In this special series, LGBT celebrities and public figures talk to Tim Teeman about the Stonewall Riots and their legacy—see more here.
Peter Staley is an LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist, and founder of Treatment Action Group and AIDSmeds.com.
When/how did you first hear about the Stonewall Riots, and what did you make of them?
I’m pretty sure it was when I first starting peeking out of my gay closet during my first years at Oberlin College, around 1980. None of the major historical accounts had been written yet, so its significance didn’t sink in until I joined ACT UP in 1987, where I met Marty Robinson, a Stonewall veteran who co-founded the Gay Activist Alliance.
What is their significance for you now?
Once I was in ACT UP, I started gobbling up gay history, and its angriest demonstrations—Stonewall and the White Night Riots—fascinated me the most. Righteous rage, when expressed through a kind of controlled violence that targets property as opposed to people, can sometimes move history forward.
I organized the first ACT UP demonstration that involved intentional property damage at Burroughs Wellcome’s headquarters. And I helped trash a car that had driven through demonstrators during Stonewall’s 20th anniversary “reenactment.”
Stonewall and White Night became historical touchstones for me. They centered me as an activist, opening my eyes to a glorious collective history that ACT UP was building on. God, I wish I had witnessed those other moments. I would have torched a police car for sure.
“By any historical standard, our movement has made stunning progress, especially after we found our voice during the early AIDS years.”
How far have LGBT people come since 1969?
A lot farther than that closeted Oberlin student could have ever dreamed of. By any historical standard, our movement has made stunning progress, especially after we found our voice during the early AIDS years.
What would you like to see, LGBT-wise, in the next 50 years?
An end to our own community’s racism and misogyny, which continues to hold us back. Cementing our commitment to our transgender comrades. Finally ending AIDS.
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