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Before Stonewall

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I don't remember when I first encountered Tom Wilson Weinberg's Ten Percent Revue; sometime in the early '90s, probably. I had a cassette recording for many years, and upgraded it to CD (and then transferred it to iTunes) a couple years ago.

This afternoon, I left Westercon for a few hours to head up to Robert & Sonya's party, and on the way I listened to music from my iPhone (through the car stereo), and Weinberg's song “Before Stonewall” came on.

It made me cry, as usual. Terribly sad, and yet with a thread of hope.

There was a time before demonstrations

When the queens and fairies were shy and fearful;

We ran and we hid from the fist and the knife

And we still found each other, the ones in the life.

I was hoping that the lyrics would be online somewhere; I can't find 'em, but you can hear a recording of the song streamed from the Queer Music Heritage site. I don't like this recording quite as much as the version in Ten Percent Revue; this one is a 2004 rendition by the New York City Gay Men's Chorus. But it still has most of the power of the original.

(Added a couple years later: the original is now available from the iTunes Store.)

(Added in 2016: You can also listen to it on YouTube.)

The lines that really always get to me are these:

There was a time back before Stonewall:

We heard the jokes and we joined the laughter. . . .

The song's quasi-chorus highlights some of the passphrases people used back in those days. “Do you know Dorothy?” At the party this afternoon, I had occasion to mention the time that I got in a taxi in Salt Lake City and the (lesbian) driver immediately asked me if I was “family” and then told me about gay culture in SLC, but it didn't occur to me until now that that's another passphrase, though one not mentioned in the song.

Hearing the song again made me think about how far we've come, in such a relatively short time. From that time before Stonewall to same-sex marriage in New York: forty-two years. Too long—a lifetime for far too many—but not all that long as major social change goes.

Of course, in too much of the world, and even too much of the US, we're still in a kind of time warp, back to those bad old days. The victory in New York doesn't even come close to resolving things for the whole country. And even in the liberal queer-friendly parts of the US, some people are still closeted, some people are still bullied, some people are still attacked and killed. Sometimes we still hear the jokes and join the laughter.

But things are getting better. Slowly but surely, things are getting better.

I just wish that more of those who were there before Stonewall were still around to see it happening.

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