I have often ended up in Sheridan Square to protest something horridly homophobic. But hours after the Supreme Court overturned the sodomy laws, I came here for the first time to celebrate. Yet my jubilation was tinged with an odd melancholy. This is how I always get when something wonderful brings back bad memories.
I remember when the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that sodomy laws were okey-dokey. I remember raging in Sheridan Square and sitting down in the middle of Seventh Avenue. I remember returning on July 4th and marching down to the Battery to disrupt an Independence Day event. I remember the fuck-you feeling that seethed in me for weeks.
I remember my first visit to a gay bar, a few years before the Stonewall uprising. The first thing I noticed was a sign reading “Gentlemen Must Face the Bar.” A red light over the small dance floor flickered every time the cops came near. All physical contact would stop—and I don’t mean stuff that met the definition of sodomy. It was illegal to sell a drink to a homosexual in New York City, and any evidence that the men in this bar were gay could be used against its owners, not to mention the patrons themselves.
I remember driving across country with an ACLU booklet in the glove compartment. It was called “The Rights of Gay People,” and it described the patchwork of laws against homosexuality, state by state. I remember discovering that if I camped in a national park in a state without sodomy laws the park itself fell under federal jurisdiction, so I could be arrested under another statute simply for sharing my sleeping bag—and my body—with another guy. (I did anyway.)
I remember staying with my boyfriend in a small motel somewhere in the southwest. As we settled into bed, we heard the crackle of a police radio. A cop car was parked right under our window, and though the curtains were closed we couldn’t get the sound out of our minds. To break the ice, we yelled: “Attention, sodomites! We know you are in there.” That line became one of our private jokes. It helped allay the foreboding that attached itself to our travels. When a police siren rang, we never quite knew whether it tolled for us.
I remember when the friend who took me to my first gay bar—the one with the red warning light—killed himself over his father’s reaction to his homosexuality.
I remember the night a man who thought homos were the devil shot up a gay bar in the Village, killing perhaps half a dozen people.
I remember when the Pride March was the largest illegal procession in New York. (No one dreamed of getting a permit.)
I remember when the state legislature took New York’s sodomy law off the books. That was in 2000, 20 years after the state courts had declared the statute unconstitutional. The gap was a way to remind us that while we couldn’t be busted for having sex the stigma against what we did still stood.
And now? Standing in Sheridan Square, surrounded by young queers bursting with confidence and sensuality, I felt like shouting to myself: “Attention, sodomite! At ease.”
Return to Richard Goldstein’s article “Free At Last? What the Sodomy Ruling Has Changed—and What It Hasn’t”