Feature writing

Stonewall 50

Bruce Vilanch: ‘I Thought Someone Must Have Put Something in the Water to Make the Queens Go Nuclear’

The Daily Beast

June 22, 2019

Bruce Vilanch says: ‘Stonewall wasn’t the Arab Spring… It was the beginning of visibility, which is how gay people got their power. Coming out publicly was the first step.’

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

Detroit, where the word riot is not unknown. I was an entertainment writer for the Detroit Free Press, reviewing things and interviewing visiting divas. The world was not as instantly connected then, so when I came in the morning after and checked the wires, I saw this story out of New York about a riot at a homosexual hangout in Greenwich Village.

Stonewall was not someplace I went to when I was in New York, but I knew of it. We all knew the gay bars everywhere were backed by the Mob as money-laundering joints, so I thought someone must have put something in the water to make the queens go nuclear.

For a long time, many of us assumed it had something to do with Judy Garland’s death, people in extreme grief acting out, etc. It was only later that we in the hinterlands knew that it was so much more than that.

What is their significance for you?

It was the beginning of the gay liberation movement, which morphed into the AIDS movement and eventually the marriage equality movement. It was the first shot across the bow of the rest of the world. But it shouldn’t be confused with the Arab Spring, or Paris in ‘68. It built slowly after Stonewall, but it built. It was also the beginning of visibility, which is how gay people got their power. Coming out publicly was the first step.

How far have we LGBT people come since 1969?

We have gone from dipping our toe in the water to swimming in the mainstream. We now are free to do, and freely DO do, three things we eschewed in 1969: marriage, children and military. For those who liked the outlaw aspect of gay life, it all sounds hopelessly square. But it’s only square when square gays practice it.

My extreme leftist friends think gay life is the bougiest thing since brie—the cheese, not Captain Marvel—and my old school friends pine for yellow hankies in the left back pocket and all the codes you had to learn, but that’s just the nostalgia that comes with age. No one wants to go back to the days where you were afraid to talk to someone because he might be there to arrest you.

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

AIDS, what’s that? And a presidential library in South Bend, Indiana.