Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Twenty-Five Years Ago in New York: The 17th Annual Gay Pride Parade on Sunday, June 29, 1986

We are at work on West Side Summers: 1984-1987, the eighth in our interminable series of books featuring excerpts from the diaries we've kept every day for the past 42 years. The first six books were collected in The Brooklyn Diaries, and West Side Summers: 1984-1987 is intended as the companion volume for the recently published South Florida Winters: 1981-1984.

Twenty-five years ago today, on Sunday, June 29, 1986, our diary reported on the Gay Pride Parade:

Sunday, June 29, 1986
7 PM. I watched the Gay Pride from the same spot I did last year, at the start of the march by Columbus Circle. Despite the AIDS crisis, this year’s parade a celebratory mood because of the City Council’s passage of the gay rights bill.

It was a hot sunny, day and everyone seemed in good spirits. I’m encouraged that even in the “conservative” ‘80s, so many gay people can literally come out. Surely the world has irrevocably changed.

Just to see so many people who are so diverse – of every conceivable racial and religious group, profession, political affiliation, from different states and schools, people from teenagers to senior citizens – is heartening.

It reminded me of the old peace and civil rights demonstrations and those concerns were also in the crowd today: lots of signs against racism and apartheid, T-shirts of a mock Daily News front page with the headline ¡GAYS SÍ, CONTRAS NO! and stickers that said NICARAGUA IS NOT OUR ENEMY.

The police officer who constantly and good-naturedly told us to move back a little was a young Hispanic guy perhaps ten years younger than I, and gay cops marched along with myriad other groups.

The biggest applause, as usual, was for the Stonewall veterans at the head of the march, for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group (who held up giant safety pins to remind people about safe sex practices), for the People With Aids Coalition (another group, memorializing the dead, held up signs with their names – I got a twinge when I immediately spotted the sign for Evan), and for the Gay Men’s Chorus, the parents’ groups, the elderly (SAGE), the kids from Harvey Milk High School, and numerous lesbians’ organizations.

There were some floats and some outrageous transvestites who made the crowd laugh with them, not at them. What cheers me is the number of different support groups of every kind, from Sober Lesbians (One Day at a Time) to Gay Veterans to alumni and religious groups.

The spirit of the 1960s isn’t dead, really; behind the materialistic ethos of today there are a lot of people who no longer live by the old rules: believe what the government tells you, go along to get along, don’t call attention to yourself, etc.

Really, since I was a teenager there’s been nothing less than a revolution in the way people in society think and act, not only in regard to homosexuality, but in regard to many other things.

The thousands of people I saw marching did look proud. The last person in the whole march had a sign on his back that said FREE AT LAST. So maybe there’s hope.

The next day, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), upholding the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults when applied to homosexuals.

The Court framed the legal question in the case as whether the constitution confers "a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy." A 5-4 majority said it did not; in the words of Justice White's majority opinion, "to claim that a right to engage in such conduct is 'deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition' or 'implicit in the concept of ordered liberty' is, at best, facetious."

The short concurring opinion by Chief Justice Burger emphasized historical negative attitudes toward homosexual sex, quoting Sir William Blackstone's characterization of sodomy as "a crime not fit to be named." Burger concluded, "To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching."

Our diary entry for Saturday, July 5, 1986, also to be in West Side Summers, contains this:
Obviously a lot of people were as angry as I was with Monday’s Supreme Court decision. There was a big demonstration in the Village yesterday, and people are planning strategy to roll back the sodomy laws in the 24 states that have them (including Florida). And in New York City, Councilman Noach Dear, an Orthodox Jew, abandoned his effort to get on the ballot a referendum to repeal the gay rights law. He said it was no longer necessary, because the courts would rule the law unconstitutional.

Although Americans may not approve of gay people, I would like to think that most people hold privacy very dear. Still, it’s upsetting that gay people are essentially second-class citizens under the court ruling: heterosexuals are constitutionally given privacy rights that don’t apply to gay people.

This was seventeen years after Stonewall. It took another seventeen years for the Supreme Court to directly overrule the Bowers opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), whose 6-3 majority majority held that intimate consensual sexual conduct was part of the liberty protected by substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. The 2003 ruling invalidated all laws throughout the United States that purported to criminalize sodomy between consenting same-sex adults acting in private and also invalidated the application of sodomy laws to heterosexual sex.

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