Bruno Tonioli on Stonewall 50: ‘This Is a Time of Backlash. Don't Panic. We Will Fight Back. Be Who You Are’
The ‘Dancing With The Stars’ judge tells Tim Teeman he would tell the Stonewall protesters, ‘Thank you for getting the ball rolling. You were pioneers. Thank you for your courage.’
In this special series, LGBT celebrities and public figures talk to Tim Teeman about the Stonewall Riots and their legacy—see more here.
Choreographer, dancer, star of Dancing With The Stars
How and when did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots, and what did you make of them?
In 1969, I was an extremely young man, as you know! [Tonioli laughs] I was growing up in Italy at the time. I didn’t know about the Stonewall Riots. I was a kid. I arrived in the U.K. in the mid-'70s. By then, Gay Pride marches were already happening. That was something quite extraordinary from the provinces of mid-Italy. London was a revelation.
I must have been 20 or 21 when I heard about the Stonewall Riots themselves through friends in London. That’s where I went on my first Gay Pride march. I heard about these people at the Stonewall who had had enough of being downtrodden.
They really are pioneers who gave our community a voice that was heard for the first time. It was a pivotal moment. Nothing like that had ever happened before. The Pride marches all around the world came from that.
What is the significance of the Stonewall Riots to you now?
It gave not just me but everyone a voice, because for years people were conducting their lives almost in hiding. The Stonewall Riots gave you pride to be yourself, to say, “This is who I am, and I should be treated, respected, like any other human being.”
I was never really in the closet [More laughter]. I left Italy when I was very young and went to Paris, to dance. Most of my friends were gay. I never pretended to be anything else other than what I was. Fortunately, I never encountered prejudice. I always felt very welcome.
I had the strength to make the initial jump to leave the provinces, and had the courage and determination to live my life on my own terms. I didn’t have to do what other LGBT people have to do, which is lead a closeted life because of fear. That is thanks to Stonewall. There are organizations around today which will support you if you need that. Stonewall helped those sorts of organizations establish themselves.
How far have LGBT people come since 1969?
It’s fantastic. Gay marriage, that alone. We’ve come a very long way, but we should get to a point where your sexual orientation, gender, and race should be irrelevant. People should be treated equally and have equal rights regardless of all those things. We are getting there. We should look at how bad things were for LGBT people in history, and ask “This really happened?”
People are doing great work. There are out actors, singers, and sportsmen. 20, 30, 40 years ago that would have been unheard of.
Trump shows we are living in a time of backlash. But this will be a blip. We will fight to make sure we retain our rights. Don’t panic or be paranoid. Continue to be who you are.
Why aren’t there more major out stars in Hollywood?
I think it will change. You have to respect people’s ways. You can’t force them to be out. I don’t think that’s right. It would be great to see an openly gay star like Matt Bomer playing a superhero. It’s step by step. It will happen. The process will take time.
What would you like to see, LGBT-wise, in the next 50 years?
Everyone should be treated equally, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, and race, and LGBT people should have full equal rights. We will get there eventually.
What would you say to the Stonewall demonstrators if you could?
Thank you for getting the ball rolling. You started it. Sometimes it takes an action to start a movement that eventually allows us to be where we are today. You were pioneers. Thank you for your courage.