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Five questions for Ann Bausum

ann bausum

Photo: Sam Boutelle

Ann Bausum has written nonfiction about U.S. presidents and first ladies, muckrakers, Freedom Riders, suffragists, immigrants, and world wars. Her latest book Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights (Viking, 11–15 years) focuses on the 1969 Stonewall riots, which helped kick things off (spectacularly; there was a kick-line) in NYC and galvanize the gay rights movement. And, as we learn in Stonewall, June later became LGBT Pride Month partly in commemoration of the riots — what better time to take a closer look at this pivotal moment in LGBTQ history?

1. In your author’s note you discuss your hesitation about being an “outsider” (as a straight woman) regarding this topic. How did this end up affecting your writing?

AB: Stonewall is my seventh book of social justice history, and that background became more relevant to this project than my sexual orientation. I recognized repeating patterns of injustice, and I realized that these early gay-rights activists had fought back from some of the weakest ground imaginable. Their very identities had been declared illegal, immoral, and mentally flawed. And yet they continued to assert their place in society.

I’ve advocated for young people for most of my life, first as a parent and then as an author, and I found myself particularly moved by the struggles of gay young people. The fact that I’m a straight woman may, in the end, have enhanced my ability to review the past and objectively declare, “this was not right,” not because these were my people, so to speak, but because they were human beings, and I, as a fellow human being, could feel the sting of the injustice.

2. The mafia and gay bars seem like such strange bedfellows. Did you uncover any other surprising alliances?

AB: How about the unlikely team of effeminate and muscular gay men who channeled their mutual rage to rip a parking meter out of the ground and convert it into a battering ram during the Stonewall riots? Or, one year after Stonewall, the police officers who found themselves providing security for a gay pride parade through Manhattan that, at least in part, commemorated their own trouncing by the gay community? Or — and it’s not exactly an alliance — but there were those undercover cops who cruised the gay bars of New York wearing “fuzzy sweaters and chinos and tennis shoes,” as Craig Rodwell once put it. Sometimes they’d extort their victims, taking money in exchange for dropping charges.

bausum_stonewall3. You paint such a vivid picture of that singing kick-line facing down the riot police. How do you think humor and/or artistic expression can be used to fight oppression?

AB: The gay community became masters at exploiting humor and the arts to force issues of gay rights into the spotlight, so I’ll answer with examples from that history. I’m thinking of a zap from the 1970s when Marty Robinson showed up wearing a duck costume outside a firm that had used the “if it walks like a duck” defense to justify its inclusion of sexual orientation in background checks. Many of the ACT-UP protests for AIDS awareness were grand theatrical pageants. Consider the so-called Ashes Action of 1992, a solemn procession, complete with funereal drum beats, that culminated in the tossing of the ashes of AIDS victims onto the lawn of the White House. I find videos of that protest incredibly moving. And, of course, we’ve got everything from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America to the art of Keith Haring to the AIDS quilt — three examples of the infusion of artistic expression into the struggle for gay rights.

4. “And then there were the lesbians.” How did the feminist movement help pave the way for the LGBTQ rights movement?

AB: The DNA of various social protest movements had been inculcated into many members of the gay community by the time Seymour Pine led his history-making raid of the Stonewall Inn. Lesbians had helped fuel the feminist movement, but they’d also been burned by it. Betty Friedan had branded them a “lavender menace” to the women’s movement, preferring instead to focus on the reform of heterosexual society. Some lesbian feminists channeled their rage and know-how into their own organizations with such names as the Radicalesbians and the Lesbian Liberation Front. Others collaborated with gay men, but there were so many areas requiring reform — including the mindset of chauvinistic gay men! — that it could be hard to find common ground. The movement has become more cohesive as demands have become more universal. Healthcare. Workplace equality. Marriage equality. Parenting rights. Safety. Today’s activists can draw on the passions and practices of past fights to advocate for LGBTQ equality.

5. The fight for LGBTQ civil rights is moving so rapidly, this book might have been quite different if you were writing it two years ago, or even two weeks ago. What do you see as the future of gay rights?

AB: This month the Supreme Court could make same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states. We’re that close. Whatever the ruling, there will be plenty of fights left — including those for universal fairness in housing and employment and against bullying. I don’t mean to sound gloomy. We have made phenomenal progress in recent years, and the momentum is there for further advances. The shift in public opinion polls offers great hope: If the people are behind you, then change will come.

I found the gay marriage vote in Ireland particularly encouraging. If a country can evolve so fundamentally in spite of its historic connections to a faith that disapproves of homosexuality, then reform is possible in any kind of setting. I was heartened by the graciousness of the opposition in defeat. By affirming the outcome, these opponents laid a foundation for healing and unity.

Expanding voting rights. Ending Jim Crow. Legalizing sodomy. Establishing marriage equality. These gains don’t have to be someone else’s losses. We need to remember: When anyone in the human family does better, we all do better.

From the June 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

For more in The Horn Book’s Pride Month series, click on the tag LGBT Pride 2016.

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