The curious path of gay pride: The ’69 Stonewall riots, Mary Tyler Moore & my family’s incredible strength

     New York's Stonewall Inn is credited with being the birthplace of the gay rights movement in the United States. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)

    New York's Stonewall Inn is credited with being the birthplace of the gay rights movement in the United States. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)

    My Uncle Seymour was the deputy inspector of the New York City Police Department who led the raid on the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. I could say he was a bad man — the man who led the famous raid on the gay community. I could say he was a good man — a man who did his job protecting the public by following the orders of his superiors. But it’s not so black and white. Uncle Seymour, like most of us, was somewhere in the middle.

    At the time, the NYPD’s excuse for raiding Stonewall was that it was run by the Mafia. Such raids had become routine regardless of who ran the establishment. But two things were different about this raid, on this day, led by this man. The first was that, for the first time, the gay patrons rebelled. The second was that Uncle Seymour personally prevented any police weapons from being discharged, thus preventing an escalation of violence and probable deaths.

    Uncle Seymour was a WWII veteran, a husband, and a father. He was also a Jew. Although he passed away almost four years ago, I’m sure if I’d asked him, he would have told me that there was no excuse for Hitler’s Nazis to exterminate Jews just because they were following orders.  Amazingly, while he was still living, he admitted that if he had to do it over again, he still would have led that raid on Stonewall. It was his job. He was following the orders of his superiors. He did admit to the prejudices of the police department at the time, but he was grateful that the incident shed light on the abuse of the gay community, opening the doors for future reform.

    My big brother

    Two years later, in 1971, I was 11 years old. My brother was 13. For a year or two, he had been  allowed to babysit me at home when Mom and Dad went out. We actually relished a Saturday night at home without our parents.

    They’d be all dressed up, Dad in a suit and tie, Mom in some glamorous sequined number. She’d spend half the day at the beauty parlor getting her hair done up in a beehive. I’d go with her, playing with my case of Barbies while she gossiped and got beautified. They’d spray heavy lacquer all over the ‘do before she left the salon. She would spray on more when she got home, just for good measure. Then she would apply emerald-green eye shadow from lid to brow, glue on fake lashes, and roll on bright-red lipstick before she walked out the door, hand in hand with Dad, after a good-night kiss to each of us and a pat on the head.

    And then the fun could begin. We’d run to the kitchen and pre-heat the oven. Then to our separate bedrooms to put on our PJs. Back to the kitchen to put two TV dinners in. Then to the den to set up our TV tables and tune in to the Saturday night line-up of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Julia,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” It was our little slice of heaven.

    We had always been close. He was my big brother and always my knight in shining armor. My parents told me that, when I was 2 and he was 4, he pushed a little boy who tried to steal my tricycle from me. From then until now he was my hero.

    A retreat and a road trip

    But over time that all changed. That 13-year-old brother of mine, who played games and watched TV with me, would soon be gone. In his place remained a sullen and non-communicative teenage boy who made a beeline for his bedroom after school every day.  He only came out at dinner time. Then he went right back until we had to leave for school the next morning.

    To my recollection, this went on for close to five years. For two of those years, we were in high school together. At school I observed a gregarious boy, drum major of the band, lead in the school play, and science project award winner. At home I observed an aloof space alien who never left his habitat or took off his headphones.

    Then one day — we were 16 and 18 — the foreigner looked both ways before crossing the hallway to my side of the house. He acknowledged that we hadn’t spent much time together lately, and he asked me if I wanted to go on a road trip with him. He had apparently planned this out already and had clearance from Mom and Dad.

    What fun! A road trip.

    We had a pleasant enough drive and checked in to a local hotel. His mood immediately shifted.  He was nervous. He sat down on his bed and looked at me with a sternness I’d never seen in him before. He cleared his throat. I sat on my bed staring deep into his eyes afraid to say anything.  Something important was about to happen, but I couldn’t tell what.

    Then he said the two words that he had pent up inside of himself: “I’m gay.”

    I thought about this for all of three seconds. “OK,” I said. And as far as I can recall during this life-changing moment, that was that.

    I had never really thought about gays or about homosexuality at all. I didn’t know any other homosexuals. At least I didn’t know that I knew any others. And I had never been taught anything about them. All I knew was that this was my brother and I loved him and this was important to him. It didn’t make any difference to me.

    Don’t go giving me any credit here. I was by no means a forward thinker. I wasn’t progressive. I was a flat-chested, pre-period, late bloomer who had no knowledge or opinion one way or another on the topic of sexuality. However, I did have knowledge of my brother, and I had been missing him.

    After his revelation, we had a fun-filled, long weekend together — and a renewed sibling relationship.

    Hiding in plain sight

    He went off to college that fall. Over the years he filled in bits and pieces for me. It was painful for him, those sullen coming-of-age years. It’s hard for all of us, but for him, a boy who felt different — a boy who was different — they were even harder. People didn’t come out of the closet then. They hid in it. They hid in back alleys and seedy bars. There were no Internet dating sites. There were no safe places to meet other people like himself. There was no PFLAG. But there were stories of shrinks, first sexual encounters, embarrassments, secrets, rejection, and shame.

    I remember a time when he took me to hear a wonderful acapella group called The Flirts. What they did at the beginning of their concert forever emblazoned them in my memory. They told short one- and two-sentence stories about their lives without identifying which of them had experienced the story. One of them was kicked out of the house at the age of 12. One of them was beaten up repeatedly in school. One of them was gang raped. How many horrible stories did my brother experience?

    It took time, but to my parents’ credit, they accepted him and loved him for who he was. They wanted to have a relationship with their son — a boy who grew to become one of the most compassionate men I’ve ever known — their son, who takes after them.

    Mom, Dad, my brother, and I all grew up together, learning how to navigate the road of bigotry, ignorance and hatred. By the ’90s, we were living independent lives that never strayed too far from family. I became a wife and a mother. My brother became the favorite uncle. Life was good until one chilly October day.

    Losing my hero again

    I had just hung up from a phone call with my brother, and I felt like the armadillo on the side of the road, my guts splayed out, all body heat disappearing into the autumn air. I turned to my husband with a pinched-up face full of big, fat tears. Gasping for breath like a 3-year-old in the midst of a tantrum, I tried to explain myself. He was HIV positive. It was a death sentence.

    All I could think of was that I was going to lose my brother again, but this time there would be no way to get him back. No one survived AIDS. Back then, I immediately made that leap. Everyone did. It meant you were dying. My brother left work on disability. He sold his life insurance. He started taking meds — a whole lot of meds with a whole lot of side effects. The next thing I  knew, he contracted Hepatitis C and started on a yearlong course of chemotherapy.

    Over time, new drugs were developed. He got his hands on the best of the best. And to my great fortune, my brother still lives today. He graces us with his warmth and generosity. He teaches us by example how to be true to who he is in spite of the bigotry, the hate, and the ignorance of the world.

    The pride behind the parade

    My brother lives in San Francisco now. He’s lived there for over 20 years. But when I visit him, I see he keeps something special on his bookshelf: a collection of old tapes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It seems our pre-pubescent days were special to him too.

    Finally, finally, he has met a man who makes him happy. My family got to meet him this past Thanksgiving. We spent a lovely holiday together. We ate, we told stories, we exchanged gifts, and we laughed.

    He lives only a few blocks away from where the San Francisco Pride parade goes — and has gone, every year since June 28, 1970, the first anniversary of the Stonewall riot. In 20 years, he’s never once attended the parade. He complains about it causing too much traffic, too much trash, and two much noise.  

    My own two girls are grown now. They each have special partners in their lives. I hope to hear wedding bells soon — for my girls and for my brother — because closets should be for clothes and shame and embarrassment, for those who have done something wrong.

    My brother doesn’t need to attend a pride parade if he doesn’t want to, because he has enough pride. He has the freedom to choose how to show it. And Uncle Seymour, in his own way, helped him find it.

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