One in a series of occasional stories marking the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
NEW YORK — The National Park Service oversees 412 parks and monuments, but on a recent Tuesday night I was standing inside the only national monument where a drag queen in knee-high vinyl go-go boots lipsynched to Sia’s “Chandelier” while hanging from the ceiling.
My night at the Stonewall Inn was a national monument adventure like no other. The closest thing I heard to a history lesson was when a bartender silenced a Justin Bieber track at 2 a.m. and grumbled that the Biebs was no Frank Sinatra. There were no scenic stops at this monument, unless you count a stop to steal a glimpse of some scenic biceps.
The country’s newest national monument is a fully operational Greenwich Village gay bar that was recently given federal recognition as a cornerstone of LGBT history. In June, the National Park Service unveiled the Stonewall National Monument, which encompasses the Stonewall Inn and approximately seven neighboring acres. The Stonewall Inn was the site of the Stonewall riots (now more politely referred to as an uprising). The night of June 28, 1969, is considered by many historians to be a pivotal moment in the modern gay rights movement.
“The national monument designation is putting a full stamp of acknowledgment on the importance of that event. It was a catalytic moment for the LGBT community,” said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation. “The night started a movement that spread like wildfire. That bravery transferred to others.”
If the only Stonewall you’re familiar with is the company that makes jam and pancake mix, here’s the history lesson. The Stonewall Inn, like many mafia-owned gay bars in the 1950s and 1960s, was regularly raided by police. In a very unscrupulous agreement between police and the mafia, the police were paid off so raids usually occurred early in the week, and early in the evening, and the bar was tipped off when the raid would be happening. The result was a minimal number of arrests and no disruption in service.
But on June 28, 1969, police raided the bar after 1 a.m. Instead of going quietly, the scrappy collection of patrons fought back against police. The crowd swelled into a mob as news of the fighting spread throughout the Village. The mob provoked and taunted officers, trapping them inside the club and then driving them out until they were overwhelmed and retreated. The mob filled the neighborhood streets and parks. The protests continued for several nights.
“Gays were the one group that a large majority of Americans thought it was right to repress. I think people expected gays to be repressed forever and to put up with it,” said Andrew Lear, a gender studies scholar who owns Oscar Wilde Tours, a company specializing in LGBT history travel. “So a riot in which gays fought the police and which the police couldn’t bring under control for several days, was objectively, in the cultural terms of its moment, shocking.”
Gay bars and same-sex dancing were illegal in 1969. Most everything with the modifier “gay” or “lesbian” was illegal in midcentury America. Gay rights groups existed before Stonewall, and other skirmishes between LGBT activists and police had taken place, but Stonewall was crucial in that it spurred a new generation of activists into action. The following year, the first gay pride march took place in New York to commemorate the riots.
“We don’t want to lose sight of the efforts before Stonewall,” said Joshua Laird, commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor. “But it really was Stonewall that galvanized the public and the LGBT community into realizing that it was time to stand up and deal with this horrible oppression.”
Stonewall National Monument is a park in its infancy. At the moment the only hint that you’ve arrived at a monument are the park rangers who sit in Christopher Park, across the street from the Stonewall. They’re at the park to answer questions you may have about the events of June 1969. I approached them in the guise of a Joe Sixpack and asked them why they were there. They probably sized me up as a Paul Prosecco rather than a Joe Sixpack because they gave me in-depth explanations of the Stonewall riots and the new monument status.
At lunch time Christopher Park was packed with a group of European teenagers eating pizza, office workers on their cellphones, and shoppers taking a breather with iced coffee. Monument visitors were easy to spot. They took pictures of the striking George Segal sculptures in the park, and then walked across the street to look at the exterior of the Stonewall.
The long-range plan for the park is to locate space in the area and open a visitor center that will have more information about Stonewall and the history of the LGBT movement.
The Stonewall’s status as a national monument is a result of the Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association effort to diversify the country’s parks system. The parks system is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
“We think about Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and the Statue of Liberty when we hear the words ‘national park,’ ” said Cortney Worrall senior regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. “They are incredibly important to tell the story of the US. But those sites don’t reflect the bold history of the country. There’s now an emphasis to identify sites that tell the history of Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and LGBT Americans.”
The Stonewall has long served as a gathering place for gays and lesbians to celebrate events such as the legalization of gay marriage. It was a center of mourning after the Orlando nightclub shootings. People from around the world visit the bar. The night I was there, a group of rambunctious Australians told me they went out of their way to see the where the LGBT movement was born.
One of the challenges for the current ownership of the bar is to make sure the public knows that Stonewall is more than just a historic monument. It’s still a place where anyone can stop in for a whiskey sour, and if you stick around long enough, the bartender might leave a bowl of popcorn with a sprinkling of M&Ms in front of you.
“We pay homage to the history of the place, but we also want to make it fun,” said Bill Morgan, who bought a very dilapidated Stonewall with his business partners in 2006 and has since worked to restore it.
“To me, the National Monument recognition is long overdue,” Morgan said. “It gives credence to all the people who have been working toward equal rights. While the work isn’t done, it is a validation that all their hours of personal time and tears were not for naught.”