May Peace Prevail on Earth
The Stonewall Inn opened in 1967 on Christopher Street in lower Manhattan as a private gay club, a little storefront owned by a member of the Mafia, “Fat Tony” Lauria. The club had a dance floor, rare in those days for a gay club, and even though the façade seemed small compared to the historic events about to take place, the Stonewall Inn was one of the biggest gay clubs in the country. Despite the club’s popularity with gay men, lesbians, drag queens and people who were transitioning, Fat Tony couldn’t get a liquor license, because New York City government wouldn’t give liquor licenses to ‘disorderly environments.’
A club that served gay patrons was considered a disorderly environment.
A little after one o’clock on the morning on June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn. What happened after that is history; patrons resisted, police fought back, thousands of people massed in front of the inn to protest. For six nights, the protests continued. A cab driver died of a heart attack after protestors rocked his car. A novitiate in a convent in Westchester County read about the riots, immediately came out as a lesbian and moved to Greenwich Village.
One year later, the first Gay Pride march took place on Christopher Street.
I tell you this partly because June was named Gay Pride month to commemorate the Stonewall Inn riots, which became a turning point in the gay rights movement. But also because these events reminded me of a moment in my childhood, at a sprawling, big-tree-crowded convent in Ossining, N.Y. that my family visited regularly. My mother was devoted to that convent; she was a novitiate there before she left, married my father and bore six children. Throughout the grounds stood what I now know are called peace poles, four-foot high stands of wood bearing the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in English on one side, Japanese on the other, Chinese on another, French or Spanish on the last. Other languages harked the message on other peace poles throughout the estate.
I was entranced. These peace poles were, for me, truly, a sign.
Fifty years later, as I walked down a local street to reach my car from the annual Memorial Day parade in my town, there stood, on the lawn of a modest ranch house, a peace pole. I strode up to it, read each side, and stared. In all those years, despite their increasing popularity, peace poles had never entered my line of sight. An Asian woman stepped out from the house’s front door. “Can I help you?” she asked. I asked her where the peace pole came from, and I told her my story. She held up her hand as if to say, ‘wait a minute,’ ran back inside, and in a few moments dragged another peace pole through the front door.
“If you promise me you will get this in the ground, you may have it,” she said. She reached out, and held my gaze and my hand it for a full minute. Then she gave me the pole. A gift in the name of peace.
The peace pole, cracked in places but otherwise intact and proud, stands in one of my front gardens, next to a hydrangea whose roots have found blooming happiness next to it. “May Peace Prevail on Earth” speaks to me of acceptance, of love, of letting people be the best of who they can be. I thought of this the other night when I stood on the concrete floor of the Hartford Yard Goats minor league baseball stadium in Hartford and watched my son sing, in his role as a member of the Hartford Gay Men’s Chorus, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote these words to celebrate the fight for freedom from tyranny. As the Gay Men’s Chorus sang the words,
“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
I considered the irony. Almost two dozen openly gay men singing before a crowd at a ballpark, and the crowd, which included plenty of police officers in gay pride shirts, screaming and applauding their efforts: What a difference from a June morning 22 years ago on Christopher Street in Manhattan.
I celebrate that difference today and every day. Happy LGBTQ Pride Month, from the proud mother of two gay sons.
A story I wrote about my oldest son was published in the journal Literary Mama. It is available to read here: https://literarymama.com/articles/departments/2021/05/waiting-to-shine-again.
For the purposes of this blog, think about what acceptance means to you, and what experiences you have had with acceptance, whether personal or professional. Share your story with a friend, family member, or pet, or, if you’d like, send it to me.
Every week or so, I write a blog post titled Notes on Writing that includes a brief essay and a writing prompt. For past blog posts, visit janegordonjulien.com and click on Notes on Writing.
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