In my Queer History class last week, I lectured on pre-Stonewall gay activism. I focused on Los Angeles, largely because L.A.’s role in the fight for sexual justice tends to be downplayed in the dominant narrative. Folks who know very little about gay and lesbian history often recall just two names “Stonewall” (in New York) and “Harvey Milk” (who was, of course, the assassinated San Francisco supervisor.) L.A., where the first enduring gay rights organization (the Mattachine Society) was founded, and where UCLA’s Evelyn Hooker did the first research to prove that homosexuals were essentially normal, is all-too-frequently ignored. (Lilian Faderman and Stuart Timmons give us the best corrective in their marvelous 2006 work, Gay L.A.)
Last Wednesday, we discussed the Black Cat Tavern arrests. In the first few seconds of 1967, queer patrons at that Silverlake bar kissed their same-sex partners to celebrate the coming of the New Year. They weren’t through one chorus of Auld Lang Syne before LAPD officers, who had been waiting for a “display of vice”, moved in and began to arrest those who had been engaging in public displays of homosexual affection. The arrests, part of a common pattern of police harassment, were in themselves not surprising. What was remarkable was the community response. Over the next three months, demonstrators in Silverlake and across Los Angeles organized to support the defense of those arrested, and public protests were held to demand an end to police crackdowns on the homosexual community. At one point in March 1967, 3000 gay and lesbian protestors (and their allies) blocked Sunset Boulevard at Sanborn Avenue. At that point, the Black Cat protest became the largest such queer rights protest that had ever been held. As important as the Stonewall riots were, they came more than two years later. (One feels tempted to complain of “East Coast media bias”.)
But my point was not just to rehabilitate Los Angeles as the epicenter of early gay activism. Rather, I wanted to make a point about public displays of affection (PDAs). Young people today have a hard time seeing the political component of sexual behavior. What two people do in public, they believe, ought to be regulated by their comfort level and by the “time, place, and manner” in which they touch or kiss each other. Without denying that a public/private distinction is an important one, I asked my students to consider the revolutionary potential for sexual behavior that contradicts established norms. Sometimes, I argued, offending others is desirable and necessary — because the prejudices that undergird the sense of being offended need to be uprooted.
My first wife was of Chinese ancestry. My fourth and final wife is of Afro-Colombian ancestry. Neither looks “white.” (My second and third wives were as WASPy as the day is long.) I remember vividly the first time I went with Alyssa (spouse #1) to San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we walked down the street holding hands, we got hostile stares; one old woman cursed us in Cantonese, which Alyssa partly understood. At one point, I dropped my girlfriend’s hand. Alyssa grabbed it again.
“Why did you do that?” she demanded.
“I don’t want to offend people”, I replied.
“Hugo”, she said firmly as she pressed her body against mine, “they need to be offended. We aren’t doing anything a same-race couple wouldn’t do.”
Her point was that the hostility we were encountering was rooted in ethnic prejudice against interracial couples, not in animus towards public displays of affection. Alyssa, who was hardly flamboyant in her sexuality, believed that it was nonetheless important to confront rather than accommodate bigotry. She who became my first wife believed that acceptance would only come as a result of making interracial romance appear normative. That required a willingness to offend. Continue reading