When did you know?
Oh, how many times a straight person has lobbed this rudderless question at a queer person, expecting us to hit it home. It’s an existential inquiry any person might find quite difficult to answer. How do any of us come to know who we are? A baby touches its little button nose while its mother presses her own and says nose. The baby absorbs all the faces it sees, all the stories it hears, and gradually inches towards understanding that it has its own nose, it’s own story and soul. We learn who we are through each other.
When I was a child, I didn’t know a single LGBTQ adult that was open and out. I definitely didn’t know any trans people of any age. I had no example, no proof of myself, no context for my existence. As Maya Angelou and many proverbs have put it, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” When I had the opportunity to sit and talk with three LGBTQ elders, it felt like getting to know both at once.
I sat with Martin in a small garden in front of a church while children screeched and scrambled in the background. I sat with Ellen in her living room while her cat desperately pawed the glass door behind which he’d been banished. Imani stood behind her desk after showing me the portrait of her mother serving as spiritual sentry at the top of the stairs. I wanted a taste of what they see, to hear how the world is different for them now, to know what pride means to those carrying decades packed with memories and movement.
Pride month can feel like an amplification of rich, thin, white gay visibility, representing queer people as only young, sexy party animals. But this erases queer people that are POC, trans, poor, differently abled. As LGBTQ people, we are left without representation for when we are boring, sad, worn out, anxious, normal-ass humans. We are queer and gay and trans when we are all those things, from when we are born and onwards. It felt good to be reminded, through talking with Martin, Ellen, and Imani, that we will be so when we are old as well. These three stories affirm our humanity and our continuity. We have always been here. We will not disappear.
Martin, 71, is a private chef living in Manhattan.
I Was Always Gay
We are on the threshold of reclaiming our history. History has a muse. The muses have been very kind to gay people and I think gay people have always responded. So I think they are going to respond to this new history. Not the dry history that kids hate in school. But the real essence of history, which has flesh and blood, and you can feel alive in it again.
I was always gay, but for everyone else’s sake I knew I had to hide it from them. In those days it was a binary world and everyone was trained to be a straight person. You just did not cross the boundary. You didn’t lift your pinky when you drank a cup of tea. And if you were a man, you didn’t really ask for tea.
The fifties was the worst decade of all. No gay person was forgiven. Being gay was not the thing to be. We were associated with vice, crime, decline, femininity—everything despised by the straight white men of that period, because their whole puritanical structure was built on that. They had an unquestioning mindset when something was “bad” or “evil.” You didn’t have to ask why, all you had to know was “Communist,” all you had to know was “fag”.
I Wound Up With This Stonewall Crowd
I was very, very lonely. I used to take the bus up and down Third Avenue just to see people I knew were gay and had friends. It seemed a miracle to me then—I didn’t know how they found each other! Even though I was Manhattan-born and street savvy, that information still eluded me because you needed a person to transmit it. I kept hearing the lore of the Village, so it brought me down there in 1966. I had just turned 18. I wound up with this Stonewall crowd, a group that was a little mad, it was great. They really expressed themselves.
On the night of the riot, I was going to Stonewall. I heard something about a big raid. I passed a paddy wagon and there was a cop pushing this drag queen into it. She turned around and kicked him on the shoulder. He started beating her. You could hear her moans, bones and flesh against metal. The cop turned to us and said, “Alright you faggots, get the fuck out of here, you saw the show.” We started walking towards him. I don’t know what we looked like, but he turned around and just lost it, he was unnerved. At first it was pennies being thrown, then bottles, then we just grabbed anything and throwing it. Madness, but a tremendous freedom in it. We weren’t that type of people. But people are people. The rage was out.
When it was over and dawn was coming, the street was a wreck, like after a hurricane. I thought we are going to have to pay very dearly for this moment. I went home rather depressed. But my father said, “It’s about time you guys did something.” His saying that to me was the first moment I saw a change of mind in straight people. Coming down the street a couple days later, this big sanitation guy noticed me and I said to myself, ‘Oh I should have crossed the street, he is glaring at me.’ But he raised his fist in a salute. After that the whole edifice started to crack. What we displayed at Stonewall was valor, by a group of gays, that was its true significance.
Things are very different now, there is no doubt about it. Me and my husband legally married five years ago. And the old ghosts did rise. I had to take a Valium! I couldn’t believe we were going downtown and we could do this. I was shocked. I could never have imagined this back then.
You Have to Fight for It
In this country, in this culture, no one is going to give you anything. I hate to say it that way, but you have to fight for it. Gay people now have the ability to open these doors with what we do, what we write, what we know about each other. We are a multicultural people. The melding of all this would really make a great society that is inter-connected, not just tolerant. I always longed for that in America. To have a place for everybody. I was so happy to have just that little turf on Christopher street, but now we have the world. And I got to do something for that. Because there is too much of the world colored in by hate.
Loneliness is not going to dissipate because of tolerance or liberty. As a gay person I grasped culture, how these things were formed, and I questioned everything around me. I found real answers—not for my problems, but for how to spend the time within my problems. From problem to problem, you have to live, you have to get through that.
Open the door for what these muses are offering you.
Imani, 79, is a community organizer and educator living in Harlem.
The Elders Didn’t Want Us to Express Ourselves
I am mama and papa to these children. I am lesbian, two-spirited, fluid. I am a Yoruba priest. I have Shango energy, always quick to organize, busy talking to everyone.
I was born in 1940 and grew up in Harlem, USA.
I think my family basically always had an idea that I was different. My mother used to say, “It’s Christmas darling, why aren’t you ready for dinner in your red and green dress?” Then one of my cousins would say, “She is dressed Auntie, she has on her Ralph Lauren suit.”
My mother was trying to make a lady out of me, so by six I was on my toes in ballet. Ruth Williams was my dance teacher and she had the longest existing business in Harlem. Ruth always had [her partner] Thelma at the desk. They were together and lived together with Ruth’s mother. Thelma’s son, was, as we say today, very fluid. But Thelma didn’t want him to be. A lot of the time, the reason the elders didn’t want us to express ourselves that way was because of fear for us in the streets, that people would attack us. And of course they did, that was real.
I had my first relationship at 19 as a counselor at Lenox Hill neighborhood camp, where I met Beatrice, another counselor. I felt like the world was mine and at the time I didn’t know that it wasn’t. We were so busy working we weren’t really smooching during the day, but we held hands and were open about it. I didn’t know not to be. I’ll never forget the last day of camp when Beatrice said to me, “We have to go back to the real world now and then we can’t do this anymore.” This was my first heartbreak. I was on the bus with the kids and my face in the window crying away. Next thing I knew she was marrying the president of the NAACP. I went to the wedding and at some point she threw her garter right to me, I think on purpose. Then some dude was on the floor putting this garter on my leg. It was a nightmare. I have never been touched by any man.
I Was Not What the Administration Thought I Should Be
Back home where we come from in mother Africa, two-spirited people* had a special place. People came to us as the sages. I didn’t know anything besides teaching. I was the president of the Black Teachers Association and licensed to become a principal. I never, ever put on the dresses and the heels and all that. I never femme’d it up. I was badass. I had a big picture of Angela Davis right outside my door. Because of that they never wanted me in the front office, which was a loss for the children. I was not what the administrators thought I should be. They said I was too “militant.” They knew if I could go up against my family and friends, risk everything to express my sexuality, then they weren’t safe, certainly not when it came to their improprieties. That transparency is a by-product of our lives and what LGBTQ people have to embrace in order to be who we are. It helps us also with a certain clarity. We have an ability to see through people and situations that are being propped up to be something they aren’t. We have a responsibility to shed light on the situation for others.
I founded the LGBT Kwanzaa celebration. Kwanzaa is about giving acknowledgement to our ancestors. We are because they are. For my 79th birthday I said I want to have a party with the babies and the elders over 80. I need to know I have that support. I need to remember being childlike, trusting, joyful, expecting everything. And I need the 80-year-olds to take me by the elbow and help me over the leap into the realm that they are mastering. They didn’t do it by themselves. Don’t let that circle get broken. When I talk with Bklyn Boihood [Ed note: Bklyn Boihood is a community of queer and trans youth of color based in Bed-Stuy], with the young people, I see myself in you. I know some of the pitfalls you are going to encounter. I wish you would call on me more. Let’s do things together, let’s discover together, I want to be in conversation with you.
I Am Going to Get It Right
When I turned 75, four of my younger friends and four of my older friends and I had a procession, a ritual. We walked in together, spoke to one another, we pledged to one another that we would be there for each other. They wore suits for me. We pinned flowers to each other’s lapels. We looked so good!
The longer I am here on the planet the more I understand we are in a spiritual vortex, a circle. You give to me today and I am hopefully giving something to you that you didn’t have. We pass it on. The babies give to me. When I see them laughing, so joyful, with this complete acceptance. It is our job to keep them in that place as long as we can. As the cycle moves they get more and more aware of other stimuli, they change. But we should protect them so that they can keep that joy.
Shango has always been with me. This taught me to believe we have to live life to the fullest. Hopefully in this lifetime, I am going to get it right.
*Ed note: “two-spirited” is a term used by many Indigenous people to describe those who have masculine and feminine energy and/or identify as genderqueer or inhabiting multiple genders.
Ellen, 68, is a rabbi living in Brooklyn, New York.
I Began Hiding
How do you speak truth when you are stifling a good chunk of your true self?
I came to this late. In some way it all came to fruition when my partner Kathryn and I met, which was 36 years ago. Most of my life in this identity has been in the context of coupledom.
When I decided to go to rabbinical school I knew that having both a non-Jewish spouse and a woman spouse was not okay. So I began hiding. For five years. Some of my classmates knew. Some were also gay. We met in a little group at Hebrew Union College (HUC) called hinnenu, which means “here we are.” All these women had crazy stories of what their fathers did when they came out. One woman’s father went out and started painting the house. My father took to bed, he got sick. It was really something. But I never had total rejection.
When I was at my student pulpit assignment in West Virginia, I was staying with families of the synagogue. Those were the days before email and cell phones, so to call Kathryn I had to drive out to a phone booth on the side of the highway so that no one would hear me. It was nothing physically dangerous, but it was soul crushing. I was in pursuit of a way of work that needs the soul to do that work—I was supposed to bring my full self to prayer, to sermons, to leading the community, but they were saying a crucial part of me couldn’t be there. During my ordination, when I passed Kathryn, I hugged her and said, “We did it!” because I thought up until the last minute they were going to call me out, they weren’t going to let me do this. Those closeted years at HUC were my hardest.
I Will Not Be in the Closet Here
In 1993, a few years after I was ordained, I began working on starting a synagogue in Brooklyn called Kolot Chayeinu, Voices of Our Lives. From the get-go I said, “I will not be in the closet here.” From the first meeting I was completely open about who I was, breathed a sigh of relief, and never looked back. In the early days of being a rabbi, if I took an unpopular or not mainstream approach to anything—about Israel, workers in Brooklyn, housing, whatever—all the hate mail was about me being a lesbian. And it was all pretty nasty.
But I always had a wonderful and loving partner I could come home and talk to. She would help renew in my mind that “We are real. That is not.” That made a huge difference.
Like a lot of gay people of my generation, we got married in stages and in many different ways. In 2011 we got married legally at Borough Hall in Brooklyn. We totally let loose. We sang “Going to the Chapel” and got everyone in the room singing! It was really fun. When we walked out of there holding hands, I certainly felt like we walked taller in the street. I felt something different from this kind of acknowledgement.
Today, things are different. I do think there are numbers of parents that are more aware or helpful, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of kids growing up in terrible situations—facing punishment, banishment, excoriation, attempts at conversion, all that. And there is still violence.
We Are a Continuum
When the massacre in Orlando happened three years ago, spontaneously everyone in New York went to Stonewall. It was no accident that is where we went. We were going back to that place where people rose up and said, “We are not going to take this anymore. It is not ok. We have enough power with us.” I had the honor of leading a prayer at a gathering of drag queens and trans folks—those are the people in history that really went ahead. I needed to touch some of that strength, to feel the grief there, and remember the possibility of fighting back, coming back, and holding on to what we won.
If you convert to Judaism, you are called a child of Abraham and Sarah. So when I came into my lesbian life, I became the child of whom? The child of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Or whatever mass of nameless drag queens and trans women that led the way. We stand on their shoulders. There is a way, then, that young queer people are my children too. Sometimes for older lesbians and gay men they feel distanced from younger queer folks who they might feel are ignoring their experience. I don’t feel like that. I feel like we are a continuum.
What I wish I could say to those children is: “Look! There are people out here loving you from a distance and hoping that you can gather your inner strength to get through the hard time. Because it’s in there, you have it in you, and you need to hold on to it.”
Pride means looking back and looking forward. I can’t wait to see where the ten-year-olds are headed.
Photos by Ken Castaneda.