January 23, 2013

Obama Endorses Stonewall


At first I wasn’t sure I had heard right. “…Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.”
Does Obama, I wondered, mean that Stonewall? Or is there some battle by that name I’ve never learned about?
It soon became clear, that yes, he was referring to the Stonewall Riots of 1969. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like everyone else under the law.”
This is significant, I thought. A Reuters report this morning notes that “Obama’s inclusion of gay rights—still opposed by many conservatives—among his list of priorities might have been unthinkably divisive as recently as his first inauguration in 2009.” It would at least have been unthinkably risky for a traditional, centrist politician with an instinctive inclination towards compromise.
But much has changed. Public opinion polls show rising support for gay rights including the right to marry; over the last few years those in support for the latter have become significantly more numerous than opponents. A USA TODAY poll shows 73% of 18 to 29 year olds supporting gay marriage.
Still, the specific reference to Stonewall—to several days of violent anti-police rioting in Greenwich Village—was risky. Wasn’t he endorsing rock-throwing? Hundreds fought back in the wee hours of the morning June 28, 1969, when cops busted into a Mafia-owned gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, announcing “Police! We’re taking the place!” They miscalculated as they tried to force patrons (divided into cross-dressers, whom the police wanted to search and, if found to be male, arrest, other gay men, and lesbians) into separate rooms where they were searched and asked for identification. Many refused to produce IDs or submit to searches; a large crowd amassed, police vehicles were attacked, cops were hit with coins and rocks, garbage cans set ablaze.
This was no Seneca Falls (a peaceful two-day women’s rights convention in New York in 1848) or Selma, Alabama (where non-violent actions in 1965 contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act). It was violent resistance. That Obama should feel a need to validate it in such a high profile forum is significant.
Where’s the ringing affirmation of the people of Bahrain to topple their oppressive regime (that sponsors the U.S. Fifth Fleet), as the Tunisians, Egyptians and Yemenis toppled theirs? And how is Obama standing up to the Iraqi regime’s assault on gay rights once grudgingly conceded by the secularist Baathist regime? Where is the support for the right of marginalized, frightened, oppressed people thousands of miles from Greenwich Village to attack the police having been attacked by them?
Obama selects his causes carefully, politically. It’s good he has, in his own understated way, paid tribute to the Stonewall uprising. I’m sure many thousands are Google-searching that term since the speech, maybe some feeling inspired by what they learn. But as we revisit the Stonewall experience, should we not also recall how the Obama administration arms the police in countries like Saudi Arabia where gays are flogged, lashed or executed? And should we not note that the campaign for gay rights, however important, is no substitute for a campaign to topple U.S. imperialism, the endless source of war?
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

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