When I left home at age eighteen, my first independent act was to look for a psychiatrist to cure me of being gay. I found one, too — not in Mississippi, not in Kansas — but right here in progressive San Francisco.
It was 1967, and “reparative therapy” – now discredited as quackery — was standard treatment for gays and lesbians everywhere in the country. The social atmosphere was oppressive to a degree that even those of us who lived through it sometimes forget. In those days it was considered a breach of good taste even to mention gay people, much less to say anything positive about them. I remember that, when I was fourteen, having just figured out that I was “one of them,” I went to the library and surreptitiously looked myself up in the card catalogue. What I read said it all: “Homosexuality: see also, perversion, psychopathic deviance.” It never occurred to me to doubt what every “authority” around me said was true. And so I went into “therapy” for over two years — which meant opening my life to a man who contemptuously treated my lust, my love, and my most tender feelings, as symptoms of an all-but-hopeless mental disorder. My shame, despair, and loneliness increased with every week of this treatment.
Then, in June of 1969, something happened that changed my life completely. One hot evening in New York the police conducted a routine raid of a gay bar to keep the queers in their place; but this time the queers fought back – for days. As it was happening, the Stonewall uprising was a little-covered story, and the few in the media who did report it mostly treated it as a joke. But I was stunned, electrified. This was impossible – the ones with no right to human dignity were claiming it anyway. Clearly others were as moved as I was, because overnight it was on: the resolute march out of the closet, by the tens of thousands, of people just like me who’d had enough and weren’t going to hide any more.
The new gay liberation movement challenged everything I’d thought I knew about who I was. By then I was in college studying psychology, and had learned enough to examine with a more informed and critical eye the anti-gay psychology I’d been taught. I was amazed to discover that there was no science in it at all, and that what little real science did exist at the time completely contradicted the “mental illness” myth I’d been raised to take for granted. I’d been sold a bill of goods.
At first I was completely disoriented. In my early teens I’d formed an identity that involved being “the one struggling to recover from mental illness.” Who was I without that identity? But over time all my doubts, fears and confusions resolved into a realization that life was asking me one simple question. The question was “Do you or do you not have the courage to live the one and only life that is in you to live?” For the first time in my life, I was able to say “Yes!” to that question and to my life. I found the way back into myself because of what others before me had started at Stonewall.
I’d already decided that I wanted to become a therapist, but now I had a new purpose. I resolved that I would devote my professional life to doing all in my power to see that no other gay person would ever again be subjected to the kind of psychological abuse that I had endured. That commitment has guided my professional life from that day to this.
I never met anyone who participated in the Stonewall rebellion, but I owe them all a debt of gratitude that I can never pay. We’re all connected more than we can ever know. Never doubt that when you live from your truth the effects ripple outward and may profoundly affect the lives of people you will never meet That is as true today as it was when I was young. This month, as we celebrate, young people all over the country — still trapped in fear and secrecy and shame — will be aware of us. Remember them. They will be with us in spirit, and we will never know how many of them will find the inner strength and the hope to continue to live because of what we do.
We create the kind of world we want to live in by living the lives that are in us to live. Our journey to full equality remains a work in progress, but the world we’re building and will leave to those who follow us is light years distant from the world I knew in 1967. This month, may all my brothers and sisters everywhere celebrate the gift of their lives with dignity and pride and joy.