OpEd: Tales of the Hot City

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The pavement is hot on the streets of New York in July. 

Most of the time, the Big Apple’s gay community is planning its summer sojourns to the Hamptons, Fire Island, or Mykonos. Maybe even Amsterdam or Ibiza. Last weekend though, the world came here. To a place called Stonewall. 

Fifty years ago, I was a 19-year-old teenager more concerned about how the New York Mets were doing than the battle for gay civil rights.

But in 1969, the East Village was a home for the counterculture, and I was immersing myself into it — the movement, the message, the music. And then there was the moon. Mankind landed on it.

I remember the summer of 1969 very well. I was a counselor at a sleep away camp in Connecticut. In the mountains, in the country, my job was to supervise kids, swimming in a lake, or playing ball all day. I could not have asked for more joy. 

In what was a highlight of my life at the time, I was named the “general” of one of the teams. It was ironic. The teams were called the Green Army and White Navy, after the camp colors. Meanwhile, at Hofstra University I had become a student activist, organizing protests against the American war in Vietnam.

After a year of national unrest and political assassinations in 1968, students like myself were quiet no longer. We began organizing and asserting our rights in multiple ways. It wasn’t just an unjust war that upset us.

Environmental activists spoke out for a clean environment, and organized the first Earth Day on April 23, 1970.

Coming off the Stonewall riots on Christopher and Waverly Street in the Village, gay activists organized the first ever Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day Parade in 1970.

Women declared their bodies were their own. Feminists spoke out, demanding equality, parity and respect for their identity. At Hofstra, the dormitories were segregated based on gender. Student leaders declared this was discriminatory, and demanded that housing accommodations be made co-ed.

When the university secretly conspired with the Nassau County police to conduct a drug raid on the dorms, and bust 39 students for pot, we led protests demanding that cannabis laws be decriminalized.

I offset the costs of my tuition by working in the Rathskeller at nights and on weekends. When I could, I snuck off with my ZBT fraternity brothers to catch the Mets playing at Shea Stadium, in a historic year that would culminate with them winning the World Series that October, just before my birthday. I was there for the final game. It was the best night of my life.

As students on Long Island, we would also love to head into the intellectual center of Manhattan — to the magic and the music of Greenwich Village, a home for beatniks and outcasts, and irreverent and independent iconoclasts, who generated excitement and energy. Go to places like The Bottom Line.

We would journey to Woodstock and listen to Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, and some kid named Bob Dylan. It was a small little arts and music festival on some old guy’s farm in upstate New York. The sounds would resonate across the globe. They still do. 

When cops were not harassing them, the Village was also a safe haven for homosexuals. One night, in 1969, near the end of June, a group being unjustly raided at a gay bar stood up and fought back. They shook the world forever, not just the police force on that night. 

Last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, gays from all over the globe gave new life to that angry, hot night we will never forget. There was partying, parading, and playing last weekend in Manhattan, to be sure. But just like 50 years ago, people were there also to assert themselves again: to speak with passion for core principles of equality and justice.  

The worldwide LGBT community is real, vibrant, and universal. It is also a lot larger in 2019 than some religious zealots in Mississippi will ever seem to understand. America can still be a backwards place. We are here, and we are everywhere. Get used to it.

Recalling their own past, remembering their own journey, gay men and women came back to New York last weekend to commemorate one summer night in 1969. Gays did not win independence on that day. They declared it. The battle continues today, in courtrooms and communities from coast to coast, and continent to continent. 

You are part of it every time you hug and kiss your partner. You too, are a warrior for independence. Those pioneers on that night in 1969 paved the way for the treasures we celebrate today. 

From Oslo to Omaha, young gay men and women of all stripes and colors, shades and sizes, showed up en masse on the streets of New York City — to March in unison with history. They marched for you. 

A small contingent of volunteers representing South Florida groups, including Pride Fort Lauderdale, were also part of the march as well. Thousands more just showed up in New York to be part of the weekend. They were you.

In April of 2020, we will host our own festival, “Pride of the Americas,” in South Florida. The display of acceptance and diversity will be dynamic and enduring, reaching out to all of central and South America. 

The residual impact of this bold event, led by Pride Fort Lauderdale, will allow for a young Latino boy from Venezuela, today kicking a soccer ball on a grassy field in Caracas, to wake up living his gay life more openly a decade from now. He can look upon the love and pride of Stonewall50, and know all is right with his soul and spirit. Gay is OK.

Just as some transgender people fighting on the streets of New York City a half century ago helped open doors for a young Hofstra student, who was a sports jock that cared little at the time about civil rights, so too will today’s marchers create a path for a safer and more secure tomorrow, for all of the world’s emerging and open LGBT communities.

We can all do our part each and every day, living decent lives that respect the rights of others and secure dignity for ourselves. Celebrate diversity. It is what makes our lives special and our souls unique, from the shores of South Beach to the streets of New York City.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone. 


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