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Stonewall Showed the World Our Resilience

NOTE: This blog post was first posted on June 24th on Psychology Today. To access the original post, please click here.

As any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) person can tell you, we sexual minorities are among society’s most traumatized women and men. From the time we’re kids we are abused, beaten up, insulted, rejected, and thrown out of our homes simply because we are not heterosexual or may not conform to traditionally defined gender roles.

Sadly, and not surprisingly, being treated like someone who is “less than” can seep inside our minds and hearts. It’s too easy to think we don’t deserve to be treated with exactly the same respect, aren’t worthy of the same legal rights, as people who happen to be heterosexual. It’s too easy to stigmatize ourselves.

That’s why it’s not coincidental that a disproportionate number of LGBTQ men and women live with mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety.

That’s why it’s also not surprising that gay men, particularly young African-American gay men, continue to bear the greatest impact of HIV in the US. “Horniness” alone doesn’t account for the choices some gay men make to engage in high-risk sex, or use alcohol and other drugs to anesthetize themselves into a state where high-risk sex doesn’t feel as dangerous as it is.

Research suggests that our risky choices have a lot to do with depression, substance over-use, and damaged self-esteem. Research also suggests that HIV prevention and treatment adherence messages must address gay men’s mental health challenges if they are going to be effective.

The Stonewall Inn, 1969

Source: Photo by Diana Davies, copyright owned by the New York Public Library.

Despite the challenges—and, paradoxically, because of them—LGBTQ women and men are some of the most resilient people anywhere. That is precisely what the world first saw at the Stonewall Inn on the night of Friday, June 27, 1969.

After the riots, it seemed that overnight, the closet had become an anachronism of a darker time. “Gay liberation” meant throwing off the psychological and spiritual shackles of shame and blame that heterosexuals imposed on LGBTQ people simply for being “different.” It meant “coming out,” proudly embracing that difference, and standing together in solidarity as a community.

Stonewall gave LGBTQ people a new way to tell our story, as individuals and as a community. It flipped the narrative on its head, rejecting the role of victim we seemed always to be cast in—and in which we too often cast ourselves. Instead of continuing to be victimized, we asserted our freedom and right to tell our story in our own voices, from our own point of view.

In the years after Stonewall, gay and lesbian historians—such as John D’Emilio, Estelle Freedman, and George Chauncey—began to document and piece together stories from our past, reframing history to include us instead of excluding us as though we hadn't always been part of it. Their work helped us begin to answer Harry Hay’s questions when he founded the Mattachine Society in 1950, the country’s first “homophile” org