In this special series, LGBT celebrities and public figures talk to Tim Teeman about the Stonewall Riots and their legacy—see more here.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a New York Times contributing opinion writer, author of 15 books, trustee of PEN America, the Anna Quindlen writer in residence at Barnard College of Columbia University, and cast member of I Am Cait.
When/how did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots, and what did you make of it?
I was a child in June 1969 at, ironically enough, an all-boys’ camp in New England. I spent that summer in the manner typical of young revolutionaries: making lanyards out of gimp, and fearing that I would not survive my own future.
It was years before I understood the significance of Stonewall. But then, I guess this might be true for a lot of people, including those of us in the movement.
What is the riots’ significance for you?
Stonewall is more myth than fact; there are so many contradictory stories of what happened and who was there. But we seem to agree that it was street queens and trans people who were the spearhead that night.
Which is to say, it was not well-behaved and demure people who got the ball rolling, probably because we were the people who felt like we had nothing left to lose.
Since then, trans people have been elbowed out of the way and more mainstream folks have taken center stage. Which I understand, but please: we need to remember who started this fight, and who is still most at risk.
How far have LGBT people come since 1969?
Well, of course we’ve come a long way—but I think of that thing historian Barbara Fields said about the Civil War: “If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.”
So, we can get married now, and there are better drugs for treating AIDS, and there are some legal protections that didn’t exist in 1969. But there are still some people who live in penthouses, and some people—especially trans people—who live on the street. All of which is to say that Stonewall is still going on, and yes, this battle can “still be lost.”
What would you like to see, LGBT-wise, in the next 50 years?
I would like to see every last thing Donald Trump and Mike Pence have done erased, undone, and blotted out forever.
I would like to see everyone able to live the lives they love without fear.
I would like trans people treated like the brave, decent, precious souls that they are.
I would like young queer people to know that the adults around them will value them, love them, and will protect them. So that they can spend the summer of 2069 making lanyards out of gimp at camp, and know that they are “safe.”