Long A Symbol, Stonewall Inn May Soon Become Monument To LGBT Rights

May 30, 2016
Originally published on June 15, 2016 6:51 am

The Obama administration is taking steps to name the first national monument dedicated to the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

A likely location is in New York City, where the Stonewall riots sparked the modern gay-rights movement almost a half-century ago.

"It sounded like screaming and real cries of agony and desperation finally being released," recalls Martin Boyce, 68, who participated in the riots in the early hours of June 28, 1969.

On that hot and humid night in New York's West Village neighborhood, Boyce walked over to a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn after he heard that a police raid was underway. He says he expected to see a routine scene.

"What we used to normally do at the time was look at the raid, see people coming out, who got arrested, and be glad it wasn't you," he says.

New York's LGBT community had already endured years of police raids on gay bars and beatings on the street. There were regular arrests for homosexual acts or for not wearing at least three pieces of clothing that police considered appropriate for a person's sex.

"It was so much violence up to that time on the part of the police, so much discrimination," Boyce says. "We bore it all. We didn't think we could have a riot. We didn't think we could change anything. But that night was so different."

Hundreds of bar patrons and onlookers, including Boyce, fought back against the raid with glass bottles, loose cobblestones and burning trash, launching violent protests in New York City that continued on and off for days.

The Stonewall riots were not the first attempt to push for equal treatment of the LGBT community, but it became an important rallying cry that fueled the gay-rights movement and is now commemorated every year during LGBT Pride Month.

"It managed to capture the imagination of a whole new generation. It used the tactics not of people picketing in suits and ties, but people demanding their rights in loud voices as had never happened before," says Lillian Faderman, a scholar of LGBT history.

Housed in two brick buildings, the original Stonewall Inn bar closed months after the riots. The rotation of businesses that took over the space includes a men's clothing store, a bagel shop and the Szechuan Cottage Restaurant.

Before it became a gay bar in 1967, the buildings were once occupied by Bonnie's Stone Wall, a Prohibition-era tearoom that opened in 1930 and later became a restaurant known as Bonnie's Stonewall Inn. According to David Carter's Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked The Gay Revolution, the tearoom's name was likely a reference to Mary Casal's The Stone Wall, a book about lesbian love.

Originally built as horse stables in the 1840s, the buildings are now home to a nail salon and, next door, a new Stonewall Inn bar that's been serving drinks to both tourists and locals since 2007.

"I come here because I want to make sure the Stonewall is never going to go out of business because it's important to our history," says Rick Mark, 28, who says he's been stopping by the bar every few weeks since he moved to New York from Seattle a few months ago.

The buildings have already been named a historic landmark by New York City and the federal government. Now, momentum is growing for a national monument.

A bill in Congress would designate the Stonewall Inn and the area around it as part of the National Park Service. The Rev. Franklin Graham — Billy Graham's son and an evangelical Christian leader — has criticized such a proposal for creating a "monument to sin."

But at a recent public meeting in Manhattan, dozens lined up in a school auditorium blocks away from the Stonewall Inn to voice their support for the proposal in front of Obama administration officials seated on stage.

"The National Park Service is America's storyteller, and we know that there are very, very important parts of our story that have yet to be told," said Sally Jewell, the secretary of the Department of the Interior, who was joined by the director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis.

Several meeting attendees expressed concerns about how the history of Stonewall has been retold and who is acknowledged to have been part of the riots. Melissa Sklarz, a transgender woman, highlighted the role of transgender activists during the Stonewall riots, which, she said, some have overlooked in past remembrances of the event.

"Those that had seats at the table made sure that their voices were heard and their faces were seen," she said.

Previous attempts at memorializing Stonewall with plaques and statues have been criticized for not explicitly acknowledging transgender people and people of color. For Faderman, author of The Gay Revolution, this is part of a debate that has always tested the unity of the LGBT umbrella.

"There's no doubt that Stonewall is a symbol for the entire LGBT movement," says Faderman, citing photos taken on the first night of the riots that show a crowd that was mixed in terms of race and gender identity.

But she adds that there are many details we may never know for sure, like who exactly was in the crowd and who started the rioting. And that leaves a lot of room for different versions of Stonewall's history.

"There are all sorts of mysteries still shrouded in Stonewall," she says. "I think most of the people who were there are no longer with us. So they can't clear the mysteries up for us."

It's also unclear when a national monument at the site of the Stonewall riots will be officially announced. But even if Congress doesn't act, plans for the monument can still move forward.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a state law in April that will allow the city park outside the Stonewall Inn to become federal land. That means President Obama could use his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to declare the land a historic site just in time for Pride Month next month.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The White House is taking steps to name the first national monument dedicated to the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. A likely location is in New York City. That's where the Stonewall Riots sparked the modern gay-rights movement almost 50 years ago. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: You can walk through the same streets in New York's West Village where police and patrons clashed in 1969, outside a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. The brick buildings that housed the original Stonewall are still standing. One of them is now a nail salon. But inside the other, you can still order drinks at the bar.

RICK MARK: Can I get another double Ketel and soda?

WANG: Rick Mark says he hangs out here every few weeks.

MARK: I come here because I want to make sure the Stonewall is never going to go out of business because it's important to our history.

WANG: LGBT history that Martin Boyce helped make on a hot and humid June night.

MARTIN BOYCE: It sounded like screaming and real cries of agony and desperation finally being released.

WANG: After years of police raids on gay bars, beatings on the street and arrests for homosexual acts or for wearing clothing that did not match your sex.

BOYCE: It was so much violence up to that time on the part of the police, so much discrimination. We bore it all, you know. We didn't think we could have a riot. But that night was so different.

WANG: Because hundreds of bar patrons and onlookers like Boyce fought back against the raid with loose change, glass bottles and burning trash on the night that sparked the Stonewall Riots. Since then, the bar has been named a historic landmark. And now momentum's building for a national monument.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SALLY JEWELL: The National Park Service is America's storyteller. And we know that there are very, very important parts of our story that have yet to be told.

WANG: This is the secretary of the Department of the Interior, Sally Jewell, speaking at a recent public meeting in New York City about the proposed monument.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JEWELL: That have yet to be told in a way where all American people feel their sense of place in this country, feel their sense of rights and can go to a place where that is all fused together.

WANG: A bill in Congress would designate Stonewall and the area around it as part of the National Park service. Reverend Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, and an evangelical Christian leader, has criticized such a proposal for creating a, quote, "monument to sin." But at the public meeting in Manhattan, dozens said they supported the proposal, including Melissa Sklarz, a transgender woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MELISSA SKLARZ: Stonewall is like a pebble in a pond, with ripples that go forward.

WANG: Sklarz also spoke about the role of transgender activists at Stonewall, which she said some have overlooked over the years. Past attempts at memorializing Stonewall with plaques and statues have been criticized for not acknowledging transgender people and people of color.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SKLARZ: Those that had seats at the table made sure that their voices were heard and their faces were seen.

WANG: For historian Lillian Faderman, author of "The Gay Revolution," this is part of a debate that has always tested the unity of the LGBT umbrella. Still, she points to photos taken that night that show that the crowd outside Stonewall was mixed, in terms of race and gender identity.

LILLIAN FADERMAN: There's no doubt that Stonewall is a symbol for the entire LGBT movement.

WANG: But she says there are many details we may never know for sure, like, who exactly was in the crowd? And who started the rioting.

FADERMAN: There are all sorts of mysteries still shrouded in Stonewall. And I think most of the people who were there are no longer with us. They can't clear the mysteries up for us.

WANG: It's also not clear when a national monument at Stonewall will be officially announced. But even if Congress doesn't act, President Obama could use his executive authority under the Antiquities Act, to declare a historic site just in time for pride month in June. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.