How Gay Pride and Black Power Shaped Me

Fifty years after the riots, the Stonewall effect remains strong.

Jeremy Helligar

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Photo: flickr

I remember the first time I ever walked into Stonewall.

It was 1991, and I was 22 years old. I had just moved to New York City. As I sipped the first of several gin and tonics at the Greenwich Village watering hole, I had no idea that my perch by the bar was located at ground zero of a protest the same age as me: a 1969 riot that launched Gay Pride as we know it.

Although memorabilia on the walls commemorated the landmark uprising, I was more interested in the handsome 33-year-old bartender flirting with me.

I’ll always connect Stonewall to the beautiful stranger who made my first drinks there. However, today it’s significant to me for reasons that have less to do with that night’s crowd than the one gathered at its precursor, The Stonewall Inn, 22 years earlier, on the night that would change the lives of the gay and lesbian community in the next decade and for decades to come.

A different era

Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era. I wonder what it would have been like to have struggled and fought alongside the brave blacks and brave gays in the ’60s, to be able to pinpoint where I was when I knew that as a black man, life would never be the same, and that as a gay man, there was no going back.

In my mind, Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in 1968 and the start of the gay revolution at Stonewall the following year forever will be indivisible. The black civil rights movement offered a template for gays and lesbians, encouraging them to fight to overcome, too.

Now here we are, if not in the Promised Land, in a land with so much more promise. Despite the homophobia that persists in the black community and the racism that tarnishes gay life, my identity as a gay black man — not merely as a gay man, not merely as a black man — and the history I claim as both inform almost everything I am.

For me, Stonewall and the black civil rights movement are as essential to how the 1960s changed the America to come as the two Kennedy assassinations, the Summer of Love, and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

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Jeremy Helligar

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj