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Preparation, not celebration

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Each June we celebrate the Stonewall Rebellion through a kaleidoscopic set of events. I have participated in these for a half-century. This year, as democracy is on the ballot, with liberty in the balance, I will be less celebratory and more cautionary, less optimistic and more pragmatic.

As a gay educator and historian, I bear witness to us dancing to a memory of Stonewall, often forgetting, ignoring, or rejecting these rebellious Queers' gritty agendas and street tactics. Now, when most needed, their manifestos of sexual freedom are but dust blowing in the wind.

What might we learn from this Stonewall history and its aftermath in the era of Trumpism?

Heirs to the early 1950s Mattachine Society's socialist founders, these Gay liberationists, Lesbian feminists, and transvestite revolutionaries advocated sexual freedom. Albeit short-lived, Stonewall was the predicate for the first March on Washington — just as the radical Mattachine Foundation had created an opening for the assimilationist Mattachine Society, the first national Gay organization, which was active through the 1960s.

Stonewall radicals' messages of "Gay Is Good," manifestos like "Woman Identified Woman," Gay Liberation Fronts in 36 states, and Gay Liberation Day marches transformed public awareness and sparked activism among Queers — as well fears among national women's and religious groups.

In 1977, singer-activist Anita Bryant's Save Our Children campaign successfully overturned Florida's Dade County's antidiscrimination ordinance. Like dominos, referenda initiatives in other cities repealed similar ordinances. California's Proposition 6 promised to ban homosexuals (and their allies) from public school work. It was rejected at the polls in 1978, crippling anti-sexualist momentum while galvanizing Queers. The next year, when at least 75,000 people marched on Washington, Lesbians and Gay men held elective state and federal offices, 24 states had repealed sodomy statutes, and multiple municipalities and counties had enacted nondiscrimination ordinances.

Direct action
Coupled to an emergent AIDS crisis, sexual minority organizations mushroomed in midsize cities during the 1980s. I was active in Columbia, SC, as were many others in fledgling groups throughout the country. During this first decade of AIDS, President Reagan abjectly failed to address the public health crisis, and his administration provided meager funding (the 1986 budget proposal reduced funding by 11%). Outreach efforts were further crippled by the 1987 Helms Amendment prohibiting any federal monies to "promote homosexuality." The situation did not require more lobbying; it demanded direct action. A new iteration of Queer radicalism emerged.

During this age of madness and malaise, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) confronted those deemed complicit. The largest protest since the Vietnam era shuttered the Food and Drug Administration for a day. Activists chained themselves inside the New York Stock Exchange to protest AZT's exorbitant price. Other anarchic actions among loosely the confederated 148 chapters occurred in inland states and small cities. Meanwhile, mainstream national organizations painted a mural of humanity on the interminable wall of heterodoxy distancing degeneracy from decency.

The effectiveness of direct action coupled to conventional tactics was apparent: The Ryan White CARE Act, enacted in 1990, provided federal funding for people with AIDS, who also gained access to experimental treatments; funds for needle exchange and emergency housing were also available. As in other civil rights struggles, in this brief but critical moment, radicals roused assimilationists, intensifying the struggle.

Such synchronicity, however, was rare — nationally or locally. After years of lobbying Congress, national Gay and Lesbian organizations settled for President Clinton's compromise "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in 1993, creating more problems for many uniformed Queers.

Showdown in Rehoboth
In Washington, DC, the Washington Post Magazine ran the headline "Showdown in Rehoboth," where the homeowners' association of this Delaware beach town had distributed bumper stickers pledging "Keep Rehoboth a Family Town," in the face an "invasion" of Queers. While teenage vigilantes terrorized the fledgling Queer community, local Gay leaders collaborated with city officials to deescalate tensions. These leaders also joined homeowners in support of the raid on a Lesbian-owned shop that housed and discretely sold sex paraphernalia while ACT UP—inspired Lesbian Avengers marched to "free the toys."

Engaging in earnest dialogue and sharing heartfelt experiences, Rehoboth Gay leaders sought to "Create A More Positive Rehoboth." They believed that sharing relevant "harm-related personal experiences" rather than disgorging "facts" was more likely to foster respect for those holding different views on moral issues, especially if there was willingness and ability to communicate.

Changing attitudes
Attitudes gradually changed. Gay men were elected to local office, and homeowners selected progressive leaders. Nationally, the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision overturned sodomy statutes, Congress repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 2010 and, 12 years later, President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act before vacationing at his Rehoboth Beach home. For progressives, it appeared that the "arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Unitarian minister Theodore Parker had originally penned an earlier version of this quotation in his 1853 sermon published seven years before Lincoln's election and the onset of America's first Civil War. During this era of brother fighting brother and communities divided, blood-stained battlefields were our only common ground.

Historically, violence in America is a constant — as is our unbending faith in the arc of justice. Bending this occurs when disparate forces for social change align. It is most fully realized when those divided by deeply held convictions enter the public square with mutual respect, a willingness to listen, and an openness to new information, as was the case in 1990s Rehoboth. Despite Parker's optimism, these conditions were nonexistent during the 1850s, then evidenced in violence along the Kansas border and within the old Senate chamber. Nor do they exist today.

Policing the body politic
Since Donald Trump descended into American politics, the public square has shrunk. Furthermore, hate crimes have increased against synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches, along with family planning clinics, Queer bars, drag queen story hours, as well as against those who are Black, Asian, Latino, or LGBTQ+. Far from being "lone wolves," these attackers, like those of Jan. 6, were fed from a MAGA menu of falsehoods, fears, and fantasies. Capitol rioters turned "political prisoners" have found support from packs of patriots, alt-right pundits, apocalypse-based churches, and Trump acolytes.

These so-called defenders of freedom seek a return to the era before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Stonewall, and Roe v. Wade. Policing the body politic is well underway. Municipalities and states prohibit drag events, the teaching of sexualities, DEI initiatives, and a family's freedom to determine medical needs of a Trans child. To further restrict women's control of their bodies, judges have resurrected 19th-century federal Comstock laws, dusted off century-old abortion bans, and prohibited IVF procedures. The Republican Congress has endorsed a national abortion ban and the Life at Conception Act as we await the Supreme Court's ruling on the "abortion pill."

Hannah Arendt famously observed one can do evil without being evil. We do evil by acting justly yet benefiting from injustice. We do evil by ignoring our slow boil into fascism. We do evil by clinging to an illusion of normalcy. Perhaps, the Day One dictatorship promised by Trump and his enablers will be forestalled by their loss in this fall's elections. Perhaps, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will be ratified, ending the undemocratic spectacle of presidential winners losing the popular vote. Perhaps, a victory by the incumbent president will not result in a repeat of January 6 — or worse.

Perhaps not.

This year's Stonewall events should be a time for preparation, not celebration.

Dr. James Sears is a historian and educator. His latest book, Queering Rehoboth Beach, has just been published by Temple University Press.