Feature writing

Stonewall 50

Suze Orman on Stonewall 50: ‘I have tears in my eyes. How do you thank somebody for giving you your life?’

The Daily Beast

June 7, 2019

Suze Orman talks candidly to Tim Teeman: ‘The Stonewall Riots were my entrée into being introduced to other gay people. If that hadn’t happened who knows what would have happened?’

When and how did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots, and what did you make of them?

1969, when the riots happened, was the year I just graduated high school. I was 18. I knew I was gay. I was working at my father’s little deli, Morry’s Deli on Chicago Avenue, off Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. And this black woman comes in [whose name Orman cannot recall], and she said, “Suze, it’s about time we talked.”

And I’m looking at her, like, “What are you talking about?” And she said, “I can tell that you’re gay.” And I went, “OK.”

And she said, “I want you to come to an event on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. An event just happened in New York by the name of Stonewall.” And I hadn’t heard about it until she said something. I said, “What is a stone wall?”

She said, “There was a group of people who are finally taking back their rights and they are gay. We’ve been dealing with this on the university campus for a while now. We’re going to have a formal meeting, and I think you would really enjoy coming.”

She used to come in every day and I would wait on her.

We had a little flirtation, back and forth, but then I flirted with everyone—all women—back then. It didn’t matter.

She picked up on me being gay. But up until that point, I had never verbally really ever said to anybody, “I’m gay.” People had their suspicions. My best friends had a suspicion. But they never said anything. Even though it was obvious I had crushes on all these women all the time.

I said to her, “How do you expect me to get to this meeting?”

She said, “I’ll pick you up and I’ll take you.”

She took me. What was interesting about it for me was that it was almost all men. There were very few women, if at all. I loved being there, whatever. That was the summer of 1969. I was 18.

Then I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That first year or second year—I can’t remember which one it was—I started to go to Gay Liberation meetings. Again, they were all almost all men. I was one of a few women that were there. I had a very difficult time relating to how the men were being gay because they were all talking about dating this one and sleeping with another. As a woman, I was like “I don’t think so.” I wanted to meet a woman and not sleep with all these other women.

In 1970 or 1971, I opened up a gay women’s house on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Four of us lived there. We started to hold meetings for just women. Stonewall was absolutely the beginning of people being able to speak up and go for it. All through college I would go to little towns like Paxton, Illinois, to give talks about being gay. I was quite radical back then as you would expect me to be.

What is the significance of the Stonewall Riots for you now?

That was the beginning of me being able to be me. In 1973, I left Illinois and moved to the San Francisco area. I came home with a girlfriend in 1974, and my mom and dad, my whole family, was there. I was talking to my aunt and uncle, and they asked why I had moved to San Francisco. I said, “So I can be gay, it’s a lot easier to be gay there than anywhere else.” Everybody was like, “What are you talking about?” I thought everyone knew. That was my coming out, without me even knowing I was coming out.

If Stonewall never happened, that woman would not have come into Morry’s deli and said, “Suze, let’s go to this thing.” And I would never have been surrounded by other gay people like that. It was the first time I was surrounded by gay people. I was the only gay person I knew.

The Stonewall Riots were my entrée into being introduced to other gay people, and if that hadn’t happened, who knows what would have happened?

Do you remember the first time visiting the Stonewall Inn itself?

Yes, years later in 1980. I didn’t have the exact address. I became a stockbroker. I went to Greenwich Village every night just to be able to walk around by myself and to be around gay people. Back then you couldn’t google it. Everybody had different stories about where it was. But eventually I found it.

Back then, gay bars were so essential to the culture of being gay; the White Horse Inn in Champaign-Urbana was our savior, the place you could absolutely just feel normal. The things went on in that bar were so amazing. I remember one guy looking very familiar. It was one of my professors, wearing a toupée. He was married with kids.

They pushed LGBT people too far at Stonewall that night, thank god.

Things also happened in Chicago when it came to people making a stand in terms of gay liberation, but no one talked about it. The focus was on New York and San Francisco.

How far have LGBT people come since 1969?

We should feel very nervous about Trump, but honest to God, I never thought in my lifetime I would be able, in the United States of America, to say I’m married (to Kathy “KT” Travis) and for it to be legal.

We married in South Africa in 2010, and a year or two later I said on Piers Morgan’s TV show that if marriage equality wasn’t legalized in America within the next 10 years I would give up my citizenship. There was no way I was paying millions of dollars in taxes and everything else to a country that does not recognize me. Thank God I didn’t have to do it. But I was willing to back it up.

We’ve come so far. I was talking to my niece, who has three kids, and I said one of them might be gay. She said that she hoped so.

I never take any of the progress for granted. Never in a million years would I have believed we would get Mayor Pete (Buttigieg), who will hopefully be nominee for president of the United States on the Democrat side. If anybody can do it he can do it.

What would you like to see, LGBT-wise, in the next 50 years?

I would like everybody to be who they are and not be labeled gay, straight, queer, and transgender. I would like them to be “Suze,” “Tim,” and “KT”—and that’s it. And not even think about it anymore, for it just to be how it is.

Hopefully the right people get voted in, and we achieve legal equality. Even more important are people’s attitudes. You can have all the laws protecting us, and still have somebody hit you or shoot you. My dream is that the laws are there to protect us, and years and years from now people will protect and respect one another as human beings, in terms of race, sexuality, gender, nationality, and religion—that we are all just seen as God’s people.

What would you say today to the woman who came to the deli if you could, and to the Stonewall demonstrators?

Right now, I have goosebumps in my arms and legs and tears in my eyes. I would say to them… How do you thank somebody for giving you your life? How do you do that? I don’t think there are words large enough or positive enough to express my gratitude.