Michael Benjamin Washington: ‘All Marginalized Communities Should Come Together as One Human Rights Movement’
‘Your burden is my burden. I think that would be amazing—banding together as a collective society and demanding rights for everyone involved.’
In this special series, LGBT celebrities and public figures talk to Tim Teeman about the Stonewall Riots and their legacy—see more here.
Michael Benjamin Washington
Actor, The Boys In The Band, 30 Rock; playwright, Blueprints To Freedom: An Ode To Bayard Rustin (for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s ‘Pride Plays,’ June 20-24)
When did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots, and what did you make of them?
I didn’t really hear about Stonewall when I was young. I grew up in a liberal household in Dallas, Texas, with politically involved parents. My dad was an army colonel, my mother was the highest woman of color in Bayer Pharmaceuticals for years. Her father was the first black sheriff in Louisiana history.
I was a child of the 1980s. The dark cloud of AIDS was the dominant conversation around anything to do with homosexuality. I was 18/19, at NYU Tisch School of the Arts studying acting in the late 1990s, wandering around the Village. I didn’t have a lot of historical knowledge. The Stonewall seemed like another bar.
I was educated by one of my professors, an older lesbian woman, about what happened there, and then I didn’t hear anything else about it for years. I became more politically minded in my mid-20s, and wanted to know things had begun: what were the instincts that started the LGBT liberation movement? How did women and black people become angry. This is why (the LGBT civil rights leader) Bayard Rustin means so much to me.
I read many accounts of the riots. I read David Carter’s book (Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution). I really became fascinated by Marsha P. Johnson, and hearing about her historical contribution. I heard the contradictory stories about what happened.
Whoever threw the first brick isn’t so important to me. What is important is that if it was a black transgender woman who threw that first brick it would be safer for her not to be identified, because they would likely have killed or jailed her. Who was at the vanguard? Why did history put them in the shadows, or did they choose to go to the shadows for their own safety?
Whatever, this is a moment when people decided not take it any more. It just explodes, and it leads to the organizing of people, administrations and education, and marching. My generation definitely saw the fruits of some of that. Then the AIDS epidemic wiped out so many gay uncles who were going to mentor us. LGBT people definitely got sidetracked in the most devastating way.
How far have LGBT people come since 1969?
It depends on who we are talking about. A lot of affluent white gay men would say the needle has moved forward: “I can get married and blah blah blah.” But a lot of gay black men wrestle with the issues of family and church, or other discrimination that comes with being black in American society.
The ideology has shifted, the idea of who “the tribe” is has shifted, I think a lot of rights have been won.
The number of straight allies has really been instrumental in moving us into the mainstream and being accepted.
But if you’re a gay black youth in Dallas right now, the fact is there is still the same fear of death and fear of police brutality our great-grandfathers had. A lot of that hasn’t shifted. Who you sleep with isn’t the question for a lot of black people in this country.
What would you like to see, LGBT-wise, in the next 50 years?
One of the ideas I talk about in Blueprints To Freedom is why isn’t there a human rights movement? We have had a civil rights movement for black folks, a women’s movement, and an LGBTQ movement. What if there was a human rights movement to ensure all marginalized communities were looked after by each other? Your burden is my burden. I think that would be amazing—banding together as a collective society and demanding rights for everyone involved.
What would you say to the Stonewall demonstrators if you could?
From what I understand, the Stonewall Inn was a haven for outcasts in the LGBTQ community: the effeminate boy, the butch lesbian, the drag queen—people who might continue to be marginalized if that night hadn’t happened. If they knew the seed they planted gave fruit for generations to come, I hope they threw that first brick with full force and conviction, knowing a whole bunch of tomorrows would be shifted.