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    Celebrating Saying No to the Normal: Stonewall 50

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    In the NPR podcast White Lies exploring the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s, African American activists recount the importance to the movement of awakening from an internalized belief that living in poverty and being deprived of basic human rights under the threat of violence was simply normal. Charles Mauldin, then a Selma high school student, describes how “we had been terrorized into staying inside of the box,” but then an organizer “began to ask [us] questions that we had never dared ask ourselves because it was just too threatening.” Maudlin describes how it “takes electricity to somehow shock you” out of “the normalcy of white supremacy … poverty … and lack of distribution of wealth.”

    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his speech at the conclusion of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, put it famously: “The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all of God’s children.”

    Fifty years ago, queer patrons of the Stonewall Inn also chose no longer to accept what was then perceived as “normal,” i.e., police raids on LGBT bars and other establishments and queer people living under a cloud of fear and repression. They too demanded a new normal based on their dignity and worth. The symbolic lightning bolt of the Stonewall riots electrified a burgeoning gay liberation movement that changed the world.

    Recent Victories Around the Globe

    As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stonewall at Pride this year, we look to recent victories around the globe: marriage equality coming to Ecuador, the first marriages of LGBTIQ couples ever in Asia taking place in Taiwan, a court in the southern African nation of Botswana striking down that country’s law criminalizing same-sex sexual activity that dated back to British colonial rule, and Bhutan’s national legislature voting to repeal a similar law in that Himalayan kingdom.

    The court in Botswana proclaimed that anti-LGBTIQ laws “deserve a place in the museum or archives and not in the world” and that “[s]exual orientation is not a fashion statement. It is an important attribute of one’s personality.” Last year, Botswana’s President Mokgweetsi Masisi stated that “many people of same sex relationships in this country … have been violated and have also suffered in silence for fear of being discriminated. Just like other citizens, they deserve to have their rights protected.”

    In Bhutan, the influential Buddhist teacher Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explained that “if your meditation is not making you see the truth, you are basically rotting your butt,” and that “sexual orientation has nothing to do with understanding or not understanding the truth.” He continued that “you could be gay, you could be lesbian, you could be straight, we never know which one will get enlightened first.”

    Refusing to Accept a ‘Normal’ of Discrimination and Repression

    In the White Lies podcast, Bernard Lafayette, a young activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, recalls: “You had to have a great imagination [to believe] that any change was going to happen in Selma, Alabama.”

    The queer people who fought back at Stonewall 50 years ago could hardly have imagined that the LGBTIQ rights movement would be fighting back and making gains over 7,000 miles away in Botswana and Bhutan today. Yet that is exactly what is happening today because people continue to awaken and refuse to accept a “normal” of discrimination and repression, and imagine a new normal of freedom and equality—just as activists did in the 1960s.

    Today, we also reflect on how earlier this month as many as 2 million Hong Kong residents—possibly up to a quarter of the entire Hong Kong population—took to the streets in defiance of the Chinese government to protest a proposed new law that greatly threatened personal liberty. They refused to accept a new repressive “normal” that the Beijing government has been slowly trying to impose on Hong Kong through a series of measures. And as of now, the attempt to enact the new law has been suspended.

    This week millions of Americans from New York to San Francisco will take to the streets to celebrate Stonewall 50, but we must do much more. We must stand up and refuse to accept any “normal” not grounded in the “dignity and worth of all”—and we must do so by the millions. Happy Pride!

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.