It threw me, until I had a chance to fire up my computer and see what the man was talking about.
Remember the line? It was from the President’s address yesterday: “…that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
And I was sitting there, trying to get a fix on who or what was “Stonewall,” and what it had in relation to Seneca Falls and Selma, which I knew were landmarks for women’s rights and black rights, respectively.
So as I say, I looked it up.
Gay rights. Stonewall — the Stonewall Inn down in Greenwich Village — was where the entire gay movement came out of a very large closet. Where a crowd of 200 gay people who were being arrested because they were gay exploded into a violent crowd of 2,000 which struck back with a vengeance. It’s quite a story. And I had no idea.
In a single sentence the President referenced the three major civil rights issues of the nation and the progress that’s been made in the past century — at least, so far. Yet movement on the last two has only occurred in the last forty years, and even that has been incremental, at best.
Back when I was a kid growing up in a small town — in the northeast, no less — the two black families lived at the outskirts of the village and we were advised that all was fine so long as “they” knew their place — whatever that was. I assumed they would be aware of that, and if not, they would be properly informed of the details. I only recall seeing one boy from one the families who was perhaps five or six years older than me. He decided at one point to play basketball for the high school, showed for a single game in uniform, complained of racial intolerance — I was told — and quit. By contrast, the team bus was driven by a black man and everyone thought that was just fine.
Even the northeast, in those times, was hardly a paragon of tolerance. And as people began to work the voting rights efforts in the south, there was virtually no discussion in the college classrooms that I sat in. It was, here and there, a news item, nothing more. African-Americans — when you heard the term — were dismissed as pushy and unreasonable. I was all of 27 before the light bulb came on with real finality.
Equality for gay people — we called them homosexuals, or worse, “homos” in the 1950s and 1960s — has taken even longer. Whether their road has been tougher depends on who you talk to; I once made the mistake of weighing the differences to a black friend who made a vigorous effort to set me straight (no pun intended). The difficulty there is the presumption of choice, where — we now know — there is none.
I like to think that over the years we as a people have agreed to grow up, that our oh-so-generous feelings of tolerance has been replaced by adult acceptance of each other the way we are, nothing more and nothing less. Interesting that after more than two centuries we still have to work at qualifying for the notion of being a melting pot.
So good for the President for bringing that once more to the fore. We need the periodic reminders of where we all come from, minus, as he also said, the ease of name-calling. We need to be reminded that such is the way this whole thing works.