Chances are you know that it was the night that police raided a New York City gay bar and people resisted and rioted. You may know that it was a turning point after decades of police raids and harassment against the LGBT community. But do you know the stories of people who were there, who are now elders? Do you know the stories of people who were not there physically, but whose lives and sense of themselves were forever changed by that event?
“The Stonewall Generation: LGBTQ Elders on Sex, Activism & Aging” by Jane Fleishman is much more than a historical account of the LGBTQ activists whose lives were changed by that event. It is the powerful, intensely personal narrative of LGBTQ elders who tell their life stories in their own words. Jane Fleishman skillfully pieces together her interviews so that the speakers come to life. We learn about their coming out process, how they became activists, how Stonewall changed them, what their sexuality was like in their youth, and what it is for them now, as elders.
This is a stunning book that gives voice and visibility to people who have been largely ignored by our society. Whatever your own age, gender, orientation, or sexual identity, it’s time to listen to LGBTQ elders.
Sex researcher Jane Fleishman, Ph.D., MS, MEd, answers our questions:
Tell me in one sentence, the main message of your book.
Amid the fears, the secrecy, the intimidation, LGBTQ elders have come out and continued to fight for freedom, for rights, for love, and for sex.
How did “The Stonewall Generation” come about?
After I finished my doctoral research on the sexual satisfaction of older adults in same-sex relationships, which was a quantitative analysis, I realized that I was missing some of the most important parts: people’s stories! I was longing for the stories of my elders. So I embarked on this idea of interviewing LGBTQ elders who came of age at the time of the Stonewall rebellion in New York City in 1969.
Did your original idea for the book change as you wrote it?
I first thought the book would be about people who were actually there at the bar on that historic night. But as I continued my research, I realized that Stonewall had a wider reach. It left an indelible imprint on people all over the country, not just those who personally fought back that night. I was in high school in New York at the time and didn’t realize the import of Stonewall until I was much older. I was a “baby dyke” around the time of Stonewall and never would have predicted that I’d become a sexuality researcher, talking with people whose courageous lives were hidden to me then.
What was it like for you to interview LGBTQ elders?
This book was so much fun to write. I loved meeting with people in their homes, at their offices, or at conferences (things we all took for granted before COVID). I crisscrossed the country interviewing people about their sexual lives, how Stonewall affected them, and their aging process. The book took me about four years to complete and about halfway through the interviews, I realized that all of the ten people I wanted to include in the book were life-long activists. For example:
Much of “gay” history has been whitewashed. How have you addressed issues of people of color and other marginalized people being excluded from this historical context?
I was so aware of the “whitewashing” of the early “gay rights” movement that I made a strong commitment to including many voices of people from different racial backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, and even different parts of the country. As an aging, white, Jewish, lesbian-identified, activist, feminist, cis woman from New York, I wanted to expand beyond my own networks to dig into the lives of LGBTQ elders across the country, across the spectrum of identities, with more diversity than I could impart. And I asked them how they would address these critical questions of sex, activism, and aging. The people I included here in the book face struggles arising from their sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, politics, disabilities, kinkiness, non-monogamy, and other identities.
Which person’s story affected you the most?
Miss Major asked me why the T is always at the end of LGBT when transwomen were at the forefront of the rebellion. That really affected me and has changed the way I think about the layers of identities we include and who gets to be included where.
How can all of us — LGBTQ and allies — understand more about the era of this book and the important ideas in it?
I created this free Stonewall Generation Discussion Guide for people to take the book into their own communities and become more inclusive of and welcoming toward their LGBTQ elders. Some of these elders have tremendous leadership experience to bring to their community.
What would you like to come out of this book?
I want this book to give us hope. Hope that we can be heard, even though we are marginalized. Hope that we can change perceptions of LGBTQ elders who face discrimination based on age, on sexual orientation, and other differences. At heart I’m an activist, so I’d like to see change.