On PBS, David Gergen—aide to every U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, and current talking head—was asked about the “leadership qualities” exhibited by previous presidents during major crises. He identified the major crisis faced by Ronald Reagan as the Challenger explosion, and he praised Reagan’s speech afterward for uniting the nation during a time of trauma—in contrast to the leadership disaster in the White House today.

My head exploded.

It’s too simplistic to speak of lessons that can be transcribed from HIV/AIDS onto COVID-19, but we can benefit from recalling what it was like to live as a community under siege, and how we rose to the challenge of caring for one another.

Gergen made no mention of AIDS. No mention of the Great Communicator’s failure even to utter the word AIDS in public until the end of his presidency, in 1987. No mention of the fact that, before he finally deigned to mention it and no doubt afterward as well, the disease was treated around the West Wing as a hilarious fag joke. Exemplary leadership. (Let’s not even get into Iran-Contra.)

So instead of viewing Donald Trump’s daily barrage of fantasies and lies about the coronavirus epidemic as unprecedented and shocking, we should perhaps see it simply as business as usual. Ignore it, cover it up, and wish it away. While thousands suffer and die. It’s familiar. (Perhaps the unique thing the Trump administration has brought to epidemiology is profiteering, as Trump and family allegedly attempted to buy rights to a German vaccine, and senators sell off stock while at the same time happy-talking the public.)

Social distancing in my apartment during this new terrifying pandemic has given me time to reflect on the early days of queer liberation. In particular, I have thought about how, when celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall in June 2019, we committed a grave error by not making the HIV/AIDS crisis a central feature of our recollections.

While it’s too simplistic to speak in terms of lessons that can be transcribed from HIV/AIDS onto COVID-19, I believe we can benefit in general from recalling what it was like to live as a community under siege, and how we rose to the challenge of caring for one another. In the following, which draws heavily on my own memory, I recall what LGBTQ life was like in the first decades following the Stonewall riots, and how that determined our response to a plague.

• • •

It’s impossible to understand the lives of queer people in the 1950s and ’60s without talking about the bars. The old species of gay bar, of which the Stonewall Inn was an example, does not exist anymore. These bars were usually owned by the mafia, even when they were managed by queers. The management would pay off the police in order to prevent raids, although sometimes raids happened anyway, and sometimes the police just came in and swaggered around, to make sure everyone felt sufficiently threatened. In some, if you weren’t actively drinking you could be ejected; in some, touching was forbidden. Strange liquor license regulations limited behavior: in New York City, bars that served “homosexuals” simply were not granted liquor licenses, so all of their operations were illegal, at least on paper; in Boston, blue laws forbade dancing after midnight. (Even in the late 1970s, I remember police invading The Saints lesbian bar and turning off the jukebox. We all gathered around and stared at them, hoping we looked intimidating. We didn’t.) Traditionally, bar patrons were required to be wearing at least three items of clothing of the “appropriate” sex or face arrest. People of color, femme gay men, all lesbians (whom the bartenders said didn’t drink or tip enough), and generally nonconforming people were harassed, discriminated against, and banned.

Gay bars were often located in dangerous neighborhoods, where queerbashers could easily attack patrons as they left, or even invade the bars and beat people up.

For all the policing the bars faced, they were often overcrowded firetraps. In a 1973 arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, thirty-two people died, unable to escape the second-floor club. And in 1977, a blaze at the Everard Baths in Manhattan killed nine patrons and decimated the building (although enough of it was still usable for the bathhouse to continue operating until 1986, when Mayor Ed Koch shut it down in an attempt to slow the AIDS epidemic). Gay bars were also filthy. The mafia-owned Stonewall had no running water. Dishes and glassware were “cleaned” by a swish through a basin of indescribable liquid. During the riot, when the police, trapped inside the bar, attempted to disperse the crowd by hosing them—in imitation of Birmingham, Alabama, Sheriff Bull Connor’s actions against civil rights protesters—all they got was a ridiculously symbolic dribble.

Gay bars were often located in dangerous or obscure neighborhoods, where queerbashers could easily attack the patrons as they came or went, or even invade the bars and beat people up. In Boston, the lesbian bar The Saints was in the financial district, which was deserted at night. The multiracial lesbian collective that ran it would try to make sure women didn’t leave alone, and if a patron had too much to drink, they would find someone to escort them home. A nice policy, but it didn’t prevent lesbian-haters from waylaying and beating up unprotected women. Men in cruising areas like Boston’s Fenway Victory Gardens risked attack, and taking home the wrong trick from a bar could be fatal. One of my friends on the staff of Boston’s weekly Gay Community News, Mel Horne, was mugged and stabbed to death as he and his boyfriend reeled home after spending an evening drinking at the gay bar Chaps.

So for safety reasons, queer bars did not have signs or a street presence. You had to know where they were. At Gay Community News, we did not publish the address of The Saints—we only gave it out to women who were enough in the know to call and ask for it. And I never figured out how anyone knew the name of the Beacon Hill gay bar Sporters—or for that matter, how they knew it existed at all, behind a façade that appeared to be boarded up and deserted.

The policing of LGBTQ people’s lives was not confined to the bars, of course. Lesbians, especially, often met at private house parties—there is a wonderful description of such a party in Audre Lorde’s biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). If you weren’t discreet enough—or even if you were, but had, say, an angry neighbor or a disgruntled ex—the parties could be raided too. According to Justin Spring’s 2010 biography Secret Historian, the gay tattoo artist and sexual adventurer Samuel Steward decorated his apartment in the 1950s with his erotic drawings and photographs of gay men. Seeing this, his tricks would often be not just appalled but terrified. Even though the artwork was in Steward’s private home, they knew he could be (and eventually was) arrested and jailed for creating and displaying such works.

I’m recounting all this to explain the rage, frustration, and ambivalence of the early queer liberationists about the bars. They were oppressive outgrowths of the closet that encouraged alcoholism and self-hatred, and where gay people made easy targets. After Stonewall, we developed alternative, queer-controlled, community spaces: coffeehouses and restaurants, concerts, dances, and arts festivals. Gay Community News itself was founded as a calendar (although it soon developed into an actual weekly newspaper), to inform people about these kinds of activities, and to keep them out of the bars. (This meant, by the way, that we immediately cut off our most likely source of income, bar ads.)

And yet, as much as we criticized the bars, we loved them. They were exciting. They were full of sexual energy and potential romance. For someone like me, marginalized and introverted, the experience of belonging to an exclusive, secret community was even more intoxicating than the beers we were encouraged to drink. I would go to Sporters with my gay male friends on Thursday nights after we had finished laying out that week’s edition of Gay Community News. I would go to The Saints on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There was always that moment, at the height of the dancing and flirting, when I felt simply ecstatic, in love with everyone there.

For years, Gay Community News was the only listing in the telephone book under “gay”; we fielded calls of every sort, from advice for the lovelorn to suicidal teenagers.

That the event that marks the beginning of the modern LGBTQ movement took place at a bar—and a particularly seedy one—is hardly surprising. Many of the queer folk involved in the riot were the most marginalized among us—drag queens, trans women, hustlers, butch dykes, street people, many of them people of color. Bar patrons generally included closeted people from many walks of life, whose livelihoods and families would be utterly wrecked if their arrests were publicized (which they often were, leading to not a few suicides). The raid on the Stonewall was not the first raid any of them had experienced. It was not the first time they’d faced arrest, beating, public humiliation. The Stonewall riot was not the first time bar patrons had resisted arrest, either, but it was the first time the resistance caught fire. The riot against the police lasted three days, and it drew in people from the neighborhood and around the city. It sparked a movement.

Timing is everything. As queer leader Urvashi Vaid has pointed out, “Stonewall has to be placed within the times and politics of the 1960s—civil rights, black power, feminist emergence, sexual liberation, rock and roll and drugs and anti-establishment culture on the one hand, and massive white nationalism, state-sponsored assassinations of black leadership, the murders of two Kennedys in one decade” on the other. The queer groups that organized after Stonewall no longer had secretive, incomprehensible names—Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis—as had those founded in the 1950s. Instead they had names like Gay Liberation Front (GLF). In Gay Community News’s Stonewall tenth anniversary issue, Lee Swislow (now former executive director of gay legal advocacy group GLAD; then activist-around-town) wrote about the impact GLF’s name had on her: “At some point I heard about Stonewall in New York and about gay people getting together to start the GLF. There were a lot of different liberation fronts then, inspired by Vietnam’s National Liberation Front. I pretty much felt I should support anyone who was radical enough to name their group after the NLF.” Not to mention, to include the word “gay” in the name. For years, Gay Community News was the only listing in the telephone book under “gay”; we fielded calls of every sort, from advice for the lovelorn to suicidal teenagers.

It’s significant that Lee writes, “At some point . . .” Like her and most other people in the world, I knew nothing about Stonewall when it was happening. The riot was barely mentioned in the media outside of New York City. And even there, coverage consisted of a few brief articles in the New York Times, buried on inside pages (the first headlined “Hostile Crowd Dispersed Near Sheridan Square”—actually, dispersing the crowd took days), and two cover stories in the Village Voice. This was not the Village Voice of later years, however; the articles’ ambivalently homophobic tone might surprise many readers. Still, the Voice writers immediately recognized the rebellion as an unprecedented expression of “gay power,” a phrase they placed in quotation marks. Because it was new. The writers and editors didn’t know what to make of it. Like “liberation front,” the phrase was modeled on the slogan of another radical movement, Black Power.

Word of the rebellion spread slowly across the world through queer dish and the occasional newsletter—not through the mainstream media. Indeed, the riot inspired, among many other things, the development of an LGBTQ media to report on our lives, which were covered nowhere else. Gay Community News and Fag Rag in Boston; Gay Sunshine in San Francisco; the Washington, D.C., Blade, and many other journals, newspapers, and publishers were founded during the first few years following the Stonewall riots to answer the need of the queer community for sources of news and reflection about itself. (This is not to say that gay and lesbian publications did not exist before Stonewall: most significantly, the monthlies One, published by the gay male Mattachine Society, and The Ladder, published by the Daughters of Bilitis, were founded in the 1950s and continued publishing through the 1970s. Some cities also had “bar rags,” which were basically like shoppers’ guides, only with personal listings and bar ads instead of store coupons and community swaps—Boston’s was called Michael’s Thing. And the Advocate, which likes to remind readers that it has now been publishing continuously for fifty years, was founded as a biweekly in 1967.)

The Stonewall riots inspired other direct actions. In 1970, Christopher Street Liberation Day was held in New York on the first anniversary of the riots, and soon the practice spread. Boston’s first gay pride march was held on Saturday, June 26, 1971. During those early years, organizers insisted that the event was a march, a demonstration—not a parade. It had a radical agenda. Boston’s History Project writes that the first march “highlight[ed] four oppressive institutions in Boston: the police, the government, hostile bars, and religious institutions.” Marchers visited symbols of each: police headquarters, the State House, Jaques bar, and a Catholic church. Only in later decades did the march welcome lesbian and gay police (on whom the police detailed to protect the march would turn their backs); floats sponsored by bars; and contingents from mainline churches (not just the rebel LGBTQ groups). These days Pride parades include not only politicians (who were banned from the early marches in Boston) but also representatives of multinational corporations and banks—something that would have astonished (and likely appalled) the original demonstrators.

I went to my first Lesbian and Gay Pride March in 1978. The previous year, poet and Fag Rag editor Charley Shively, the march’s keynote speaker, demonstrated his rejection of mainstream institutions by burning a Bible, his Harvard diploma, his University of Massachusetts teaching contract, and his insurance policies, causing a huge uproar. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. I went with my girlfriend, a high school teacher in a Boston suburb, who wore a bag over her head for fear of being recognized by students or parents. At the last minute, her roommate and I persuaded her that she did not also have to wear gloves. She’d become paranoid that she’d be identified by her hands. She was not the only person who marched anonymously.

In the fall of that year, I started working at Gay Community News as features editor and was responsible for putting together the June 1979 Stonewall tenth anniversary issue. The anniversary was significant to the queer community but it was nothing like today’s public celebration. Along with Lee Swislow’s essay, which I mentioned earlier, the issue also included an article by Cindy Rizzo (writing under the pseudonym Cindy Stein) about mainstream press coverage of the riots, such as it was; historical pieces by John D’Emilio and Joe Interrante; a couple of incoherent blurbs by people who said they had worked at the Stonewall; and an article by Karla Jay about organizing New York’s first lesbian dance, a controversial and even dangerous project, as the managers of the city’s lesbian bars tried to eliminate the competition. We also reprinted Adrienne Rich’s essay “The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Constantly Have to Expand” (I was very proud of getting permission to use it).

In its reporting on Stonewall, the Village Voice put “gay power” in quotation marks because it was new. The writers and editors didn’t know what to make of it.

The issue opened with an unsigned editorial (written by managing editor Richard Burns and me) called “A Stonewall Nation.” That term was Richard’s. I remember objecting to it, because at the time I saw Stonewall as having relevance mainly for gay men. I thought the participants had been mostly men, and I wasn’t sure what lessons the riots had for lesbian feminists like me. So my contribution to the editorial includes acknowledgment of divergent interests among the various groups in the “Stonewall nation,” especially between lesbians and gay men, but also between people of different classes and races. It concludes (from Richard) with the hope that a shared queer identity would overcome these divisions. I wasn’t so sure about that: the piece uses the word “struggle” a lot—a word I favored at the time.

And in fact, the movement split almost instantly. Most lesbians left the GLF after a year or so, appalled by their brothers’ misogyny, and founded groups like Radicalesbians and Lesbian Feminist Liberation. They also joined feminist organizations like NOW—which was not all that happy to have them. Reclaiming an abusive term hurled at them by Betty Friedan, lesbians wearing Lavender Menace T-shirts famously disrupted a NOW meeting and forced the group to recognize their presence and contribution.

The movement also split between queer liberationists like those of New York’s Gay Liberation Front and gay rights activists like those of the city’s Gay Activists Alliance. Tension between these two tendencies continues to characterize the modern movement: a rights perspective that frames the movement’s issues fairly narrowly, as those affecting gay men and lesbians directly, that works on legislative change, and that insists that queer people’s needs and aspirations are just like everyone else’s; and a liberation perspective, that frames the movement broadly, as interconnected with other movements for social justice, that works on cultural and institutional change, and that elevates the unique contributions and culture of LGBTQ people. These two tendencies are not always mutually exclusive; liberationists join political campaigns, rights advocates march in demonstrations—and everybody gets married (more on that later).

The meaning of Stonewall has changed since those early years—and will continue to. Its relevance to gay men versus lesbians doesn’t feel like an important debate these days, as we’ve learned more about lesbian participation. We dykes were there, just as we were and are in all movements for social justice. In our current moment, what I and many others find most inspiring about Stonewall is its leadership by gender rebels. Upending the gender binary, along with other sorts of binaries that define humanity in limiting ways—boy/girl; black/white; Christian/Jew; upper/lower; in/out—leads away from accommodation and toward thoroughgoing, positive social change.

• • •

For the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riot in June 2019, I received all sorts of invitations to speak—on panels, as a keynote. Suddenly I was the 2,000-year-old lesbian. But I was seventeen in 1969, still in high school, not out, not even considering it, just figuring I was a freak. Like most people, I never heard of the Stonewall riots until years later. Even ten years on, and despite editing a special issue about them, I was still not entirely certain whether they constituted the key moment in queer liberation that they have come to signify. Nevertheless, thanks to what I have experienced and written over the decades, it seems I am now an expert.

Often, having AIDS was seen as a crime. When I started to visit weekly with a sick friend, our mutual friend warned me, “If you have to call an ambulance, don’t tell them what he has or they won’t come.”

Strangely, or perhaps not, during all of the celebrations of Stonewall 50, there was little discussion of the most crucial, and traumatic, event to befall the queer community since the riots: the AIDS epidemic among gay men during the 1980s and ’90s. In hindsight, and with regret, I was guilty of this myself in my remarks at various commemorations, even though I had written an entire book (Hospital Time, 1997) about the epidemic and what it meant to me and those around me. I spoke about the LGBTQ movement as though it started in 1969 and then sort of jumped into the twenty-first century. But if we want to understand where we are today and how we got here, of course we need to talk about the epidemic. As a community, we lost a generation. As individuals, we lost partners, friends, colleagues, and comrades.

I’m not sure why the Stonewall 50 celebrations so often left out AIDS. Maybe it was all just too painful. Perhaps it was because they were meant to be joyful. Balloons, parties, parades—AIDS does not fit easily into all that. Instead of cute pictures of long-haired men and women smiling, fists raised, it evokes images of young men disfigured by lesions, gasping for breath, emaciated, vomiting, while we who loved and cared for them attended two or more funerals in one day, day after day. We demonstrated too, of course. We had die-ins.

Unlike earlier commemorations of Stonewall—the tenth, and even the twenty-fifth—Stonewall 50 grabbed the attention of the general public, well beyond the queer community. News anchors reported it; magazines ran features; my parents knew about it. Were the organizers too young to remember or, aware of their audience, reluctant to dwell on those terrible days? After all, straight people did not acquit themselves particularly well during the crisis (with, of course, exceptions, including Mathilde Krim, founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and movie star Elizabeth Taylor, who became an outspoken fundraiser). Often, having AIDS was seen as a crime: people with HIV/AIDS were accused of spreading their disease to “innocent” citizens and arrested—by police wearing bright yellow protective gloves. Even some health care personnel would not touch people with AIDS—originally called GRID, “gay-realted immune deficiency”—if they treated them at all. When I started to visit weekly with a sick friend, Gay Community News staffer and AIDS Action Committee founder Bob Andrews, our mutual friend Roberta Stone (now my wife) warned me, “If you have to call an ambulance, don’t tell them what he has or they won’t come.” Some sufferers had to sue dentists and doctors in order to receive care. People with AIDS were evicted from apartments, fired from jobs, ejected from their families, expelled from schools, and ostracized by their communities. Friends and lovers were excluded from family funerals. Never mind, we created our own. At Bob’s, his tricks extolled him at an open mic.

A cliché about the AIDS epidemic is that it finally brought gay men and lesbians back together after they parted ways after Stonewall, as lesbians cared for their dying gay brothers. I suppose this is true to some extent, but at least in Boston—where Gay Community News, equally women and men (at least aspirationally) shaped much of the organizing—LGBTQ folks had been working together and caring for each other for years. We already knew how to do it. And many of us lesbians had considerable expertise in community-led health initiatives from years of being involved in the women’s health movement. We had learned that we could not always trust our doctors and that we had to fight for decent care. When gay men awoke to the horror that the medical system didn’t care about them, they drew on our expertise in making trouble, and creating alternative avenues to care.

Many lesbians had expertise in community-led health initiatives from being involved in the women’s health movement. We knew we had to fight for decent care. When gay men awoke to the horror that the medical system didn’t care about them, they turned to us.

Perhaps more significantly, though, is the way the AIDS crisis vindicated and reinforced the insights of the liberationist wing of the movement. AIDS simply could not be contained within a narrow “gay” focus. Because AIDS was defined early as a disease of homosexuals, Haitians, and junkies, nobody in the political, medical, or social service establishments felt obligated to do anything about it. We had no choice but to do all of it ourselves—the caregiving, the treatment, the research, the public education. Our organizing, to be effective, had to take on the epidemic from all sides: the racist, homophobic way it was framed; the challenge it posed to the health care system; the indifference of politicians; the scientists who saw people with AIDS as juicy experimental subjects; the religious leaders who saw the disease as divine retribution for sin, a blessing in disguise.

At the same time, as the disease disastrously spread to additional populations, treatments eventually emerged that made the disease chronic and survivable—at least for those who could gain access to and afford them. And it occurs to me that at that point the traumatized LGBTQ movement went into a kind of retreat, focusing more and more narrowly on the single goal of same-sex marriage, which it fought for in statehouses and courts. Many liberationists—myself included—criticized this focus as an accommodationist attempt to join an oppressive institution that had only harmed us. What had happened to the feminist critique of marriage as a foundation of patriarchy? What had the family ever done for queer people except condemn and reject us? Yet, as the movement for same-sex marriage had victories in the courts and legislatures, and finally became the law of the land, things began to look a little different.

For one thing, even some of the most outspoken queer critics of same-sex marriage got married. Myself included. I still want to reject the regulation by the state of our intimate relationships—but marriage afforded protections that we’d never dreamed of. We could keep our kids and be recognized as their parents. We could be covered by our spouse’s health insurance. We could inherit a deceased partner’s pension and Social Security. We could visit our loved ones in the hospital and demand information from their doctors: I never used the word “wife” so much as when Roberta was hospitalized with a stroke. Some people were welcomed back into their families, sinners no longer. Even marriage turns out to be intersectional, with implications for family, health care, labor, and many other aspects of daily life.

• • •

So here we are, “socially isolated” in our homes, if we are lucky enough to have homes and health, washing our hands and our groceries. Worrying. My own parents are in their nineties, frail and confused—I hope they are still alive when this article appears and not dying for the lack of services or ventilators. Meanwhile, our country’s leaders are running around like chickens without heads, while squawking daily that everything is fine, great. Perfect! Along with a distressingly substantial proportion of our fellow Americans, they trample and reject the humanity of ever-expanding categories of people—including immigrants, people of color, transfolk, disabled people, Muslims, Jews, women.

More than ever, the lessons of queer liberation over the past fifty years are crucial. Stonewall demonstrates the power—the necessity—of creative rebellion against oppressive structures and of working together for justice and peace. Without that, we and our planet won’t survive. As queer poet W.H. Auden wrote, on the eve of another disaster, in “September 1, 1939”:

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.