Stonewall 2.0: It's What We Make of It

Stonewall was no accident, yet it was not an orchestrated affair. It was a moment and it became what we made of it.
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Stonewall 2.0. It's a potent term combining the history and energy of Greenwich Village, 1969 and the social network horizons of the 21st century: activists in the streets, old-school placards in one hand, cell phones in the other, texting their counterparts in other cities, sharing enthusiasm, outrage, tactics and ideas -- and all of this happening live.

There has certainly been a lot of activity these past few weeks for LGBT equality -- an outpouring of emotion and street-level demands unseen in the LGBT community since the AIDS crisis of the early 1990s. I was in college then, newly out as a lesbian, galvanized by the energy of the moment. As outraged as we are by the passage of Prop 8 and similar measures in Arkansas, Arizona and Florida, we cannot miss the opportunity these terrible acts give us to develop new advocates and together make change. People are paying attention now. Right now. And as the leader of a national organization working to ensure equality for LGBT families, I can tell you that getting people to pay attention is usually the hardest, most frustrating first step in the long road towards progress.

But I'm not here to complain. We all have busy, complicated lives. Our work and families demand more of our time than ever, and in an economic crisis of this magnitude we can spare no energy in our efforts to lead organizations, maintain jobs, pay for healthcare and educate our kids. We are called to champion equality at the very same time that we are called to maintain our livelihoods, and, frankly, I am proud of the hard work done in the past few months by organizational leaders, staff members, community organizers and activists, old and new, to move this country in a progressive direction and ensure equality for all.

If you've been around as long as I have (not too long, I hope) you come to realize that moments like this are most often what we make of them. The history of social movements is never linear. There is always some back and forth. Since the last upsurge in street-oriented activism some twenty year ago, we've made astounding progress on LGBT equality -- both legally and socially. This progress came in the courts and state legislatures, in our healthcare system and faith communities, in corporate America and community organizations alike. It came through one-on-one conversations -- tough conversations with loved ones and strangers that few of us like to have. And it came through outrage, protests, boycotts, blogging, emailing, online actions and more. It came in many ways, and it must continue in many ways -- as many ways as a diverse America can dream up.

A staff member of mine used to work for a gay man in his sixties who contributed to the early reporting on the Stonewall Riots for Time Magazine when he was a much younger man. At the time, he was closeted and worked at Time but was not a reporter; he merely offered to attend the riots and bring back on-the-ground information. Other reporters weren't keen on going down to the Village. Four months after the June riots took place, "The Homosexual in America" graced the cover of Time. Today the article makes me cringe. Yet the fact that a major US publication had attempted to treat gay people respectfully (or at least journalistically) was a watershed moment in the history of LGBT visibility.

Stonewall could have been a different story. The individuals that fought police brutality and the organizations that developed to advance their cause could have worked just a little less fervently for freedom. The mainstream media could have paid just a little less attention, or shed only negative light on the community, as it had before. Stonewall was no accident, yet it was not an orchestrated affair. It was a moment and it became what we made of it -- or, rather, what the brave men and women active in 1969 made of it. The riots got people's attention. The last 40 years of LGBT activism and progress are what we have made and continue to make of that attention.

I applaud organizations like Mass Equality, the statewide LGBT rights organization here in Massachusetts, for their engagement in Stonewall 2.0, marked as it is by new or increased involvement by young people and web savvy folks, as well as the LGBT community's general cry for leadership and a new direction. Mass Equality is the lead organization advocating for a transgender nondiscrimination bill here in the Bay State. This piece of legislation is critical to the health of transgender people and long overdue. At the November 15, 2008 demonstration against Prop 8 held at Boston City Hall and organized mainly by local college students connected through Facebook and, Mass Equality had volunteers identifying trans-friendly voters and potential volunteers in the crowd. Organizers featured speakers who urged people angry about Prop 8 to take action for equality here at home -- to get active supporting the transgender nondiscrimination bill. Outrage turned to opportunity, bolstered by a renewed sense of urgency and the 2.0 tools to grow the base of these new struggles like wildfire.

On November 6, 2008, my own organization, Family Equality Council, launched a post-election campaign to channel the passion and stories of LGBT parents and their families for positive change. We called for families to submit photos with family members holding signs declaring "My Family" and filling in their own blanks. "My Family is EQUAL," we saw, as well as, "My Family Prays," "My Family Is A Lot Like Your Family," and hundreds of others. We created a YouTube video showcasing these families and their simple statements calling for justice. In just a week more than 11,000 people had viewed the video online. Most navigated to it through word-of-mouth, leaving comments like, "Love does not discriminate."

It's incredibly powerful and promising to have such tools available to spread the message of equality and progress. It's also incredibly powerful to remember that before Facebook and MySpace, blogs and vlogs, we had phone calls and park bench conversations, rallies and demonstrations, and we still do. If everybody who felt a punch in their gut when Prop 8 and other anti-family measures passed on Election Day wrote down three things they could comfortably do in the next three days to ensure equality and then wrote down three things they could do regardless of comfort actually did them, we'd achieve equality for all much faster than we are today.

Stonewall 2.0 -- it's what we make of it. It's not a phenomenon to describe or a certain group of people doing things a certain or right way. This moment is for us to define. I know my family (two moms, two kids) and the millions of other LGBT families out there right now would love for people to define this as the moment that ending discrimination in their own lives and communities became a top priority, a family priority, ever-present in their minds, something they think about at the dinner table, the grocery store, the parent-teacher conference and the voting booth. Something for which they stand up, support financially, take risks, and stand outside in the rain when necessary calling for immediate action and change.

Jennifer Chrisler is the Executive Director of Family Equality Council, the national organization working to ensure equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) families by building community, changing hearts and minds, and advancing social justice for all families. She lives in Newton, MA with her wife, Cheryl, and their six-year-old twins, Tim and Tom.

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