Respectability and Its Discontents: Missing the Louche, Loud, and Lovely World of Sexual Outlawry

“We are the Stonewall girls-we wear our hair in curls!” (chanted by some original Stonewall “rioters”)

The Op-Ed staff of the New York Times really messed up yesterday in slugging Lucian Truscott’s Stonewall reminiscence so as to emphasize the NYPD bust-the-Mafia-in-1969 angle. Or more likely they messed up in accepting this angle from Truscott himself. Everybody knows that the old Stonewall was a Mafia joint, as were (and are) so many queer-friendly drinking establishments. The real beauty of Truscott’s piece is the parting image he gives of himself, a green-as-grass Village Voice reporter, walking Allen Ginsburg home on the third night and hearing Ginsburg’s sarcastic envoi: “Defend the fairies!”

Truscott does effectively summon up the essence of the Stonewall rebellion: the rebels who battled the cops for over 48 hours were pariahs within the mostly closeted gay male world of the time. They were the trannies, the femmes, the real renegades, including a good many kids of color who had nothing to lose and nothing to fear from hamfisted cops who had beat up on them countless times before.

It is important to recall this at Year 40 because so much of the air this weekend will be filled with droning from the respectability elite within the LGBT movement—the spiritual descendants of the queer men who would not join in the original fracas, who fled the scene in horror, and who bitterly denounced the rebels for upsetting their convenient and closeted apple cart.

Here I confess my own ambivalence and internal division, because I have myself joined the respectability elite these days as an ordained minister who is deeply involved in the marriage equality movement—and also part of a complex effort to advance effective LGBT advocacy among mainline Protestant clergy across the country. I truly think I can make a difference by doing this work, but it doesn’t really satisfy my own outlaw jones.

Elsewhere in this special edition, Nick Street cites Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) created by and through events like the Stonewall Rebellion. In the case of queer people, I believe that the TAZ is always potentially there and that it will always break out intermittently despite the minatory gaze of the respectables. I also believe that this TAZ is spiritually life-giving in the context of an airless culture that so desperately wants to regularize and normalize and commercialize every form of actual or potential deviance.

For young sexual outlaws these days, perhaps the very worst pressure for normalization comes from self-described “straight-acting” gay men who insist that anyone they will associate with must also be “totally masculine,” with worked-out jocks always preferred. Don’t these pathetic creatures know that it’s the nelly queens, then and now, who have the real balls in this movement?

But I digress. I don’t really mean to be mournful or cynical on this important anniversary weekend. What I most mean to say is that God’s goodness is evident in the way in which new and seriously maladjusted queer youth are still rising up to bring new energy and edge to the movement. Evident in undiminished uncompromising stances of movement veterans like Cleve Jones, who will lead a massive queer march on Washington in October. Evident in the powerful political emergence of the transgender community.

Too many commentators like to say that the 1970s marked the “adolescence” of the queer movement and that the AIDS crisis of the ’80s saw a more mature movement emerge. Mostly that’s just a stupid thing to say. The 1980s showed beyond any doubt that we’re capable of enormous compassion, sacrifice, and struggle. But that was never really in doubt, was it?

The bigger question today is whether we’re still capable of showing real freedom and real inner courage in the face of all who would diminish us and try to wedge us into their safe categories—especially in the face of persons safely ensconced within the respectable gay movement who would do this.

This is still a revolution of the human spirit. It’s not going to be predictable and safe. It’s going to be messy and multifaceted and at times politically “counterproductive.” And thanks be to God for that.

As a now-deceased former lover of mine used to say, in homage to Judy Garland’s red shoes, “Click ’em, girls!”