June is a month to celebrate—and remember
by Johnny Trlica
On a June evening in 1969, 400 patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar, watched as police made one of their routine raids, arresting a token number of employees and customers. Before the night had ended, the angry crowd swelled to a reported 2,000 and began pelting police with garbage cans and beer bottles. “The Stonewall Riots,” as history would later name this event, marked the birth of the gay rights movement in America.
June is an important month in the history of both the civil rights and the gay rights movements. In June of 1967, the Supreme Court struck down state laws that made interracial marriage illegal. The case stemmed from an interracial couple who married in Washington, DC, then moved to Virginia where they were arrested and sentenced to a year in jail. It’s hard to imagine now that mixed-race couples were really treated like that. In fact, most people do not realize that in the 1950s, when Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were starring in the most popular TV show in America, their marriage was not recognized as legal in several states.
And on June 27, 1969, the gay rights movement was launched with the Stonewall Riots. More recently, on June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court struck down all of the remaining state antigay sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in all public facilities and authorized the Department of Justice to bring legal action for violations of the law. (Although Congress had passed civil rights legislation previously, the measures proved weak and ineffective.) When Lyndon Johnson assumed office, he made passage of that bill, introduced by JFK in June of 1963, a priority. To quote LBJ, “No memorial or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought.”
Barely 40 years ago, the way blacks and whites looked at each other was quite different from today. No one at the time could have imagined that a black man would become president of the United States. Segregation and bigotry was still widespread in my hometown of Rosenberg, Texas. Our downtown theater, built in 1919, had a separate entrance and concession stand for black patrons. The upstairs balcony was reserved for blacks, and the main floor was for whites. As a child, I used to think, “Why do they get to sit up there in the good seats?”
Our family doctor’s office waiting rooms were segregated as well. A door around the corner of the building had a sign over it reading “Colored Entrance.” For some reason, the doctor left that sign hanging there well into the 1970s. I vaguely remember signs on the doors of Rosenberg businesses that read “Whites Only.”
Like many Southern people of the era, my parents frequently used the N-word. Because of dad’s prejudices, I was nervous about my first day of school in 1966. As I understand it, during that first year of desegregation, black parents were given a choice of which school their children would attend. No one was sure what to expect.
When I entered my new fifth grade class that morning, I spoke to a black kid for the first time in my life. His name was Frank Sanders. He didn’t seem so different from me, and we struck up an immediate friendship. I later learned that we had a lot more in common than we realized as 10-year-olds. We played together at recess, ate lunch at the same table, and commiserated about having homework on the first day of school.
There were three black students who showed up in my class that day—two boys and a girl. Mabel Turner was an outgoing, friendly girl who became very popular. The third child was Elvin, whose last name escapes me. He was quiet and shy.
Later that day, when Daddy came home from work, he didn’t ask how my first day of school went or what I had learned. Sadly, he just asked how many of “them” showed up. He seemed surprised when I said there were three in my class of 28. He had apparently expected a mad rush of black kids to our school. One can only imagine how scared those three kids must have been on that first day. Going to any new school is frightening to a child, but under those circumstances it was probably horrible. I remember being afraid to tell Daddy that I had become friends with Frank.
Elvin moved away after the fifth grade and I never saw him again. Mabel also became a friend of mine, and was later elected the first black cheerleader at Lamar Consolidated High School. Frank and I remained friends until graduation. I lost track of him for awhile, but ran into him about 15 years later. After that, we occasionally talked until he passed away about 10 years ago. I look back on those three kids as true heroes of the ’60s civil rights era.
Most people in Rosenberg and across the South, including my parents, became less and less bigoted as time passed and integrated schools and businesses became the norm. My parents even ended up liking my black friends who came over for a visit. As an adult, my parents would inquire about how my friends were faring, without differentiating color. I learned that their prejudices stemmed not from fear or hatred, but simply from being uninformed.
I believe that children are not born with prejudice—they learn it, and usually from their parents. Having felt prejudice myself because I am gay, I cannot understand disliking a person over something that only God has control of. I am proud of the progress our nation has made in race relations, but unfortunately we still have a long way to go. Electing a black president did not erase bigotry in this country—it is alive and well in 2010!
Unsung Heroes, Past and Present
Like my three black schoolmates who became unsung civil rights heroes by bravely walking into a previously all-white school, the gay rights movement has its share of unsung heroes. In 1969, it was the drag queens gathered in a dark, forbidden bar who helped shape history by refusing to allow police brutality to continue. Today, every time a high school boy refuses to be bullied and harassed because he walks or talks “funny,” he becomes a hero. When a transgender woman works openly at a Kroger store or Burger King, she is a hero. When a lesbian couple walks into a movie theater holding hands, they are heroes. It is those kinds of small, everyday gestures that, over time, can teach the uninformed and change attitudes.
I recently had a blunt reminder of how much progress the gay community still needs to make. I was on a date with a black man, and as our evening wound down, we decided to go for a late snack at a Montrose-area restaurant. We sat in a booth on the same side of the table. That decision apparently disturbed the straight couple at the next table, because after a few minutes, the man turned to us and said something like, “Do you realize that you are not the only people in this place?” As he turned to face his dining partner, he continued with other derogatory remarks.
My date and I were both in a state of shock and disbelief. We were not being loud or doing anything that a nearby straight couple sitting on the same side of the table wasn’t doing. We marked it down to ignorance and bigotry and continued our meal, making sure we finished it off with a prolonged kiss before paying the bill and leaving. We laughed about it on the way home, not sure if the couple was offended by our being gay and openly showing it, or by our interracial status, or both. The episode did leave us wondering, “Does this mean we’re heroes now?” Perhaps.
Sometimes it’s amazing to look at how the nation has changed since the 1960s. It has taken two generations to get to this point, and perhaps in another 50 years Americans will look back at “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” gay marriage bans, and antigay political speeches and think, “Were gay people really treated like that?”
Johnny Trlica is a freelance writer and employed as the Human Resources Coordinator at Houston’s IntraCare Medical Center Hospital where he has been for 22 years.
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