Some things are just meant to be.
At one of the rehearsals for the recent Seattle Men’s Chorus production of “Summer of ’69,” — a performance of songs marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and the uprising of the gay community — Eli Heller walked up the risers and took a spot beside Bill Thieleman.
Heller, 27, and Thieleman, 72, had never spoken.
Side by side, they sang songs from that summer 50 years ago, when being a gay man meant something far different than it does now. There wasn’t pride, or parades, or rainbow-colored everything. There was fear, and shame, and anger.
The songs, and the memories they stirred up, had inspired Thieleman — one of the chorus’ founding members — to write an essay called “My Summer of 1969” in which he recalled what it was like at that time in New York City, where the Stonewall Inn still stands. The essay was sent out to members in an online newsletter.
In it, Thieleman described graduating from college and being turned down for military service because he checked the box on a draft questionnaire asking if he had homosexual tendencies. (“The result was a draft status … which meant either ‘loves animals’ or ‘in case of war, use as a hostage,’ ” he wrote). Thieleman was free to “explore gay life in New York,” including visits to out-of-the-way bars and restaurants, fear of being arrested and keeping quiet about who you knew you were.
“This was at a time when, if you came out to any family and friends, you often heard ‘you’ll never amount to anything,’ or ‘you’ll be all alone when you get old,'” Thieleman wrote. “And there was always that fear of a ‘ruined life’ gnawing at you.”
Thielman recalled Greenwich Village in the late 1960s as “a magnet for gay people of all stripes around the city and beyond.” But people were tired of being hassled by law enforcement.
“It was hot that June of 1969, people were sick of police harassment,” he wrote, “and Judy Garland had just died. People got pissed off and pandemonium ensued, for several nights. And the rest is history.”
Touched off by a police raid at the underground gay bar, the Stonewall riots of 1969 represented a watershed moment in the modern gay-rights movement. Patrons of the Stonewall Inn pushed back on police harassment and interference over a series of nights in June, and the resulting sense of community and power spurred the start of gay activism, newspapers and pride.
In the decades since, though, progress has been slow and sometimes painful. Same-sex marriage was only legalized nationwide in 2015. The following year, a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida; and in 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded guidance that encouraged letting transgender students use the bathrooms of their choice in school. Just this week, the leader of West Virginia’s Republican Party applauded a state senator’s call for intolerance against members of the LGBTQ community.
Thieleman was afraid to participate in the first Pride parade in 1970 (” … just too risky”). There were still raids at parties and bars, where police “always took names to scare the hell out of us.”
One night in a bar, Thieleman met a man named John. They drove to a rest area and were “doing nothing” when a police officer pulled them from the car, threw them facedown in the gravel, handcuffed them and threw them in jail, he wrote. Thieleman spent two nights behind bars and was finally remanded to his own custody. Six months later — during which he was hospitalized for a panic disorder — his case went to trial, and he was found not guilty.
Heller read the whole essay. So when the two chorus members were on a break and Thieleman introduced himself, Heller already knew who he was, what he went through. And what Thieleman and others like him had endured for the community.
“(Thieleman’s) experience about being arrested? As if what he had done was a crime? That was shocking to me,” Heller said. “I would have been arrested 100 times by now. I take for granted certain things that I would be arrested for back then. How would I get a job if I had a police record?
“I owe a lot to — for lack of a better word — the forefathers of the gay rights movement,” Heller said. “They paved the way for us.”
“That’s what motivated me,” Thieleman told him. “To help all of you understand what we’re singing about. To give the younger members context. Chorus members have learned a lot from singing this music. I wanted them to understand what it means.”
Heller, an academic counselor at Bellevue College who joined the chorus in 2017, already had a sense of LGBTQ history. But Thieleman’s essay brought it all right to his side, right there on the risers.
“My life would not be what it’s like, and I would not be able to live the way I live, if it were not for the brave LGBTQ individuals who stood up for their rights that night 50 years ago,” Heller said. “We have visibility and pride because of Stonewall.
“Being part of the legacy is really important to me.”
Heller has his own legacy to establish, he said. He wants to help the gay community be more inclusive of queer people of color, of transgender and nonbinary people.
Singing this show was like “saying ‘thank you’ to the people who were so brave,” he said. “This show meant a lot to me. It had a lot of personal weight to it.”
Last Saturday, after the second and final performance of “Summer of 1969,” members of the chorus gathered at C.C. Attle’s, a gay bar on Olive Way.
Thieleman sat there, feeling his age and a little invisible, but also remembering the friends who would have been there, had they survived AIDS. Time. Being turned out by their loved ones.
“It was bittersweet,” he said of the gathering. “But I am still here.”
Seattle Pride Parade
The 45th annual Seattle Pride Parade will start at 11 a.m. Sunday, along Fourth Avenue from Union Street to Second Avenue and Denny Way. More information: seattlepride.org/prideevents/parade.