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Stonewall’s Gift: 50 Years Ago Queer Fury Erupted and Changed the World

My grandfather helped Judy Garland tell her story, just as Stonewall helped millions of LGBTQ Americans tell ours

A man lights candles on a memorial outside the Stonewall Inn for victims of the Orlando Shooting, Thursday, June 16, 2016, in New York. Members of the United Nations' LGBT Core Group met at the bar on Thursday. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

A man lights candles on a memorial outside the Stonewall Inn for victims of the Orlando Shooting, Thursday, June 16, 2016, in New York City. The legendary bar has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Julie Jacobson/AP

In the spring of 1968, weeks before the start of her final year of life, Judy Garland met with a biographer to discuss collaborating on her memoir. The author, Gerold Frank, was a journalist well-known for ghostwriting the life stories of celebrity women, including Zsa Zsa Gabor. The meeting, arranged through Sid Luft, Judy’s manager and third ex-husband, was set for 10 p.m. at New York’s St. Moritz Hotel. But at the appointed hour, Frank and Luft, who were dining at the Plaza nearby, got word that the superstar needed more time.

Frank considered himself something of an amateur psychoanalyst, deploying the techniques of the then-fashionable therapeutic method to build trust with his subjects and tease out truths of their emotional lives that even they hadn’t discovered. His unique, tell-all process not only created bestselling books but seemed to cure the ills — depression, suicidality, neurasthenia — of their famous subjects. Frank assumed that, since Judy had undergone psychoanalysis, she’d be used to probing her inner life, and capable of telling her story.

But instantly, that prospect dimmed. The night of their first meeting, Judy delayed their rendezvous first by an hour, then another and another, until she finally welcomed her guests at 2 a.m., just as they closed down the Plaza’s Oak Room bar. The men arrived at the hotel suite to see a diminutive woman seated on a couch with a child-like face that, upon closer inspection, revealed the distinctive markings of a clown: Dark paint shielded the tip of her pug nose and chin, starfish lines radiated from her eyes, and frantic dabs of bright color covered each cheek. “It was behind this laughing, slightly grotesque, makeup that she had been able to meet me,” my grandfather remembered, “the wistful, lovable little clown whom no one would dare to hurt.”

My grandfather and Judy spoke that night, and across several more meetings, in somewhat stilted exchanges marred by a formality and distance that crush the literary collaboration. Judy, it turned out, was unwilling — probably unable — to speak about herself genuinely, fiercely resistant to showing the vulnerability that made her both so beloved and so defenseless against the exploitation she’d known all her life as a child star. Instead, when talking about herself, she turned her stories into performances, leaping to her feet, dashing this way and that in a frenzy of wild gesticulating and manic laughter, the better to please and entertain, but also to evade and self-protect. If Judy avoided exposing her true self because she feared letting down her guard, she may also have done so for a more elemental reason: She was wholly unacquainted with whatever lay beneath the surface glitz that made her Judy Garland. She had no idea how to be herself, or who that even was.

The meetings soon fizzled, and Judy set off for London where, a year later, at age 47, she’d be found dead from a barbiturate overdose. On June 22, 1969, wrote my grandfather in the foreword to the authorized biography he went on to write six years later, “the final chapter came in the story she had yet to tell. I have tried to tell it in the pages that follow.”

The power of Judy’s story has since inspired many more books, TV movies, and a Broadway musical — and will soon bring a major motion picture to the screen, starring Renée Zellweger. But like any widely shared cultural narrative, the contours of Judy’s story are contested. Five days after her death, 50 years ago this week, thousands of grieving fans, a great many of them gay, filed past her glass-topped casket inside Manhattan’s Campbell Funeral Chapel to pay their respects. Hours later, four miles south at a bar in Greenwich Village, a spontaneous uprising broke out as a motley mix of street kids, drag queens, trans people and gay businessmen in ties chose to trade in their customary reticence in the face of police abuse and fight back against a raid of the Mafia-owned watering hole. Across several evenings the unrest continued, unleashing years of pent-up fury and emboldening queer people with a new stridency inspired by the era’s spirit of protest. (Characterizing the transformation, the gay beat writer Allen Ginsberg, who visited the scene on the third night, remarked, “The guys there were so beautiful — they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”)

Thus emerged the legend that it was the grief of mourning queers that sparked the rebellion that started the modern gay rights movement. What really triggered the uprising, or the movement it drove, is, of course, not reducible to one person or moment. But whether precisely factual or not, the notion that Judy’s death birthed the modern LGBTQ movement makes a great story, something that’s often more important than how true it is.

UNITED STATES - JUNE 27: Yellow roses cover Judy Garland's coffin as it is taken to hearse at Campbell Funeral Home. (Photo by Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Yellow roses cover Judy Garland’s coffin as it is taken to hearse at Campbell Funeral Home on June 28, 1969. (Photo by Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

I always found it deeply moving that my grandfather inherited the mantle of telling the world the story of a misunderstood diva — and gay icon — who never got to tell it herself. I wondered what drove him to Judy’s story, what purpose it served for him to tell it, and what to make of the giant pink book about her life—dedicated to me and his five other grandchildren — that came out of it all. How were Judy’s story, as my grandfather told it, and the story of Stonewall and what came after it intertwined? Did my own story figure in?

Judy Garland embodied a central paradox in the world of mass entertainment culture and of modern life. A product of almost pure artifice herself — she had become a Vaudeville star almost as soon as she could toddle and, at the hands of relentless stage parents, lived and died without feeling she possessed a genuine identity of her own — she nonetheless projected in her performances an authenticity and vulnerability so pulsing and intimate that it pierced her audiences with what my grandfather called “a laser beam of pure emotion.” Her “great gift,” said James Mason, her leading man in A Star Is Born speaking at her funeral, “was that she could wring tears out of hearts of rock.”

For herself and her fans, Judy’s performances created a safe channel to feelings that weren’t allowed to surface in ordinary life. This was undoubtedly the draw for my grandfather, who had a journalist’s sense of alienation from the joys of reality (he told Life magazine that he devoured books as “borrowed excitement” from a “life of unspeakable dullness”) and the sensitive child’s aching but unexpressed empathy for a depressed mother. Surely this interplay between expression and restraint helps explain Judy’s appeal to anyone whose early encounters with parental stress or rejection taught them an unfortunate lesson: that the very act of feeling could threaten cherished relationships and must be masked through performance or repression to blunt its dangerous edge. And so her gift of melting hardened hearts—in highly controlled contexts—was exactly what many LGBTQ people craved as at least an occasional antidote to the grueling daily chore of self-numbing. Judy gave them not just a license to feel but a vehicle to transport them from forced stoicism to emotional release, a hot air balloon promising to float them to a place where they could be themselves.

I was never much of a Judy Queen, unless you count my childhood love of The Wizard of Oz. Born the year after Stonewall, I shared with many other gay men my age a reflexive disdain for what felt like the self-distancing personality type of our elders, the largely closeted cohort that, straining merely to survive the anguish of a double life, embraced irony, camp, drag, Broadway, and torch songs about life over the rainbow. Theirs was a world of emotional escape in which aesthetic pursuits and other elements of artifice, spectacle, and excess — by exaggerating superficial forms of emotion — sought to mask the real kind that was too dangerous and painful to feel.

The gay sensibility of my post-Stonewall generation, by contrast, entailed an effort to distinguish ourselves as more modern and more authentically ourselves, or so we thought, than those arch, hissing queens (recently personified in the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Boys in the Band) who seemed to lack the courage to be themselves. It’s not that we were more earnest than our elders; in fact, we remained haughtily distrustful of emoting, suspicious of anyone, including ourselves, who dared to care too much. And so, like our forebears, we too fled ourselves, albeit in ways that felt different, more evolved, by virtue of being our own.

Yet if some variety of self-flight was a defining feature of queer life for much of the last half century, there are signs that we may finally have landed somewhere beyond the rainbow. What Judy achieved only in the narrow confines of her performance life — accessing and exquisitely expressing genuine emotion — the descendants of Stonewall have begun to achieve in ordinary life. Some time since that summer night 50 years ago, the escapism of the LGBTQ mindset gave birth to its opposite: the successful quest for emotional authenticity in a world of ever-increasing artifice. A thread can now be drawn from the early queer movement’s demand for a politics of personal disclosure to the theatrical empathy of Oprah Winfrey to the ubiquity of the Instagram story to the hunger—and demand—for authentic political candidates whose story all of us can know.

Indeed, the LGBTQ movement didn’t just transform life for queer people, but changed the world, by inventing — and widely sharing — a simple act whose profound impact is indisputable: coming out. Data show a steady increase in the number of LGBTQ people who disclosed their identities in the decades after Stonewall, and research further documents the virtuous cycle of disclosure: The more people know someone who is LGBTQ the more likely they are to support their equality, which makes laws and policies protecting equal rights easier to establish, and that makes coming out easier. A growing body of scholarship on “minority stress” shows that coming out improves LGBTQ health, for precisely the reason Judy Garland tragically knew but could never transcend—outside of song: Pretending to be someone you’re not, as the price of being loved, is a deadly bargain; concealing your emotions and living a double life take enormous energy and strain relationships, from friendships to parental bonds to sham marriages which can only have waned in frequency as a result of growing tolerance and the emergence of legal same-sex marriage.

It is coming out that resulted in a mushrooming of openly gay and transgender lawmakers, CEOs, and celebrities, as well as what once seemed the unlikeliest of presidential candidacies: 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg, openly gay and married, as a top-five contender for the Democratic nomination in 2020. When state legislatures began to legalize same-sex marriage a decade ago, the victories were secured by the presence of openly gay lawmakers who raised their voices and dared their colleagues to look them in the eyes and vote against their humanity. When Washington state advanced toward legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009, one state representative shifted her position in favor, telling a gay colleague, “Getting to know you and your family, I saw it differently.” A study of the impact of ending one of the most odious anti-gay laws in history — the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred the very mention of the fact a soldier was gay — showed that it made life better for gay and straight troops alike.

The backlash against LGBTQ progress in the age of Trump is equally unmistakable. Hate crimes have ticked up in the U.S. and abroad; red states advance legislation to limit the rights created by same-sex marriages or to reverse their legality altogether; the president won a legal battle to re-instate a transgender military ban. In spots around the world, LGBTQ people fall prey to legal and physical assault, making it unsafe for them to express who they really are.

Stonewall’s legacy was never just about one group’s insistence on being treated like everyone else, but about everyone’s right to be themselves. It was about liberating all people from the need to snuff out their truest selves, from the compulsion to be someone they’re not.

Yet the more marked trend is the steady if halting advancement of Stonewall’s legacy — including its impact on those besides queer people. That legacy was never, after all, just about one group’s insistence on being treated like everyone else, but about everyone’s right to be themselves. It was about liberating people — all people — from the need to snuff out their truest selves, from the compulsion to be someone they’re not. It was about making a world where emotional expressions once forbidden could be not just permitted but embraced, about creating an Oz where love was unconditional and so realizing your true desires wouldn’t bar you from one day finding a place called home.

“When Stonewall happened,” said Edie Windsor, the plaintiff of the successful Supreme Court case that brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, “I was really this ignorant middle-class lady who said, ‘I don’t see why I have to be identified with those queens.’ ” Only years later, in her eighties, did she fully embrace the movement that made her whole, recognizing at last that “those queens changed my life!”

I, too, had to let down my guard to recognize how indebted we all are to the bravery of those hissing queens, and to find in their story — even as they dreamed of escape to a better world — the inspiration to expect and demand that this world allow us all to be ourselves. My grandfather had been so nervous to meet Judy Garland that he told Sid Luft, “I almost want to ask you how to act.” Luft replied: “Just be yourself.” I hope it’s something my grandfather learned to do better than Judy. I hope it’s something he somehow imparted to me too.

In researching When We Rise, a 2017 miniseries on the LGBTQ movement, the Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) was pressing a source on whether he was really at Stonewall and on what actually happened there. “You are completely missing the point,” the source told him. “These are all fabulous stories, aren’t they? The day before Stonewall, we didn’t think we deserved a fabulous story. The day after, we thought we deserved a story for the first time in our lives. That’s Stonewall.”

Judy thought she, too, deserved to have her story told — the story of the real Judy. There was more to her than a singing wind-up doll, she insisted, in describing the memoir she hoped to write. “There’s a woman, there are three children, there’s me, there’s a lot of life going here!” She never got to tell her story, but she left behind a legend that, like the fabulous stories of Stonewall, form our collective inheritance. In Judy’s wake, and in Stonewall’s, the LGBTQ movement can be viewed as a quest to give voice to untold stories, and in telling them, to make the world a more empathic, more emotionally liberated, more loving place, a place where we can all be ourselves. To me, I now can see, that’s Stonewall.

Nathaniel Frank, director of the What We Know Project, is the author of “Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America.” Follow @nfrankresearch

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