What would I say to the ones who were brave enough to divert the raging river of injustice? Our world today is indebted to the fearless rejectionists who so eagerly stood, loud and proud. Also to those who sat down in quiet defiance, hellbent on changing our society’s corruption, despotism, and prejudices.
Life can be so hectic, sometimes it takes some pretty heavy subjects to slow us down to evaluate where we are, what we’re doing and where we’ve been. While my husband and I have been in a committed relationship since 2006, we weren’t legally married until the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2015. Little did we know on our wedding day that only a few short months later we would be adopting our first daughter. A year and a half later our second daughter came into our lives.
One thing that I’m coming to learn is that life speeds by in the blink of an eye. Busy days fade into hectic evening routines. Some nights are easy, while others involve temper-tantrums and meltdowns. Sometimes, it can be so intense that I just want to kiss them goodnight and close the door. Just as I start to envision myself relaxing on the sofa with a wine glass in my hand I hear, “Papa, please tell me about Disney World.” A quick aside–our bedtime routine consists of two books, then prayers, then we tuck her in, then she asks us to tell her about Disney World. Anyway, as much as I want her to go to sleep I know that one day she will stop asking to hear stories about Disney World. So just like all the nights before, I tell her all things I love about Disney World. Her eyes brighten up, and she smiles as I rub my fingers through her hair.
This life we lead is so beautiful. Stressful at times? Yes. But as a gay family, we are doing something we have always dreamed of doing. We are living the American Dream. For so long, that dream was reserved for the stereotypical straight family. Then, someone came along and helped reshape history.
I am 37 years old. As such, I wasn’t around when the Stonewall Riots took place in New York City. I have heard about them and I’ve seen documentaries, but I will never know what it was like to be a gay person in those times. All I can do is imagine. I visualize what it must have felt like as a woman to be arrested and taken to jail just for wearing blue jeans (aka “men’s clothing”). Or for two men to be arrested for walking down the street holding hands. Imagine the horror these people must have felt when their names and addresses were published in the newspaper for all the hateful bigots to see, simply for being “caught” being who they truly were and loving who they truly loved. Day after day of humiliation, fading into night after night of persecution. Being fired from their jobs and shunned by their peers.
The oppression and abuse from the forces of law had to end. Something had to give, and one day it finally did. Like a brittle branch on a malnourished tree, a strong gust from a changing wind blew by and it snapped and crashed down to the pavement. These people were victims of a highly unjust legal system, but they did not lay down and submit to it. Rather, they came together and summoned all their courage and took on an audacious effort that would end up changing the course of time. With linked arms, they marched forward against all odds. It took persistence, perseverance and determination. When one rose up, they all did. And then came pride.
That was New York’s story. I live in New Orleans. Being from the South, I am able to see firsthand that it often takes a little longer for things to change here. 1969 faded into the summer of 1973. While the gay community here is very much familiar with what happened next, unfortunately, much of society outside
New Orleans is not.
There was a gay bar called The UpStairs Lounge on the second floor of a three story building on Chartres Street in the French Quarter near downtown New Orleans. On June 24th, 1973, the first-floor entrance was intentionally set on fire, trapping the patrons inside on the second floor. As the fire spread, metal security bars on the windows prevented patrons from escaping while flames from the fire blocked the exits. 32 people lost their lives. Until 2016, this event was the largest mass murder of gay people in U.S. history.
However, not one statement was made by the Mayor of New Orleans, the Archbishop of New Orleans or the Governor of Louisiana. It was like this heinous act didn’t exist. The crowds below spewed hateful slurs as the firefighters removed the bodies, and some of the families didn’t even claim their dead. In New York City, law enforcement tried to stop the homosexual lifestyle. In New Orleans, the city and state officials were embarrassed and pretended we didn’t exist.
Some say The UpStairs Lounge fire was the day that New Orleans’ gay pride movement started, then came to fruition 4 years later in 1977. Anita Bryant, a former beauty queen turned pop singer and outspoken opponent of the gay rights movement, came to New Orleans for a concert performance. This sparked outrage among the local gay community. A protest was organized in Jackson Square in the French Quater. Over 2,000 people spilled out of Jackson Square that day–an unheard of size for a gay rights protest in New Orleans at that time. The speakers motivated the crowd and encouraged them to rise up and to not be ignored anymore. There are reports of a particularly boisterous lesbian woman from New York City taking the microphone. With her thick Brooklyn accent she began to say…”for years, gays have been teachers, marriage counselors, social workers, policemen, firemen, military members, cooks, janitors, and business people. And that gays were aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, and, most of all, we are their children! And the closet is no place to keep your kid!” Her speech ignited everyone’s emotions and the crowd went wild, marching through the French Quarter to the site of her concert. That was the day New Orleans had its Stonewall. It is such a shame that such tragedy and bigotry had to spark the outrage. But, something had to, right?
Jackson Square has long been a popular wedding venue. As it would happen, 38 years after the protest my husband and I became the first gay couple to be legally married in Jackson Square–the very same place where this insurgent protest happened. Stonewall started the revolution and that rainbow wave finally reached the south 8 years later.
So, at the end of a long, hard day, you can bet your ass I am going to tell my baby about Disney World. In spite of how intense the day or evening may have been. I will tell her. I will tell her for all the ones that died hiding in the closet with their own secret dreams… I will tell her for all the ones that were killed before they had the chance to. I will tell her about Disney World for all the trailblazers that would do anything to be in my place at this exact moment. Of all the places to tell her about, I find it so appropriate to describe the place where dreams come true every single day. It’s where happiness is commonplace and magic is an ordinary miracle.
We are eternally grateful that our lives are a little more like Disney World than we once thought and we owe it to each and every LGBTQ+ pioneer that played such an integral role in writing a new chapter for all of us. God bless you all.