For this Pride month, we sat down with Dr. Jane Fleishman, author of The Stonewall Generation: LGBTQ Elders on Sex, Activism, and Aging, and Northampton resident, to talk about what Pride means to her. Read her very insightful and personal responses to our questions below.
WMEC: What history of the LGBTQ+ community can you share with us?
JANE: I’ve been involved in what we used to call the ‘Gay Liberation’ movement since 1979 when I first came out as a lesbian in my 20s and attended the first national demonstration in Washington, DC on the National Mall. I remember the banner we created on a bedsheet that said HARTFORD LESBIANS and was aghast because I had never seen the word lesbian in such big letters before. It was something! I was both excited about my first big march for our rights but also a little nervous about being so ‘out’ at such a large gathering. A few years later, I was one of the organizers of the first local Pride March in Northampton, for Gay and Lesbian Liberation. Northampton was always a home for out and proud lesbians with a really vibrant community. We were even named Lesbianville, USA in 1991. What I remember about the early days of our movement here which seemed to mirror other places was that we were a small, radical group of people trying to attain our own human rights at a time when it felt as if the rest of the world was against us. Later on, we became the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual rights movement to become more inclusive of bisexuals (and boy was that a fight). And today, the LGBTQ+ umbrella is even more inclusive but there’s still so much more room for understanding our differences within our own community.
WMEC: What is the Stonewall Generation, and what is important for people to know?
JANE: The Stonewall Generation are those of us in the baby boomer years, born between 1946-1964, who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. We are the people who lived through McCarthyism in the 1950s, the police harassment and violence in the bars in the 60s, the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, the early days of the liberation struggles in the 70s, lost friends and lovers and brothers in the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and fought hard for legislative and judicial changes in the last 30 years. We are the ones who have often been part of other movements as well: many of us were involved in the anti-war, feminist, environmental, civil rights, and other movements that were part of our youth. When I wrote my book, The Stonewall Generation: LGBTQ Elders on Sex, Activism, and Aging, I began by thinking that the book was going to be about people who were there at the Stonewall Tavern on June 28, 1969. But what I realized, after crossing the country and interviewing a number of LGBTQ elders, my book was about the impact of the Stonewall Rebellion. Some of the people who are in my book were there that night, David Velasco Bermudez and Miss Major Griffin Gracy. But the rest were people whose lives were incontrovertibly changed by the reverberations of Stonewall across the country. If you can pick up a copy of my book at a local bookstore, it would mean the world to me and to the people whose life stories are in it.
WMEC: What does “Pride” mean to you?
JANE: When I was thinking about having children in the 80s and 90s, people used to ask me whether I’d be ‘out’ to my kids. And it was kind of an astonishing question. I had been an activist, an organizer, and an out member of the community for over 20 years and felt proud of my community, my work, and myself. Of course I’d be out to them. Our kids have two lesbian moms and two gay dads. I wanted our kids to know who we were and how proud we were to be lesbians and gay men. I never wanted our kids to be shocked to hear who their parents were. That’s what pride means to me on a very personal level. To be proud of who you are, even when it means you are not part of the mainstream.
WMEC: While being LGBTQ+ is much more accepted today than in the Stonewall Generation, what is it like for an LGBTQ+ person to navigate the world today? What challenges do they face that we may not be aware of?
JANE: Great question. People are not just one thing. In fact, the most important thing to remember is that an LGBTQ+ individual may be facing not just one set of stereotypes but if they are older, or a person of color, or disabled, or poor, or marginalized in any way, we face even more stereotypes and oppressions. LGBTQ+ elders have higher rates of chronic health conditions, have fewer economic resources, and are often denied access to health care. And yet, in my doctoral research on LGBTQ+ elders, my results indicated that they are also highly resilient and know how to create community to forestall many of these risk factors.
WMEC: How can I show my support if I’m not part of the LGBTQ+ community? What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an ally, but doesn’t know where to start?
JANE: It may sound contradictory, but to be a good ally is not to do anything. Don’t try to fix the situation for anyone else. Don’t try to speak for them. Don’t try to be them. Stand shoulder to shoulder and listen, really listen, to what they have to say. The difficult stuff and the stuff they want. Then be with them to see if you can be a resource. If you work in an industry like senior services, be an organizational ally by doing the same thing, but on a larger scale. Create visibility for LGBTQ+ elders by having positive images of people in same-sex relationships on your walls. Bring in a few rainbow flags. Increase your library’s holdings of books on LGBTQ+ peoples’ lives. A wonderful book just came out about trans lives by a local author, Peggy Gillespie, called Authentic Selves. Read and keep up with what’s going on with anti-trans legislation and be an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Work with SAGE to get training if you work in senior living. Learn as much as you can. And keep curious. Keep asking questions!
WMEC: What can we do to support the LGBTQ+ community during Pride month, and throughout the year?
JANE: During the month of June, show your support by having educational and social programs that highlight LGBTQ+ lives. But don’t stop there. Liberation is a long-term struggle. There’s a great conference happening on June 15 focusing on LGBTQ+ elders and it’s online and quite affordable. The keynote speaker is a good friend of mine, Dr. Imani Woody, who is a leader in advocating for affordable housing for LGBTQ+ elders through Mary’s House. I’m also giving a workshop on loving your queer old body and it’s going to be very positive and really fun!
WMEC: How do you see the future of the LGBTQ+ community?
JANE: I’m very heartened to see all of the new people starting to take over Pride celebrations here in Northampton, Boston, New York, and other cities. It’s time. The old guard (my generation) did an amazing job of getting Pride events off the ground. But they were very white. This new crop of leaders is far more diverse and far more broad-based. We’ve got a lot of work to do in this current period where members of the trans community have been targeted by hate groups and discriminatory legislation. There are literally hundreds of bills in state legislatures all across the country trying to roll back many of the changes we’ve made in the last 50 years. We need to keep fighting, keep vigilant, and keep aware of ways we can stop this kind of hatred. But we can do it if we all work together!
WMEC thanks Jane for sharing her time and personal experiences. For more information on Pride month and the LGBTQ+ community, check out Noho Pride, SAGE, Diverse Elders Coalition.