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A birthday is bound to prompt a reflection on the arc of one’s life. For me, turning 43 on June 29, when I look at my Point A, I look to Stonewall.
If I were straight, it might strike me as a rather insignificant coincidence. But – thank God for small favors – I’m gay, and that coincidence is part of my identity. When I began writing essays for an audience, there was no question what I would call my column: ”Stonewall Baby.”
Along this arc, I’m the generation that hit puberty hearing of ”gay-related immunodeficiency,” later AIDS. That was 1982. Those days, when I thought of gay, I wondered if AIDS was something I would spontaneously generate with my same-sex fantasies. I watched Rock Hudson get sick, read of him being taken to the same hospital where I’d been born.
Mid-’80s high school in Florida hardly allowed for gay-straight student alliances. Though one such informal alliance had a ”girlfriend” vouch that I was most assuredly not gay. She knew I was, but for the sake of my safety, she poured it on.
My first gay bar was Tracks – not in D.C., but Tampa – on 18-and-over night. That’s where I also turned 21. That’s the city where I first shared a home with a boyfriend.
By the early 1990s, I was taking part in ”die-ins” on D.C. streets. In 1991, I got my first HIV test. Driving to get my results at Richmond’s Fan Free Clinic, the stress got to me. REM was on the radio, Michael Stipe advising that he’d see me in heaven if I made the list. Who wouldn’t start crying?
When Matthew Shepard was murdered, I remember at a party in New York, someone wanted to just go out and beat up some straight people. We all knew better, of course. And time went on.
In Portland, Ore., I began learning about gender identity in ways far beyond my father telling me about attending college with Renee Richards, née Richard Raskind. My father’s only point was that Richard had sex with women at school, or so my dad thought. In 2012, it seems such a silly non-point. More illuminating were stories in the mid 1990s from people like Margaret Dierdre O’Hartigan, who gave me my earliest meaningful notions of gender identity and the attendant politics.
The century changed. Jesse Helms finally got off the stage. I got domestically partnered. Then I got married.
From Stonewall to now, in a nutshell.
But there is another Stonewall birthday I’m thinking of this year – though not from 1969. Gad Beck was born June 30, 1923, in Berlin. He died Sunday, June 24. He celebrated the Stonewall riots with his 46th birthday.
Beck’s 89 years are what I’ll be toasting this year. Not just because he was born, like me, at the end of June. It’s because he is inspiring.
Beck was considered to be the last gay Jewish Holocaust survivor. That alone is not what inspires me. It is that, with a German-gentile mother who converted to Judaism, he had a measure of privilege in Nazi Germany beyond full Jews. Instead of hiding behind it, he risked all that he had, first in an attempt to save his Jewish boyfriend, who couldn’t bring himself to abandon his family, instead perishing with them at Auschwitz. Beck continued fighting Nazis as a member of the resistance, till he was betrayed and imprisoned. I will toast Beck Saturday, and his partner of 35 years who survives him. And for the rest of my life, at this time of year particularly, I will remember those drag queens and kids at Stonewall and the brave Gad Beck, all of whom fought back when it would’ve been easier to hide.
Will O’Bryan is Metro Weekly‘s managing editor. Contact him at wobryan@MetroWeekly.com.