing for his White House appointment on Monday with gay and lesbian organisational leaders. Hillary was probably just being Hillary. Wondering if those “Hard working Americans. White Americans” which was her racist mantra during the primaries in 2008 would ever be able to vote for her again for president. I hope not as the wife of Mr Racist Bill (remember his South Carolina primary remarks?) D.O.M.A. Clinton plots her next anti-Muslim move.
That evening I went out for dinner to Wild Ginger to get some clams and scallops. The parade was finally over and the area had returned to a more quiescent state. Later as I got ready for bed, I thought, “Well the police were now protecting spectators and Pride participants, watching to preserve order and basically just doing their job. Not hassling, or breaking up folks enjoying what was then one of the few public spaces where homosexuals could socialise: gay bars.” Some manifestations of overt persecution have ended as evidenced with the Supreme Court rejection of the criminalisation of sodomy as originally declared in Bowers v Hardwick (1986) with the Lawrence v Texas (2003) decision. A little stare decisis can be dangerous and oppressive. I am glad it was eviscerated in this instance.
One of the reasons I used “Coming Out Straight” as part of the subject title resulted from being afraid to discuss the Gay Liberation struggle in my history classes. It was like well they may think I am gay or something as if that would be so bad. In my syllabus I stated I was straight. Then I removed that but when distributing a handout outline, I indicated I did not participate in the gay lifestyle. This year I hope to treat it more as a normal topic for a history survey course like women’s or African-American history. Historians have generally avoided the gay and lesbian topic for reasons of fear of misidentification or underestimating its importance in the tapestry of American history.
Coming out straight may be necessary in achieving a comfort level in discussing the topic of homosexuality for some–especially those teaching at a conservative (at least by my standards to be sure), Catholic university. Yet avoiding the topic ignores a significant contemporary and historic phenomenon of the struggle for human rights and equal justice. One’s orientation is irrelevant in terms of character, ability and citizenship. The more open gays and straights are about the persecution of gays and lesbians, transgenders and bisexuals then the veil of silence will be lifted further and a just society more comprehensively advanced.