The cultural acceptance that many modern American LGBTQ youth consider a birthright was earned, often through bloodshed, by their grandparents’ generation. The turning point came in 1969, following multiple nights of protest and violence in the aftermath of the police raid of a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. The resulting fallout from the Stonewall uprising pointed the way to a newly energized and truly national gay rights movement.
Historian and journalist Eric Marcus is the founder and chair of the Stonewall 50 Consortium, a not-for-profit organization that is providing the framework for a celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Stonewall in 2019. Marcus is a prolific author and outspoken activist who is currently hosting the fourth season of his popular podcast, Making Gay History.
He chatted with us recently about the enduring lessons of Stonewall, how he got over his own internalized homophobia, and gays in sports.
What Should We Do: Could you start by telling me a bit more about your involvement with the upcoming anniversary of the Stonewall uprising?
Eric Marcus: Certainly! The Consortium brings together nearly 200 nonprofit institutions and organizations committed to producing programming, exhibitions, and educational materials related to the Stonewall uprising and the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in the context of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in June 2019. New York University alone is planning 40 events and exhibitions across the university. The programming will include the premiere of New York City Opera’s newly commissioned piece, Stonewall, and the premiere of a jointly commissioned new work by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus at Carnegie Hall. Our member organizations are planning literally hundreds of events, performances, and exhibitions to choose from during Pride 2019.
WSWD: What can Stonewall still teach us about protest and civil rights?
Marcus: The most important lesson I’ve taken away from Stonewall is that we must never give up the fight. Resistance is an ongoing effort and progress isn’t permanent. Each generation must be prepared to safeguard hard-won rights and to fight for the freedoms we don’t yet have. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time we’re confronted with hateful legislation or discriminatory laws and regulations. These battles have been fought—and fought successfully—by the activists who came before us; we owe it to them and to ourselves to carry that earlier inspiration and knowledge into the future.
WSWD: You obviously take a great deal of pride in acting as an outspoken voice for the LGBTQ community.
Marcus: Because of my own internalized homophobia, I’ve had something of a love-hate relationship with that role for much of my career. For a long time, I devalued my work and pursued work that wasn’t “just” gay. I’ve thankfully lived long enough to outgrow that affliction and now fully embrace what I do as a calling. It’s one of the advantages of turning 60, working through years of therapy, and coming to terms with how much I love having the opportunity to share the stories I’ve gathered from activists and allies within our community.
The most important lesson I’ve taken away from Stonewall is that we must never give up the fight. Resistance is an ongoing effort and progress isn’t permanent.
WSWD: That love shines through in the stories from your book Making Gay History. Since 2016, you’ve been expanding that book into more of a living document through your podcast.
Marcus: The Making Gay History podcast—available for free on iTunes and Spotify, and just about everywhere people get their podcasts—aims to bring LGBTQ history to life through the voices of the people who lived it, primarily by drawing from the archive of interviews that I recorded for the book three decades ago. Our stories go as far back as 1920 and all the way up to 2001. I feature conversations with important activists, political trailblazers, and witnesses to history, many of whom have been long forgotten. To date, we’ve produced nearly 40 episodes, which have been downloaded more than two million times in 211 countries and territories around the world.
WSWD: You’ve cowritten several successful autobiographies with gay athletes. What draws you to the world of sports?
Marcus: Honestly, I have about zero interest in organized sports. I’m personally very physically active and have been for decades, but was totally turned off by team sports when I was a child. You know that kid who was picked last for a team? That was me. Given the considerable success of my collaboration with Greg Louganis on his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, I became something of a go-to coauthor for gay athletes. I was grateful to have the opportunity to work with Rudy Galindo and Robbie Rogers on their books, but I drew the line at working on a football autobiography; the young man wasn’t gay and I hate football, so I thought I was a poor match for the project.
WSWD: Some professional American football and baseball players have come out publicly after they retired, but it seems like it’s very difficult for active players to be open about their sexuality. Do you think that will change?
Marcus: It’s inevitable. We’re already seeing male gay athletes at the high school and college levels. It’s taking longer than I thought it would, but the explicit risk of discrimination and even violence makes it easy to understand why progress is slow.
No matter who you are, or who you love, this is no time to sit on the sidelines.
WSWD: The persistence of that sort of prejudice certainly contributes to the disproportionate risk of suicide within the LGBTQ community, especially among young people. In addition to your work as an author, you’ve been an active participant in the suicide prevention movement. What factors do you think contribute to the current precipitous rise in suicides in the U.S.? [Editor’s note: Marcus’s father committed suicide at age 44, when Marcus was 12; Marcus wrote about it in this book.]
Marcus: People kill themselves for all kinds of reasons, many of which we still don’t understand. We know some of the factors that contribute to suicide include despair, hopelessness, and worthlessness. Those feelings can result from mental illness, joblessness, isolation…all things that can be traced to the ongoing disintegration of small towns and cities. We know that restricting access to lethal means would cut the suicide rate by 15 percent, which is a powerful argument in favor of a two-week waiting period for gun purchases. We also aren’t providing adequate mental health care to help proactively address these problems. By the time someone is in a state of suicidal crisis, we’ve failed. All these things matter, and as a nation we’re doing a poor job of connecting the dots.
WSWD: In our fraught political moment, how ready do you think the current generation is to fight back against existential threats to the LGBTQ community?
Marcus: Whether we’re ready or not, the battle is here. I’ve been very impressed at how young people have fought back against the gun lobby, in support of LGBTQ rights and in the name of other progressive issues that are near and dear to my heart. And it’s not just young people! There are a lot of people with gray hair—or no hair!—organizing, protesting, registering voters, and running for office. The retaking of the House shows what working together to organize can achieve. No matter who you are, or who you love, this is no time to sit on the sidelines.