Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
July 4, 2000
Author/s: Bruce Vilanch
I wandered over to the Stonewall the other day--not one in the chain of gay Starbucks knockoffs that have sprung up on the West Coast but the Stonewall Inn, the place where it all started. There's a plaque reminding you of this as you enter the dark bar just off Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, a part of Manhattan that gay people who have moved uptown to Chelsea now refer to as "the old country."
Stonewall really is where it all started--the first anguished outcry of our oppressed minority. Probably by coincidence the riots that gripped the Village 31 years ago occurred several days after the death of Judy Garland. But over the decades it has always seemed to me that it was the combination of the two events that marked the end of the secret society that was gay life and the beginning of our being out in the world. So the Stonewall is a pretty significant spot on the homo map of the universe.
The Dutch tourists who followed me into the bar recognized that too. You could see it in the eager anticipation that filled their faces as their eyes grew accustomed to the gloom of what is, when you get down to it, just another Village watering hole. They stood, looking around at the sullen afternoon drinkers, and doubled back to check out the plaque in the entryway. "Dis is da Stun-val?" one of them asked me, disbelief registering on those spectacular features that so many Dutchmen are given by a god who evidently loves tulips and wooden clogs.
"Yah," I found myself saying, as if I were about to launch into a conversation in their native tongue. They shook their heads, looked at each other, and moved on. In Amsterdam they would at least have offered me a syringe. I moved on too, not after them but away from the Stonewall--which is not an unfriendly place, just an unimpressive one--and to a performance of the new off-Broadway hit The Laramie Project. This is the theater piece assembled by Moises Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project, the same troupe that organized Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. The actor-writers made two trips to Laramie, Wyo., interviewed anyone who would speak with them, and came back with a meticulous and compelling examination of the Matthew Shepard horror, which they perform on a bare stage with a minimum of props and a maximum of dialects. It's a sweeping, moving, and important document, and because it has so many showy roles, we are almost guaranteed that it will be mounted by college and community theaters for years to come.
I was particularly caught by one of the play's many moving images, perhaps because I had just hiked up from the Stonewall. A townsperson takes one of the visiting actors to visit the fence where Matthew was tethered for those agonizing hours. As they drive, he talks of the people who come every day to just stand at the fence, maybe touch it, walk around it, observe it from every angle. Some stand and meditate.
As he describes this action, other actors perform it. There are stalks of wheat on the stage and a slide projection of endless fields, and you get the sense that the fence, which is in the middle of nowhere but clearly on somebody's property--why else would there be a fence?--takes a little bit of getting to. And yet people find their way there. Because they have to. They've come all the way to Laramie because of their emotional connection to what happened there. They need a tangible sign, a physical connection. And there is no more immediate and powerful spot than that fence.
The Stonewall, welcoming as it is, doesn't have that resonance and never could. No other place in our collected history possibly could. We don't have an Auschwitz to visit, a war memorial to touch, a national holiday to celebrate. We have a quilt, and it is an exquisite, devastating symbol, but it memorializes those we lost to a disease, not those we lost simply because they refused to be invisible. Maybe some enterprising dot-com zillionaire will buy that land in Wyoming and protect that touchstone, and maybe some more of us, myself included, will make that trip to bear witness. And our daily presence will make it impossible for Laramie, or the world, ever to forget.