Know Your History


By Deanna Davenport

One of the things I looked forward to in the past year was the return of Will and Grace. This show about two friends living together after one leaves their fiancé at the altar taught me a lot about sexual identity and made me laugh along the way. The original 8 season airing is iconic and I have met a lot of people (straight, gay, or otherwise) that reference the show. I seem to be on the outskirts of this fandom because a lot of the original viewers are either my mother’s age or slightly younger, so maybe I should explain. Will and Grace is a show about Will (a lawyer working for a corporation) and Grace (an interior designer who left her fiancé at the altar) living together in an apartment and hanging out with their friends Jack (an actor) and Karen (a socialite). I described it this way on purpose because while two of the characters are gay, only one fits the stereotypes from the late 90s/early 2000s and if it weren’t for the storylines about dating and relatable moments for gay people, you wouldn’t be able to point the other out. That’s how gay characters should be written (with distinctly different personalities, likes, dislikes, friendships, relationships, causes, etc.), but I completely digress, for now. For the record, Will and Jack are gay.

This isn’t about the show. It’s about something that happened on it. In the reboot, there is an episode in which Jack and Will go out to meet guys and Will ends up with this young man played by Ben Platt (from Pitch Perfect). While the two are flirting, it comes out that this young man doesn’t know gay history. Platt’s character carries the attitude that screams “who cares?” and ends up getting educated by Will. This made me realize that a lot of LGBTQ+ identifiers don’t really know the struggles that came before them and the things they take for granted. That kind of upsets me because we only recently obtained the right to marry people of the same sex, and there are people who aren’t/weren’t of age to get married or haven’t even been born yet who will identify as gay and not feel the frustration that comes with wanting to marry someone and not being able to. Don’t get me wrong, you should want what’s best for those around you and I do, but we have fought for these rights and if they don’t get the education they need about these issues, they’ll take it for granted and possibly roll their eyes at the idea that there was ever an issue. We can’t let that happen, so here is a brief history of the fight for gay rights.

We’ll start with the way Pride came along. The Stonewall Inn is a gay bar located in New York City that also housed gay youth who were put out on the streets. The inn had a history of helping those in need. In the 1960s, it was common practice for the police to perform raids on gay hangouts, often harassing those in attendance. On June 28th, 1969, some officers decided to raid the Stonewall. This backfired on them when Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman, threw a brick in the window while others were chanting. Thus began the Stonewall Riots! The riots lasted for six days and involved thousands of people. It got plenty of media coverage, too. On the one-year anniversary of the riots, a parade was held in New York and a few other cities, and now, we have that parade every year and call it the Pride Parade. The riots started the gay liberation movement and became the basis for what LGBTQ+ individuals find important. I want to point out that 1969 was only 49 years ago. That’s not long at all.

On to the next subject, focusing completely on Marsha P. Johnson. I think of her as a personal hero. Not only was she the driving force of the Stonewall Riots, a sex worker, drag queen of almost 30 years, and an activist, she was a Black transgender woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. I’m not trans, but I find a lot of the person I am and the things I care about in Ms. Johnson. She spent most of her life battling homelessness, injustice, and mental illness. At one point, Andy Warhol used her as a model. Queen is the only word I can think to describe this woman. She was so amazing and she touched so many lives that when she died in 1992 at the age of 46, people were crushed. It wasn’t just losing a friend, but a voice for some. She wasn’t just about gay rights. Socioeconomic justice, AIDS patients, and homeless youth are just a small part of her legacy. The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson was made for Netflix and I think people should watch it. People still find her death suspicious and think of it as the doing of the government (which is the case with most African-American activists that make a difference) and if Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X can be learned about in schools, there should be room made for Ms. Marsha P Johnson.

Honestly, these are the more well-known events in the history of LGBTQ+ rights and while they are huge, every moment is an important moment. Whether it’s Marsha and the brick, changing the laws on same sex couples and adoption, being able to marry whoever you want, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or any of the other fantastic steps that have been taken to improve the quality of life for the LGBTQ+ community, it is up to the identifiers to educate themselves and make their knowledge/presence known. We still have things to fight for, but we need to know our history and what we have so that we can hold on to it. If we take it for granted, they can take it away.