Fifty years after Stonewall, much progress but fears remain

Catherine TRIOMPHE
1 / 3

Stanley Reed (L) and husband Oliver Hummel (R) pose in New York -- they say while a lot of progress has been made since the Stonewall uprising, prejudice still remains

Stanley Reed (L) and husband Oliver Hummel (R) pose in New York -- they say while a lot of progress has been made since the Stonewall uprising, prejudice still remains (AFP Photo/Johannes EISELE)

New York (AFP) - Oliver Hummel was 16 and Stanley Reed was only 12 in June 1969 when a protest outside New York's legendary Stonewall Inn sparked a week of riots -- and galvanized the modern gay rights movement.

Fifty years later, Hummel and Reed, who have been together for nearly half that time, are married. And while they are happy with the progress that has been made, they are still wary about the future.

"Yes, a lot has happened, a lot has moved forward, but in a lot of places, we are still stagnating," says the 62-year-old Reed, who works for a health insurance company.

"It's a never-ending battle."

Reed, who is black and whose parents demonstrated for civil rights, nevertheless worries that outside the liberal bubble of the Big Apple, LGBTQ acceptance is still not a given.

In an interview in Greenwich Village, the heart of New York's gay community, he mentions the June beating of a lesbian couple who had refused to kiss for a gang of youths aboard a London night bus.

He also talks about the savage attacks, sometimes deadly, on transgender people -- a group that is particularly vulnerable.

"I think that we have a false sense of security," says Reed, who lives with Hummel in Queens, far from the tourist haven of Manhattan.

"While you might think you are secure here, then you go on vacation some place and it's a whole other world," he adds.

"I think it is good to educate yourself before you go out of your little comfort zone."

- 'License to act' -

Since Stonewall, the gay community has endured the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, lamented the US military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and grieved the brutal 1998 killing of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

They have also rejoiced at the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, and advances in protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

But then came Donald Trump. Reed and Hummel, who were married in 2012, believe the Republican president's administration opened the door once again to overt discrimination.

"He has given those with a backward attitude a license to act on their behavior," Reed says, recalling Trump's handling of violence in Charlottesville in 2017, and what critics call his tacit encouragement to white supremacists by not explicitly condemning them.

"When he doesn't speak out against this type of behavior, violence, then he is condoning it."

In the current climate, the couple -- who often act as mentors to young LGBTQ people -- caution them to remain on their guard, and to be prudent about broadcasting their sexual orientation.

"It is really safety in numbers," says Hummel, who was shocked to see that a few of the emblematic rainbow flags of the gay pride movement were recently torched in New York's Harlem neighborhood.

"But if you are a solitary person on a dark street, you are open game -- you are open game still."

- 'It's still not safe' -

When Hummel, an art therapist, came out to his family at age 16, he got a mixed reaction.

"I really took the coward's way out," he explains. "I wrote a letter and I put it on the table. The coward part about this was the last line -- 'I don't want to discuss this'."

"It's now easily 50 years later and it's still one of those things we walk around," he says, noting that his sister is fine with it but his brother never talks about it.

"I look back and I say, 'That wasn't a good idea to do it that way'."

Reed, who was 22 when he told his family he was gay, says while no one was thrilled, they accepted it more easily.

"My mother had conversations with me and my friends. She was saying, 'If you want rights, you have to go out and get them. They are not going to come to you,'" he told AFP.

That advice, even a half-century after Stonewall, is still valid, the couple says.

"People are encouraged to be out -- to be more open. That's a real difference, and I think that's a good thing and a bad thing," Hummel says.

"Sometimes by being out early, you make the assumption that it's safe, and it's still not safe."

And Reed encourages everyone in the community to be alert.

"We do walk around believing that we are safe... and then somebody hits you with a bottle because they see kissing, and their rage -- it explodes," he says.

"It happens constantly."