40 Years Later

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My first visit to the Stonewall Inn. Every gay person with a political conscious will take a picture in front of this spot at some point in their life if they make it to NYC.

Tonight, there’s a party in Greenwich Village. It’s the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the birth of the modern US gay rights movement. People are dancing in the streets of this iconic Ney York City hamlet where so much modern history was invented. This  in stark contrast to the dearth of mirth that characterized that balmy night four decades ago when gay people fought back virulently and in mass for the first time in history against organized oppression and intimidation. Since then, closet doors have swung open, political power has been amassed, legal battles have been fought, and generation shifts are leading toward what will one day be near universal acceptance for LGBT individuals. Yes, the times have changed!

I wanted to be there for the occasion. I’ve been planning to be there for well over a year. Plans change, though. Tonight, I’m in Wichita- by choice.  For me, there’s no time to celebrate the revolution that began half a coast away; we have our own story to play out, here on Kansas soil.

When drag queens, street kids, and other random homos hurled bricks and other objects at the police who were attacking and intimidating them on that fateful night, they were really launching a full-on assault at the closet.  For too long, homosexuality had been a taboo, tasteless topic. Society was too uncomfortable to reckon discomforts and value conflicts with a reality that couldn’t be denied. People who were gay lied—to themselves and everyone else around them. They blended in, often marrying and having children, all the while doing anything to appear “normal”. The secret alternate life many constructed parallel to this existence was far from anything that should ever be labeled normal, though. It wasn’t uncommon for gay people to have secret, underground rendezvous with others who were like them. They were forced to socialize in seedy bars that were often fronts for mafia-related operations. They had undercover lovers and secret worlds. They were one person with two compartmentalized lives. It was a broken system of existence. It had to end. It is said of the Stonewall Riots that it was the “hairpin drop heard round the world.” That hairpin picked the lock of the closet, and a world of new possibility was opened up for later generations.

My life is the manifestation of what people were fighting for that night. By the time I was coming of age in the 1990s, I was able to recognize early on in my development that I was attracted to men. I lived in a world where homosexuality was a definitive identify. MTV’s “Real World” was giving America a glimpse into the humanity of gay individuals. Clinton had tried to let gays serve openly in the military. Courts were debating the subject of gay marriage. Ellen Degeneres was out on television. Gay was a public issue, and when I admitted my same-sex attraction to myself at the age of 14, I accepted that I would forever be part of a controversy larger than me.  As I grew older, though, I began to see shifts. Closet doors opened for me and my peers by generations past were allowing new possibilities for life in the present. I’ve been able to make hundreds of friends, build a community, launch a successful political, and be a relevant force in helping build and revitalize a city, all as an openly gay person. I did this in Kansas, far from where the revolution began.

Greenwich Village gave birth to a movement. Harvey Milk and the city of San Francisco helped raise it. AIDS threaded to kill it. Individuals all over the country coming out of their own closets saved its life. Legal rights were won in cities and states across the US. Whereas forty years ago it wasn’t legal to be served an alcoholic beverage in New York City if you were gay, it’s now legal in six states for gays to marry. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.

The Gay rights uprisings may have started on the coasts, but the importance of the struggle for acceptance is shifting to the center of the country. The last battle s will be played out in America’s heartland. If we do this right, we can finish what was started decades ago. We have an opportunity as Kansans to show the rest of the world how we can peacefully and respectably co-exist. It’s true that we are a conservative state, but more important is the fact that we are a conscious people.

The key is getting out there! We need to be out of the closet—and sadly, there are too many doors still tightly shut here on the range.   When people know who we are, it’s harder for them to hate us. When people see how normal our lives are, they’re less uncomfortable around us. Since the days of Stonewall and the uprising of a “gay community”, we’ve had tendency to cluster ourselves with those who are like us. We do this at our own detriment. When we’re working and socializing side by side with people who are different, we’re tearing down barriers on both sides. We can move beyond the rhetoric of the “culture wars” by understanding and accepting the differences within each other. We can learn to accept that some people won’t always agree with us and we won’t always agree with them. If we know each other, though, and we respect each other, we can probably all agree that we should have the freedom to live our lives the way we feel is best.

That’s the mission I’m going to be working to carry out. That’s why I’m happy to be in Wichita, KS and not New York City on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. True, I’d love to be partying in the streets right now, but when you’re able to be yourself anywhere you go, life’s always a party! What I’ve been able to do with my life, and what I will continue doing, is exactly what that night was all about. Each of us—in our own places and in our own ways—must throw our own proverbial bricks at those closet doors and pick the lock with our own hairpins to let the glory that is within each of us shine in this world unashamed.

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ICT Closets

Closets are great places to hang clothes. Closets are not, however, anywhere anyone should live any part of their life.

Remember that U.S. Senator who got busted in the boys room for tapping his foot, looking for a sexual tryst? That was Utah’s Larry Craig, a Republican. Recall that governor who got caught up in a sex scandal with a former aide and was forced to admit to the world, with his wife by his side, that he was “a gay American”? That was New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey, a Democrat. This is what happens when you are beholden to the closet. Closets don’t have geographic or political barriers. Living in them does cause palpable damage, though. It’s time we let that famous Kansas wind blow open the closet doors of ICT.

Sadly, there are many to be opened. While I do not know of any closeted folks in this state working actively against the gay community, I do know plenty of people in positions of power whose silence does nothing to move us forward.  They are elected office holders, government officials, business leaders, attorneys, police officers, high-profile community organizers, and architects of many good things that have happened in this city. They’ve built a comfortable world for themselves by denying their own truth to others.  A select few know their identities. However, the fifteen-year-old girl struggling to come to terms with the fact that she’s gay has no role model to look to. There’s no visible assurance that she can be both honest and successful, at least not in Wichita. Many will say that a person’s sexual orientation is nobody else’s business. When we live in a country where every person has the same legal rights and social respect, I’ll agree with that statement. At the moment, we do not.

Long ago, I decided it was easier for me to be honest about who I am rather than live a lie. Naively, I assumed others—especially those from my generation—would soon follow suit. The social consequences seem insurmountable for many, though. When I worked in politics, I had college interns confess to me their fears about being out. They worried that would cost them a coveted political career. I’ve had waiters overtly flirt with me by night, only to run into them the next day and be blinded by the glimmer of their wedding ring. I’ve watched rainbow sparkles practically pour out of someone’s mouth while he playfully flirts with my male colleague, and then noticed pictures of his adoring wife and daughters lining the walls behind us. Since I started writing this column, a number of people have confessed their secret to me. Those secrets are safe; I don’t believe in outing folks. The shackles of your own shame are far more powerful than any secret I or anyone else could ever hold.

Being openly gay in Wichita really isn’t that bad, though. I’ve had a successful career, plenty of friends, and somehow find myself rubbing elbows with decision makers on a regular basis. I do this all being 100% me. If I can do it, anyone can.

No one should ever have to compartmentalize themselves. The holistic life is the only one worth living. If you’re gay, you owe it to yourself and your community to be honest. Keep your clothes in the closet, where they belong. Live your life out in the open, where you belong.