None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for 1969.
Fifty years ago today, in the wee hours of the morning, New York City Police carried out yet one more raid on the Stonewall Inn. It was a bar frequented by drag queens, gay men, lesbians, transgender women, male prostitutes, and street kids. There was nothing unusual about the raid. The police regularly raided queer-friendly bars. What was different this time was that the queers fought back.
Raymond Castro fought back. “When the police raided the place, I was outside,” Castro later recalled. “Then I remembered a friend inside who did not have a false ID and he was going to get in trouble, so I went inside to give him one… Once I got inside, the police wouldn’t let us out. It got really hot. I remember throwing punches and resisting arrest. The police handcuffed me and threw me in the paddy wagon. But I sprung back up, like a leap frog, and when I did that, I knocked the police down.”
According to historian David Carter, Castro was the only known gay man arrested that night.
The riots that began in those early morning hours were a turning point in the gay rights movement. A year later, in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, queer people took to the streets to commemorate the event. It was the beginning of Pride.
The Stonewall Riots began June 28, 1969, the morning after my tenth birthday. It would be years before I heard about Stonewall and decades before my personal rebellion. But Stonewall is my story, the story of my tribe. And even though I know how important trans women and others were in what happened, I honor Raymond Castro, simply because he was, like me, gay, and he fought back.
Ray’s story is a story that belongs to all of us who are LGBTQIA+. We’ve all felt the oppression of being queer in straight society. We’ve all sought out places where we could just be ourselves. And at some point we’ve all, with some combination of rage and self-respect, fought back. This isn’t just history. This is who we are. We share this story of exclusion, shame, camaraderie, rebellion, and pride.
You could not show any signs of emotional expression.
Being queer isn’t about sex. Not at first. It’s something our mothers may notice in us as babies: this girl is different than her sisters, this boy is different than his brothers. From the start, our inner world is queer, and we express it in queer ways. Somewhere along the way, we notice others are uncomfortable with the way we express ourselves. And we begin to edit ourselves, pretend that we’re more like everybody else.
I grew up in Indiana. Basketball was the state religion. My three older brothers loved basketball. I hated it. There was a basketball hoop in the barnyard, and they thought it was the greatest thing when they could finagle Dad into playing with them. I hid in the bushes where no one could find me. In fifth grade, almost every boy in my class played intramural basketball. I determined to make myself play. I was going to master this game or die trying. I died! That’s not just a joke. Inside, I died. I was different. I learned to hide.
That’s something a lot of us queer people learn. In various ways, at various times and places, just to survive, we hide. We can’t afford to show all of who we are.
That’s the way Raymond Castro remembers the 60s. There were a few places like Stonewall where he could be himself. “In most other places,” he said, “you could not show any signs of emotional expression. If you were walking along the street and you put your arm around somebody else the police would harass you. They would pull you over, see if you had drugs. And if a gay guy was beaten by a straight guy nothing happened, you couldn’t even press charges.”
“In my case,” he went on, “I didn’t look feminine, and I was never picked on. But you had to be in the closet. If they found out you were gay you could get fired from your job. I didn’t have any of those problems – I was one of the lucky ones.”
“I did live a double life,” he recalled. “I even got married in 1962 when I was 20. We never had children and there was no love there… It made it easier to have pictures of her and to present a double life to people whom I was dealing with.”
A straight cisgender person might think this hiding is all a thing of the past. It isn’t. We queer people often measure how much of ourselves we can safely reveal to whom. In Indiana, you can still get fired for being gay. It happened just this week to a teacher in a Catholic school.
It eats you up inside not being comfortable with yourself.
The worst part of being queer, though, is not what other people do to us. It’s what we do to ourselves.
No, it’s more subtle than that. It’s what happens inside us because of what happens in our relationships. We don’t shame ourselves on purpose. But we form an image of ourselves from the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways we are deprived of empathy and understanding.
The most accurate word for this is trauma. Often enough, it is not the trauma of an event that wounds us deeply. It may not be physical or sexual abuse, though we queers are physically and sexually abused more often than others. It’s something more subtle. It’s what psychologists call relational trauma.
Like other mammals, we humans depend on others, particularly one special other, to be a mirror to us, to show us who we are, to help us regulate our self-expression, and support us in our self-soothing. That reliance on an empathic bond with someone begins at birth. When a baby cries, its mother (or primary caregiver) will make a sorrowful face. Her voice will take on the same plaintive quality as her baby’s. She mirrors the pain her baby feels. But she doesn’t cry out the same way the baby does. She reflects her baby’s pain back to him in a moderated way. She’s helping him learn to regulate his emotions. And in the right moment, she’ll begin to say in a soothing tone, “It’s gonna be alright. It’s gonna be okay.” She’s teaching her baby to comfort himself. That empathic bond between mother and child is the matrix in which important parts of the baby’s right brain form.
If that empathic bond is weak or nonexistent, the baby experiences trauma. The baby experiences shame. And any trauma later in life will be more severe because parts of that baby’s right brain did not form in a healthy way.
We never completely outgrow this need for an empathic bond. Throughout life, we regulate our emotions and find comfort partly in relationships with others, and particularly with one special other. This is one of the reasons we usually pair off as lovers. Without a good-enough empathic bond, we’re more vulnerable emotionally. Our sense of self may be less stable.
Dr. Alberto Varona, my spiritual mentor and a psychotherapist, has brilliantly applied these insights from interpersonal neurobiology to us as queers. Our parents may not have known quite how to tune into us as infants. They were expecting a typical boy, a typical girl. They missed some of the subtle cues we were sending. To the extent our affects and emotions weren’t mirrored back to us, the empathic bond may have been weaker than we needed for healthy brain development. As school-aged children, our siblings and peers may have teased us mercilessly. My brothers called me Granny Grunch, a reference to my feminine manner and picky eating habits. That nickname hurt. It hurt a lot. It’s still a name that triggers a feeling of shame in me. Even as adults, we feel the expectations of others, overt or covert, that we should conform to heterosexual, cisgender ways of being. We simply don’t receive the same level of empathy and understanding that our straight cisgender counterparts receive.
Raymond Castro recalled how in the ’60s, “society expected you to, you know, grow up, get married, have kids, which is what a lot of people did to satisfy their parents. I never believed in that,” he said. “It eats you up inside. It eats you up inside not being comfortable with yourself.” And yet, Ray got married to a woman. She was from South America and soon moved back. Still, he did the very thing he didn’t believe in. I get that. I got married too. It eats you up inside. Not being comfortable with yourself.
What all this means for us queers is that almost all of us suffer from a certain amount of post-traumatic stress. We may not feel very safe in the world. We may overcompensate for shame and self-doubt by trying to be, well, fabulous! We may feel that it is wrong somehow to act on our own behalf or advocate for ourselves. Then, too, we may react to triggers by getting agitated, irritable, or hyper-vigilant – or perhaps we isolate or become self-destructive. We may suffer from insomnia, depression, or anxiety. And, if we have endured a further trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, it may affect us more deeply because of our underlying relational trauma. All these are manifestations of post-traumatic stress.
If the most technically accurate word for all this is trauma, the most resonant word (for me, at least) is shame. It’s as if our true self has gotten locked in a small, airtight closet, the walls are closing in, we’re running out of oxygen. Our survival instinct kicks in, and from deep down there erupts a desperate drive to break out. It’s rage. That’s the thing that drives us crazy. Rage. Often it’s deeply buried. We may deny we have it. But at some inopportune moment, it sneaks out.
The truth is, even that rage might not be enough to get us out of our closet were it not for something else.
We went to the Stonewall because it was one of the few places where you could be yourself.
If we’re lucky, we discover a friend or two who sees us and likes us for who we are, a place or two where we can be ourselves. For Raymond Castro and other queers of Greenwich Village in the ’60s, that place was the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. It was a dive really. It was run by the mob. It didn’t have a liquor license, so the bottles of watered-down booze were kept in metal tubs and sold at outrageous prices. Still, it was a place where you didn’t have to edit yourself. “You could dance,” Castro recalled, “you could hold hands with someone you liked… We went to the Stonewall because it was one of the few places where you could be yourself.”
What about you? Have you learned it’s okay to be you? Has anyone seen you for who you are and liked what they saw?
For me, it was Stephen. Most of my life I’d kept some distance from gay guys because I was trying to live as a straight, married man. But Stephen broke through my barriers. We spent time together almost daily over a period of months. He got to know me well. And at every step of the way, I felt accepted, welcomed, loved. It was intoxicating. I was falling in love.
I was also gaining some self-respect. That’s what it takes. Rage and self-respect. That’s what set the stage for the Stonewall riot. That’s what still sets the stage for the individual, intimate riot we call coming out.
I remember throwing punches and resisting arrest… I sprung back up, like a leap frog, and when I did that I knocked the police down.
At some point, rage breaks through the barriers. We can’t take it anymore. We have to be ourselves. We have to breathe. And no amount of social or religious or moral disapproval can keep us hiding in shame.
For Raymond Castro, that moment came in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. Reading his accounts, one gets the feeling even he didn’t know quite why he reacted as he did.
The police have him trapped inside the Stonewall with a crowd of other queers. It is hot, getting more and more stuffy. The drag queens and trans women start pushing back against the police. Raymond starts throwing punches. Next thing he knows, his hands are cuffed behind him. He is being pushed into a paddy wagon. He finds a foothold. He jumps back. He knocks over a couple of policemen. Others in the paddy wagon see their opportunity and run.
For me it happens in a car. I’m sitting beside Stephen, and we’re having an intimate conversation. It’s a tender moment. I lean toward Stephen and for the first time in my life kiss a man on the lips. A moist, romantic kiss with open lips and the touch of tongues. Outwardly it is a gentle moment. Inwardly I am raging, shaking my fist in the face of God, who represents for me all the ways religion, family, and society had tried to deny me the right to live, to breathe, to love the only way I know how to love. Damn it all, I have to live! I have to love someone! Damn me to hell if you must, but I have to be!
I look back on that moment, and I can’t help but think God, the God who is really there, was laughing and shouting and dancing. Finally! Finally you are going to be who I made you to be! Yes!
Live! Breathe! Love! Be!
I would do it all over again.
Today is the 50th anniversary of that moment when Raymond Castro and a few other queer people had enough. They weren’t going to take it anymore. Rage and self-respect broke out in rebellion. It was, many say, the beginning of the modern Gay Rights Movement.
I honor Raymond Castro. I honor the drag queens and trans women and the rest who broke through the barriers of fear and incomprehension and hatred that two thousand years of Christian society had imposed on us. You are our heroes. You make us Proud!
I confess, though, I’m ambivalent about Pride. No doubt part of my ambivalence is that I’m sensitive. I tune into people, and being in a crowd is like trying to watch a hundred TV channels at the same time. I’d rather sit down with someone one-on-one.
But there’s more. As others have said, you won’t understand queer pride until you understand queer shame. Pride celebrates that moment of coming out. It is a rebellion that says, I’m not going to take it anymore. And for that reason, it is sometimes an over-the-top, in-your-face, raging riot against everything that has oppressed us. There’s a place for that. We need to get our rage up and out.
But Pride doesn’t heal our shame. It doesn’t heal our trauma. We can’t pretend that having a party once a year really fixes anything. It’s a step. It’s not a solution.
Healing requires psychological and spiritual work. It requires facing vulnerabilities in ourselves and others. Healing requires owning our pain, forgiving the haters, forgiving our peers and siblings, forgiving our parents, and – most difficult of all – forgiving ourselves. The cure for queer shame is not Pride. It is humility, being at ease with our idiosyncratic mix of strengths and weaknesses.
So, I’m waiting for a different kind of celebration, one where we no longer need to fight anyone or flaunt anything. I’m waiting for a celebration where we are comfortable simply being ourselves, whoever we are.
In the meantime, though, we’ve got work to do. There are still queers getting crushed in closets of trauma and shame. So for their sake – for their sake! – we gotta keep this party going on!
One of the best books for gay men on shame and its effects on us is Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World, rev. ed., Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012. He wrote this, he says, the same way he would speak face-to-face with a fellow gay man. I found it insightful and easy to understand. Highly recommended.
For blog posts, videos and more from Dr. Alberto Varona, see HeartSpeaksToHeart.com.
The findings of relational neurobiology are summarized in Allan Schore, The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy, Norton, 2012. Be forewarned, this is a densely-written, academic text intended for therapists.
Raymond Castro quotes are from the following sources:
- Boyle, Christian, “For New Yorker Raymond Castro, Gay Pride parade symbolizes more than just fun and antics,” New York Daily News, 26 Jun 2010.
- Lilley, Sandra Lilley, “Arrested at Stonewall, gay man sees progress,” NBCNews.com, 29 Jun 2009.
- Stonewall Uprising: The Year that Changed America, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, PBS.
© 2019 David Gormong.