Paul Rudnick: ‘We Should Never Deny the Existence, the Rage and the Triumph of Gay Lives Before Stonewall’
Paul Rudnick powerfully encapsulates Stonewall in the sweep of LGBTQ history before and after it—and what comes next. ‘I envision the infinite variety of LGBTQ lives,’ he says.
Novelist, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter
How and when did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots, and what did you make of them?
When I first moved to the West Village, years ago, the Stonewall Inn had become a bagel cafe, so I’ve watched as the premises regained status as a bar, a landmark, and a gathering place for LGBTQ people to celebrate events like the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, and to protest horrific acts of hate.
I became aware of the Stonewall Riots gradually, from many published accounts and perspectives. I’d also see the legendary drag queen and activist Marsha P. Johnson all over the neighborhood; Marsha had been central to the Stonewall protest and, when asked about her middle initial, would tell people it stood for “Pay it no mind.”
Marsha was a true hero, and later an ACT-UP stalwart. We shot a scene for the movie of my play Jeffrey in the park opposite Stonewall, and I loved being able to honor the location. While working on another movie I met a Teamster who’d once been an undercover police officer infiltrating the bar on the night the riots began, and he was deeply guilty and regretful over whatever role he’d played.
Christopher Street is no longer the gay Mecca it once was, but Stonewall has become an international symbol of pride and defiance.
What significance do the Riots hold for you?
For me, Stonewall has always been a defining event in LGBTQ history, and in my own sense of self-worth. Stonewall was a political action by LGBTQ people who’d been hated, marginalized and incarcerated.
It wasn’t a genteel, organized and well-funded event but a dam breaking: an act of anger and in a certain sense, joy. It was about LGBTQ people standing up for themselves and even forming raucous kicklines—it was about fighting back. And if there’s such a thing as a gay sensibility and a queer nation, Stonewall embodies both.
How far have LGBTQ people come since 1969?
LGBTQ people have made major political strides since 1969, as the result of endless hard work and sacrifice. But we should never deny the existence, the rage and the triumph of our lives before Stonewall; there have always been LGBTQ people who, in the face of overwhelming prejudice, still refused to surrender.
I’ve been around long enough to witness the glory of pre-AIDS LGBTQ life in New York, the unthinkable tragedy of the plague years, and the incredibly inspiring efforts of so many LGBTQ people in caring for the sick, burying the dead, and forcing the world to pay attention.
AIDS had no virtues, but the disease did make the closet especially obscene, and resulted in an unprecedented gay visibility. Culturally, both Stonewall and the AIDS crisis inspired a revolution in LGBTQ books, plays, TV and movies, and thanks to the internet, LGBTQ kids all over the world can access hope and community.
Of course there’s been a severe backlash, in the form of the viciously homophobic Mike Pence, and so many other Trump appointees who’ve opposed even the most basic gay civil rights.
While the repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was a major step forward, Trump’s war on trans people in the military is repulsive. Still, progress must be saluted. There are so many terrific LGBTQ centers across the country, offering services and support; the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York is an amazing organization, providing food, shelter, education and understanding for LGBTQ kids who are often shunned by their families.
As a playwright, I’ve had my work performed by gay theaters all over the country; it’s been especially gratifying to see LGBTQ actors refusing to listen to cautionary, frightened advice, and lead open and creatively exciting lives. It’s been thrilling to watch everyone from Neil Patrick Harris to Lena Waithe to Hari Nef and so many other outstanding talents changing the world.
Of course, there are still far too many places in the world where LGBTQ lives are illegal and where LGBTQ people exist in constant physical danger, which is why the visibility of LGBTQ progress in more open nations is so important.
Our lives must remain undeniable, even as Karen Pence teaches in a school where LGBTQ kids are expelled, along with students who have LGBTQ parents. Trump and the Pences like to call this hatred “a matter of faith.”
What would you like to see, LGBT-wise, in the next 50 years?
When I think of the future, I envision the infinite variety of LGBTQ lives: there’s no single “correct” way to behave. I’m especially excited by the current wave of LGBTQ elected officials, and by the presidential candidacy of Pete Buttigieg.
Mayor Pete is both an LGBTQ pioneer and an impressive, thoughtful and compassionate guy who could unite the country, along with his witty and openhearted husband Chasten. An LGBTQ president no longer seems like an impossibility.
Also, as the years have passed, I’ve noticed that a faceless, bland assimilation is no longer a goal for LGBTQ people; we’re more interesting than that, and while we’re at it, plenty of straight people are more interesting than that (I’m being kind).
LGBTQ people are refusing to abandon their style and personalities for some toxic sense of appropriateness. LGBTQ progress is only valuable on our own terms. I’d like a future without watchdogs, from within or outside the LGBTQ world; true freedom isn’t about receiving anyone else’s stamp of approval.