40 years after Stonewall: Pride In Progress

The past 50 years in a civil rights movement through the eyes and perspective of a Madison native by Brian Powers.

The past 50 years in a civil rights movement through the eyes and perspective of a Madison native by Brian Powers.

1] Clueless
It’s June of 1969. I am newly graduated from Madison LaFollette High School. There is no visible gay rights movement in my world. Homosexuality is never mentioned beyond epithets and extreme stereotypes. I have a male friend who’s gay, but I have no clue.

I watch the Stonewall riots reported on television that summer and suspect they might have something to do with me. I eagerly read Hermann Hesse’s “Demian,” drawn to the hero’s longing for his male friend, their eventual kiss. My face feels flushed when the neighbor boy shows up without a shirt for tennis. I’m not sure what all this means; there is next to nothing in my world upon which to base an opinion.

My high school friend and I go to the Eastwood Theater, now the Barrymore. It’s 1970. Under the flashing lights of the marquee, I encounter my first openly gay people. Half a dozen demonstrators protest “The Boys in the Band.” One of them hands me a leaflet demanding positive portrayals of gay people.

I hate the movie. The characters are pathetic, doomed to a separate kind of life. I don’t know why we decide to see that film, but it doesn’t help me understand myself any better.

2] Caution

Call it fear. Call it a prudent concern for safety. I walk in the front door of a church on University Avenue. It’s 1985. I’m on my way to the Gay Center, located in the basement. I’m glad my destination is not visible from the street. Its one room is small and comfortable, filled with second-hand furniture and unsteady book shelves. I sign up for a coming-out support group and then just soak up the pleasure of sitting with men like me.

The Center’s library of paperbacks and periodicals is a treasure for the bookish guy I am. I love “The Best Little Boy in the World.” An acquaintance, knowing my chosen sport, gives me a copy of “The Front Runner,” which I read so many times it falls apart. I am disgusted to read in a magazine that researchers are quarreling over who discovered the new virus that’s killing gay men. I have no idea I will one day stand in front of the AIDS quilt and worry that I will find the name of my high school friend. I have no idea a member of my coming-out group will die in a few years, and I will stand before his partner unable to speak.

One evening, a staffer takes a call, then hangs up and phones the police to report a threat to the Center. We all walk out into the parking lot in the dark, fearful of who might be waiting.

3] Community

A gay friend and I are checking out the Gay Liberation sculpture in Orton Park. It’s 1986. I’m puzzled there is so much controversy about these life-size statues. They seem thoroughly benign: two women sitting as a couple on a bench, a male pair standing beside them. The contact between the couples is chaste — a hand on a shoulder, a palm resting on a leg. We’re enjoying ourselves, posing as if we’re part of the artwork. We’re laughing at the hat someone has left on one of the figures.

I’m nervous about my first gay pride march, Madison’s first as well. It’s 1988. Though it’s early May, I notice flakes of snow in the air. I join the crowd on the Capitol steps and shiver in the wind during the speeches. I’m afraid someone I know will see me, even though that’s the whole point of the rally. We take a noisy stroll down State Street, then up Langdon — frat boys gawking and giving us the thumbs-down. I leave immediately after the march. It’s chilly, and I’ve pushed my boundaries enough for one day.

4] Celebrants

Abundant sun greets a buoyant crowd of pride marchers gathering again on the Capitol steps. Motorcycles and floats, people with placards and balloons assemble in the street.

It’s 1998. Wisconsin Christians United rent billboards in town proclaiming “Homosexuality is Sin.” The afternoon of the march, they hire a plane to pull a banner above us bearing the same message. The women and men at the rally jeer at this display. I’m angry at the attempt to sway us away from our innate ability to love. Three words, printed large and dark, spoil an otherwise brilliant sky that afternoon; three words that would deny the truth that begins in our hearts and threads always through our blood.

I’m at ease, even defiant, among the rambunctious folks on the steps. We find strength together despite the sometimes crushing weight of others’ disapproval.

5] Cavafy

It’s 1908. Writing in Greek in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy pens some lines that anticipate a time like ours. Cavafy loves men and finds men to love, but he is secretive in public. “An obstacle was often there / to stop me when I’d begin to speak,” he writes in his poem, “Hidden Things.” “An obstacle was there that changed the pattern / of my actions and the manner of my life.”

That’s my world, the world in which I grow up.

Cavafy is optimistic about the future. In the last line of his poem, he predicts: “Later, in a more perfect society, / someone else made just like me / is certain to appear and act freely.”
I imagine Cavafy looking up from his writing desk to consider people made just like him in Madison today. He hears you talking openly in the gym and on the bus. He sees you demanding the right to marry. He watches you walking hand-in-hand on our streets.

Not a perfect society. Not totally free. But getting there.