Commemorating the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots
28 June 1969 – 3 July 1969.
― Tommi Avicolli Mecca.
“Gay is Good!”
― Frank Kameney.
“I do not think we have a ‘right’ to happiness. If happiness happens, say thanks.”
― Marlene Dietrich.
“Why were gay men, lesbians and everyone who challenged compulsory heterosexuality or didn’t conform to the strict gender binary reviled?”
― Alison Thorne.
Around 1968, Frank Kameney coined the slogan ‘Gay is good’ in response to the chant, ‘Black is Beautiful’. While that may not seem so extraordinary these days, back in that era his was quite a radical and extraordinary claim. From the 1974 days of gay liberation, John Lauritsen explains why:
“In almost every state, anti-homosexuality statutes describe the prohibited acts with such phrases as: “unnatural intercourse”, “unnatural crimes”, ‘infamous crime against nature”, and “the abominable and detestable crime against nature”.
“In opposition, the gay liberation movement has put forward the slogan, “Gay is Good!” ” (Lauritsen, 1974/2012, 5).
28 June marks the anniversary of an event in the USA that has mythic overtones. The Stonewall Riots in New York City were not the first time that queer people had protested and rioted – indeed, the US-centric nature of their commemoration is problematic – but they mark what might be called a shocking change of consciousness for the world and serve as a demarcation point for historians and activists alike. Stonewall was like a queer version of Pearl Harbour, Eureka Stockade, and Arab Spring all rolled into one. The western world has never been the same again.
Oppression and Liberation
“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of
who do the things no one can imagine.”
― Alan Turing
“Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people
— the beauty within themselves.”
― Langston Hughes.
“We try to take out lesson from the typical tactics and history of other oppressed groups… It seems to be that in our society, if a group of people can bind themselves together into an effective power bloc, then they attain rights and social respectability and the protection of the law. And if they can’t, they have trouble.”
― Arthur Evans (Tobin & Wicker, 1972, 194).
“In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”
― Simone de Beauvoir.
Stonewall was connected to the fledgling movement known as ‘gay liberation’, a concept that later evolved and expanded to include lesbians, bisexuals and trans people – all of whom brought into the collective community a variety of challenges, and redefining self-definitions – and more recently has included intersex, gender variant, non-binary, asexuals, pansexuals and a host of others. The ever-expanding LGBTQIA+ alphabet, and the furious debates that are aroused, can be seen as a successful demonstration of acceptance of diversity and pluralism; often summarised today in the reclaimed formerly-derogatory slur ‘queer’.
The active inclusion of drag, trans and gender variant people within Stonewall demonstrates how the protest was a minor (if visible) part of a much larger and longer continuum of queer diversity within human society. Many ancient kinship societies openly equated sexual and gender diversity with nature (Baghemi, 1999, 214 – 262) and extended a special reverence to transgender, gender-variant, cross dressing, drag and related diverse people, who held a long and respected role in their societies – often with links to shamanism or ritual as a recognition of their being living exemplars of difference. Such peoples can still be found today around the world, from the berdache of North America to the fa’afafine of Samoa (Greenberg, 1988, 40-60). Due to lack of surviving archaeological evidence, it is not possible to link them with earlier shamans – in the Paleolithic era, or Stone Age ritual dancers – although given their known cultural contributions, it seems reasonable to speculate on the possibility (ibid, 63). Is it just possible that the same diverse cohorts, who may have led our frenetic ceremonial dancing during the dawn of modern humanity, also choreographed the outraged and outrageous processional street protests during the dawn of secular gay liberation? We could learn from such a possibility. From Stone Age to Stonewall, from sacred to secular, from Mattachine to Mardi Gras; such a journey of individuality and defiance should be our template.
“The Homosexual Revolution”
“The Christian oppression of women and Gay people was no accident. Their freedom and high status in the old religion made them prime targets for the new religion, which was profoundly anti-sexual.”
― Arthur Evans (Evans, 1978, 99).
“My own feeling of concern arises from seeing how much moral injury and suffering is created by the superstitions of the Christian mythology.”
― Harriet Martineau.
“I’m militant about the church as an institution because of the damage done to the minds of homosexuals by the churches. Most of organised religion has been the mortal enemy of thinking people. I don’t want to destroy the churches, but I want to save young homosexuals from being damaged by the churches.”
― Jim Owles (Tobin & Wicker, 1972, 31).
“I say that homosexuality is not just a form of sex, it’s a form of love, and it deserves our respect for that reason.”
― Christopher Hitchens.
Stonewall and gay liberation comprised a time for challenging the status quo and for redefining and reinventing ourselves. Traditional attitudes and values were challenged; this pointedly included organised religion, business and medicine (Duberman, 1993, 223). Conformity and assimilation were discouraged in favour of outrage and intersectionality. Such protests from that era became open expressions of solidarity with other groups of people who were similarly seeking civil rights, natural justice, equality, elimination of entrenched disadvantage, and empowerment. (Ashley, 2015, 28).
A generation later, the civil rights push for marriage equality by LGBT communities, along with the abandonment of trans rights by some TERF elements of those same LGBT communities, would have surprised and shocked many of the original gay lib cohort:
“In many ways, the new millennium gay movement is the antithesis of the early ’70s gay liberation. It cavorts with politicians who may be good on gay issues, but not on concerns affecting other disenfranchised communities… It courts corporate support for its gala events, even its pride parades, which used to be protest marches and celebrations of the Stonewall Riots. Now those marches seem more of a market than a movement… The queer movement still hasn’t entirely gotten its act together about sexism, racism or the exclusion of transgenders.” (Avicolli Melli, 2009, xiv).
One prominent gay libber from that era – the man who literally wrote the book on gay liberation – came out some years ago as questioning why LGBTQIA+ communities supported marriage equality while ignoring the murder and oppression of their queer colleagues overseas. He also asks what happens to communities whose identity becomes dominated by a culture of consumption rather than activism. His views are not unique among gay lib era pioneers, and such questions of priorities remain largely unanswered even today. His compatriot Peter Tatchell clarifies the difference between gay liberation and modern day queer ideologies regarding the adoption of religion: “The Bible is to gays what Mein Kampf is to Jews.”
From Activism to AIDS
“I’m a twenty-year metastatic lung cancer survivor and a fifteen-year AIDS survivor. And I really believe that activism is therapeutic.”
― Kiyoshi Kuromiya.
“Celebrate diversity, and Heal AIDS with Love!”
― Michael Callen (Callen, 1990, iii, personal inscription).
“This epidemic is going to be with us for 50, maybe even 100 years. Its impact will be felt for many generations to come. You must build groups of activists, even if you have only 5 or 10 people, even if the obstacles are daunting and you’re poor.”
― Zackie Achmat.
“What I found was that people are going through exceptionally difficult times. Many are married in heterosexual relationships but have lesbian relationships on the side.”
― Midi Achmat.
The optimism of the gay liberation era was short-lived for two reasons. With the arrival of a new, cruel, epidemic, AIDS, countless gay men’s lives were shattered, and many men like Rock Hudson were forced out of the closet and into activism that would not have been their personal choice. AIDS also meant that many gay lib era activists and community heroes were struck down with the new affliction. People such as Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Michael Callen had to adapt the communal activist skills that had been refined during gay lib protests, and use them instead to deal with the tragic new situation – in their case, both becoming involved in groups such as ACT UP and People With AIDS. Similarly, South African gay man Zackie Achmat also had to use his anti-Apartheid activist skills to deal with AIDS both on a personal level and as a generic scourge in his country (Nolen, 2007). For all three activist gay men, their world had changed, but not in any way they might have anticipated.
For Achmat’s whole family, the world was turned upside down – when Zackie and his lesbian sister Midi both came out as gay, they were rejected by their Muslim parents, but their activist strength gave them the capacity to walk away and turn their attention to LGBT+ and HIV/AIDS activism that has helped people across their country.
“I do not believe in belief.”
― E M Forster, ‘What I Believe’.
“She thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.”
― Virginia Woolf.
“… Atheists have a responsibility to support human rights issues like LGBTQ equality; and most importantly… it’s crucial that we do so without delay or hesitation.”
― Camille Beredjick.
“I’ve often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front
saying this is fiction.”
― Sir Ian McKellen.
Some years ago, I attended the launch of an academic report on gay conversion therapy. As a past victim, I wanted to hear what might be said about addressing the religious dogma that fuelled this pseudo-scientific form of psychological torture. Significantly, the launch itself took place inside a church – the very same generic environment wherein such religious-based abuse often took place. None of the academics who wrote the report, none of the religious queers who used their privilege to obtain the venue, none of the former victims who spoke publicly about their involvement in the study, nor any of the gay Christians who spoke hopefully about ‘welcoming these lost sheep back into the fold’ – not one of them had the sensitivity or empathy to openly question whether or not a religious venue was an appropriate place to launch a report about religious-based abuse, whether or not it was a safe place for former torture victims to visit, or whether any self-respecting victim would even want to be ‘welcomed back’ into a church or religious community.
Similarly, I also attended a queer conference some years ago which was widely advertised as promoting equality, inclusion and diversity. While many openly religious queers were included in the main program – including the chairman of the conference’s organising committee, himself an openly gay Christian – no openly secular or non-believing queers were included – except for myself, shunted into a side room to give a talk to a mere handful of people during a non-peak time when the conference was officially shut for breakfast. Organisers ignored my subsequent email in which I respectfully asked for a more inclusive program next year. Similarly, another multicultural queer network deflected my speech into a small side room for its conference, and excluded openly atheist perspectives from a publication on multicultural queerdom which otherwise overflowed with multi-faith perspectives. This appears to be the template within queer communities – where ‘multicultural’ equates with ‘multifaith’ and brazenly excludes atheist, agnostic or non-believing queers. Given that approximately 75% of LGBTQIA+ people in Australia indicated in 2020 that they have ‘no current religion or spirituality’, (Private Lives 3, 26), this means that the majority of the queer community is being effectively bullied by the 25% who enjoy religious privilege.
Eli Heina acknowledges the problem:
“The effort within queer spaces to be inclusive towards religious people is disproportionate and can be downright exclusionary towards non-religious people.”
Our people survived and thrived due to Stonewall. And yet another form of stonewalling is common today – the bullying by exclusion of queer non-believers and their views, with their needs and counsel being excluded from queer conferences, media, community networks and events. My own personal experience, since coming out as an atheist in the Australian LGBTQIA+ community, echoes the words of blogger Greta Christina:
“I’m finding that I feel more at home — more welcomed, more valued, more truly understood — as a queer in the atheist community than I do as an atheist in the queer community.”
The myth that has encompassed the Stonewall Riots has been diluted by a generation of modern assimilationists. Instead of respecting and promoting diversity, queer communities have become passive receptors of the same religious dominance that oppressed and murdered queer people for millennia – and still does in many places such as Africa. Tom Morris acknowledges the high rates of disbelief in the queer community (something that queerdom itself seems reluctant to admit) and offers an obvious reason why:
“Every single attempt to increase the rights and well-being of LGBT people has been militantly opposed by religion… everything that LGBT people have done in terms of activism and reform has been opposed by religion in some form. ”
Today, when even queer believers do acknowledge that significant percentages of LGBTQIA+ people reject the childhood faith of their families, we still see religious dominance in queer spaces and discourse. Some elements of the local gay media often present stories about religious privilege and discrimination against queer people by seeking perspectives and feedback from religious queers and largely ignoring the majority queer view – queer nonbelievers of diverse backgrounds and/or unconventional views.
I have to say it: sorry, religious queer compatriots, your bullying and exclusion of queer atheists does not demonstrate equality – but it does demonstrate a smug sense of superiority and elitism. Your self-affirming testimonies of self-acceptance and acquiescent assimilation within religions that have practiced queer genocide are not utterances of liberation but of narcissism and complicity. Your dominating public discourse does not win debates and converts, but simply alienates others and drives them away. Your privilege does not demonstrate your morality as much as it does your adoption of affluent, straight, white culture. Your silent ethnic cleansing of gay liberation goals and aspirations may lack the open brutality of homophobes who stretch from Tanzania to Texas, but it is no less real and no less deadly – instead of fists and iron bars, your weapons are the pink dollar and pink vote and pink media and pink assimilation and pink conferences and pink ghosting.
As someone who has spent decades agitating for human rights and equality, I am the first to endorse the principle that queers can choose any religion or philosophy they like, even though it means that many conform too closely for my liking to other ‘spiritual but not religious’ populations. But what profoundly disappoints me is the tendency for those same LGBTQIA+ peoples to so openly practice forms of religious apartheid, totally excluding non-religious queers in what should be safely queer space and places. As an LGBTQIA+ atheist and humanist, my non-belief perspective is almost never acknowledged as valid, nor presented in queer discourse, whereas queer astrologers, Christians, spiritualists, alternate philosophies, Jews, Muslims, and reactionaries are given prominence in queer discussions, debates, speaking engagements, networking coalitions, publications and radio airtime, public inquiries and media representation; they are delegated leadership and eldership within the queer community. But they do not speak for me – and I am not alone. Alex Gabriel does speak for me:
“Attempts to be ‘inclusive’ of religious queer people by godding-up our communities with sermons, prayers, clergy and promotion of religious groups often mean excluding us.”
It must be said that not all openly queer community leaders and speakers are openly religious. Some are what might be termed as being religion-neutral – possibly secular, possibly atheist but politely discrete, perhaps even possibly religious but not always asked to speak about topics that are religiously-suited. Their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) remain unknown or unclarified, which reminds me of pre-Stonewall times when queers stayed firmly in the closet if they wished to have a public voice or respectability. Why are queers forcing other queers back into a lateral closet? What happened to being out and proud?
Out and Proud
“Those of us who live with the tyranny only of our own conscience and belief that an ethical life can be lived without reference to the supernatural are called humanists – or atheists, or in my case anti-theists.”
― Christopher Hitchens.
“And you have to give them hope.
Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow…”
― Harvey Milk.
“Do your part. Give ’em hope.”
― Dan Savage (Savage & Miller, 2012, 8).
“As a humanist I hold to an innate human value and see education as the emancipator of all humanity.”
― Peter/Ethel Thurston.
In exploring earlier times and eras, it is interesting to see how they may differ from our own, even though we might see ourselves as belonging to the same communities as those from earlier times. Our earliest era of solidified gay liberation was one in which queer atheism, bohemian lifestyles, intersectionality, and protest activism, were commonplace and part of the culture. Today, we seem to have a queer community which believes that equality with heterosexuals means adopting their mores and values, their lifestyles and their traditions – from voting conservative to appropriating heterosexual marriage. It was not always so. All of the people whom I have named and quoted directly within this article are pioneers and heroes in their own way, and significantly, they are all known rainbow atheists – with the possible exception of Hughes and Martineau, for whom the jury is still out. Although their atheism is often excluded from modern narratives, these people have pride of place within the wider picture of gay liberation, Stonewall, and today. Representation matters. Inclusion matters. Diversity matters. And we are all better off when we cast aside our comfort zone and see the world – and each other – as we really are. Stonewall was not the end of the journey, but a step along the way. It is time for individual rainbow atheists to:
“…Counterbalance the predominance of religiously-oriented organisations within the Lesbian and Gay male movement.”
― (GALA Review, 1989).
“Come Out of Both Closets.”
― Doug Randolph (GALA/SF, 1985).
“I am deeply pessimistic of any hope that the churches, especially the Fundamentalists will change their mind about the homosexual.”
― ‘Retired Serviceman’, Washington DC (Lucas, 1964-66 n.d., 4).
“My sexuality and my humanism are connected. A big part of why I’m so passionately committed to the godless community and the godless movement is that I’m passionately opposed to how religion has traditionally dealt with sexuality—sexuality in general, and LGBT sexuality in particular. I’m fiercely opposed to the traditional homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and general sex-negativity of most traditional religions, and to the terrible harm they’ve inflicted on millions of people… And a big part of what first drew me to the godless community was how queer-friendly it generally is. ”
― Greta Christina.
If you want to find out more about the history of Feminism, Transgender Liberation and the Stonewall Rebellion, register here for a Zoom talk on 29 June 2021 by Alison Thorne, who is a veteran LGBTIQA+ liberationist, a trade unionist and a founding member of the Melbourne chapter of socialist feminist organisation, Radical Women. Her talk is hosted by Radical Women and Rainbow Atheists.
The references to HIV/AIDS were assisted by my postgraduate study on the social history of HIV/AIDS (this work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship).
Colin P. Ashley, 2015. ‘Gay Liberation: How a Once Radical Movement Got Married and Settled Down’, New Labor Forum, Vol. 24, No. 3, (Fall), 28-32.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, 2009. Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation, San Francisco: City Light Books.
Bruce Baghemi, 1999. Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, New York: St Martin’s Press.
Michael Callen, 1990. Surviving AIDS, New York: HarperCollinsPublishers.
Martin Duberman, 1993. Stonewall, New York: Dutton Books.
Arthur Evans, 1978. Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, Boston: FAG RAG Books.
GALA Review, 1989. ‘Preamble to The Constitution of Gay and Lesbian Atheists’, Volume 12, Number 5, September, 3.
David F Greenberg, 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Adam O. Hill, Adam Bourne, Ruth McNair, Marina Carman, & Anthony Lyons, 2020. Private Lives 3: The health and wellbeing of LGBTIQ people in Australia, ARCSHS Monograph Series No. 122, Melbourne, Australia: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University.
John Lauritsen, 1974 (2012). The Religious Roots of the Taboo on Homophobia: A Materialist View, New York/Boston: Pagan Press. (This is a 2012 reprint of a 1974 pamphlet).
Donald S Lucas, 1964-66, n.d. ‘Homophile Organizations Mattachine Society Homosexual and The Church Stencils‘, in The Homophile Movement: Papers of Donald Stewart Lucas, 1941-1976, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society.
Stephanie Nolen, 2007. ‘Zackie Achmat’, in 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa, Melbourne: Text Publishing, 180 – 200.
Doug Randolph (ed.), 1985. October Newsletter, Gay And Lesbian Atheists (San Francisco chapter), October, Archives of Sexuality & Gender.
Dan Savage, 2012. ‘Introduction’, in Dan Savage & & Terry Miller (eds.), It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating A Life Worth Living, New York: Penguin, 1 – 8.
Chris Stedman, 2012. Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Boston: Beacon Press.
Kaye Tobin and Randy Wicker, 1972. The Gay Crusaders, New York: Paperback Library.
©2021 Geoff Allshorn