Greenwich Village has a rare beauty in the early summer, when the days tend to be breezy and nights are still cool. I have never seen the place better kept, each and every park and thoroughfare brilliantly manicured with flowers and spices positively exploding into an orgiastic display of midsummer colors. Most all of the storefronts were painted in rainbow patterns that beautifully set off the gardens. It was the summer solstice. And it is the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots that symbolically announced the birth of a gay rights movement in the United States, rights for a community that would no longer be ignored. Quite suddenly, coming out of the closet meant hitting the streets.
Admittedly, I was simply strolling on a sleepy late Monday morning; no doubt there are parades and concerts and lectures associated with the anniversary (billboards announced a week-long observance, ending on June 28th). But as I wandered the streets and tried to imagine the tumult forty years earlier, I wondered what it all had meant, and what had been achieved.
On a progressive note, nearly every storefront was participating in this commemoration; solidarity with an aggrieved community is the surest sign of social progress. But in addition to the tourists taking pictures of various shop windows and their common refrain—“Be Proud”—there were the predictable offhand street-smart remarks and muttering from out-of-town visitors, reading the signs and placards aloud in effected voices dripping with irony, or ill-disguised contempt.
What had it all meant? What had been achieved?
The short answer is “tolerance,” I suppose, the gradual acknowledgment that a person’s sexual practices are a private matter if anything is in this crazy world of sometime-security and continual surveillance. People may not actively endorse a lifestyle, but they accept its existence as normal now, and permit it a quiet coexistence, granting the lifestyle a place in the community or communities of which we now imagine ourselves to be a part.
The lifestyle, the identity, is generally accepted now, especially in the generation that has come of age since Stonewall. The whole thing is generational, and that generational kind of tolerance has been achieved after a fashion.
But what does it mean? What does the alchemical magic that turns private sexual activity into a public lifestyle, and then into a social identity, do to the politics of sexuality? Ironically, it turns thoughts to marriage, and not only because it is summertime in New York, and the solstice is upon us.
“Gay marriage,” for a variety of complex reasons, is still the sticking point. Many people—and I overheard this several times in the snippets of conversation inspired by the anniversary on the quiet streets with storied names, like Bleeker, Houston, and Gay—many people happily grant an individual’s freedom to do what he or she wants behind closed doors.
But churches, mosques and synagogues have open doors, at least in theory.
Marriage is a public statement, and it requires a kind of recognition that goes far beyond tolerance. That is harder to grant, harder for gays and lesbians and others to win.
What had been achieved?
I passed a little park on Christopher Street where the colors were especially striking and some anonymous gardener had managed to capture every color from the rainbow. That strange new urban art form—statues depicting real people, statues who appear to be seated, alone or in groups, on park benches and stones—the ones here depicted images of subtle complexity. All the statues were white, bleached white. Two women were sitting on a park bench, hands touching, speaking in hushed intimate tones. Two men were standing nearby, casually chatting, one hand draped over another’s shoulder. We tolerate this now, this gentle expression of care.
Most of the living people in the park appeared to be homeless; the question of sexuality was trumped, as a few blocks to the south, the moral wreckage of Wall Street beckons. A few blocks to the north by Union Square is the restaurant where Bernie Madoff feted his office on the night before he betrayed them. It was a brilliantly choreographed reversal of the Last Supper, well worthy of an ironist. Or an immoralist.
A man with two large plastic bags at his feet asks me for a smoke, then a light; says “God bless” as I walk away.
“The poor you will always have with you.” We seem to tolerate this gospel truth more easily than the “hard sayings” designed to sting and to provoke.
So what does it all mean, this soft cascade of haunted heroes?