We were celebrating my brother’s bar mitzvah when the Stonewall riots happened. It was on the other side of the country. The Greenwich Village confrontation between police and the gay and lesbian community had nothing to do with us. I was only 11. What did I know from news outside of Nancy Drew books and lip gloss?
It would take five more years before I knew what a homosexual was — and more than 20 before I heard of Stonewall. Both revelations ended up touching my life in ways I could never imagine.
At the time of his bar mitzvah, I don’t think that even my brother knew he was gay.
By the time he hit his teenage years, he knew. My parents knew. Me, I knew nothing.
Just like most suburban families of the day, we did not say the word “homosexual” out loud — and certainly not outside of the house. I still thought being in the closet meant sitting on the floor of my walk-in, spending 15 minutes deciding what outfit to wear.
In my house, there were screaming, slammed doors, punishments, and secrets. There were lots and lots of secrets. When I was 16, I finally found out about the secrets.
My brother planned a special road trip, just the two of us, to tell me his secret. I was a very sheltered teen, wrapped up in band practice, boys, and learning to drive. I didn’t really know what it meant when he told me.
I was just happy to spend time with my big brother. It felt great to be mature enough to be trusted with “the secret.”
High school came and went. College came and went. It wasn’t until then that I saw my brother struggle to find his place in the world.
I was truly oblivious to the ostracism and hate my brother regularly encountered to. If I knew any gay people other than my brother, I didn’t know that I knew them. They stayed in their own circles where they felt more accepted.
It wasn’t until my brother took me to a summer concert of “The Flirtations,” a gay a capella group, that I truly got an education.
After the concert, I could see the waves of heat floating in the Texas summer air as we walked back to where the old Chevy Nova was parked. My sweat poured like tears after my sad realization of what people like my brother had to endure.
Before performing, members of the group spoke to the audience. One said that two men in the group had been raped. Another said three of them had been kicked out of the house before the age of 16. A third told how he’d been beaten and left for dead because he was gay.
I’d never heard such stories before. I’d never even thought about it. It made me wonder what my brother had lived through. What experiences had he suffered just for being born?
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was in my 20s and married with two kids before I had this revelation. I first learned about Stonewall and its significance around the 25th anniversary of the June 29, 1969, milestone.
Since then, I’ve been to the site and educated myself on exactly what happened.
In 1980, I met Seymour Pine, a man who was my soon-to-be husband’s uncle. Seymour was a New York City cop and the deputy inspector who led the raid on Stonewall the night of my brother’s bar mitzvah.
We only saw him at large family gatherings where the elders usually hung out among themselves. I had only met Uncle Seymour a few times over the years and had barely ever spoken to him when we invited him to our daughter’s bat mitzvah.
He never RSVP’d, but he showed up anyway with an uninvited date. I tried to be gracious, but with a preconceived attitude toward him in the first place, it wasn’t easy. It would be 10 more years before I actually sat down with Seymour to have a conversation. I told him about my brother, and I asked him about his role all those years ago.
At 90 years old, he told me if he had it to do again, he would.
I was shocked and angry. He said that it was his job and that he was just following orders.
As a Jew, I asked him if he thought it was right that the Nazis who ran the concentration camps were in the right because they were just following orders.
He didn’t respond. He did admit that the cops were prejudiced back then. He said he really didn’t know much about the LBGTQ community. Police were told the bar was run by the Mafia, he said, and they were ordered to stop the “illegal” activity.
But he also said that he has no ill will toward gays and lesbians. He said if what he’d done helped them in the long run to achieve their civil rights, then he was happy about that. Truth be told, from what I’ve read, Uncle Seymour was actually the one who kept his officers from drawing weapons the night of the raid.
Perhaps we owe him a thank you?
It’s been almost nine years since Uncle Seymour passed away. In his lifetime, he saw a great change in attitude toward how we treat one another.
Today, my brother lives openly with a wonderful life partner who was one of so many who were kicked out of the house and left on his own as a teenager. My children see his partner as their uncle.
Someday, I hope to have grandchildren. Maybe I’ll live to see them have their bar or bat mitzvahs. If I do, I plan to tell them all about their great-uncle and their great-great-uncle because there are twists and turns in every story. Even in Nancy Drew’s mysteries, we eventually find the truth.
Leslie is a 2015 Society of Newspaper Columnists award winner. She’s an international syndicated columnist with Senior Wire News Service and a frequent contributor to WHYY News, and has written for The Philadelphia Inquirer, ZestNow, and Boomercafe, and The Huffington Post. lesliegoesboom.com.