New York’s Stonewall Inn becomes a national monument
By Paula Johnson
Throughout history, many a social movement began with someone slamming a tankard of ale on a tavern table with one fist, the other raised high, shouting, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” or words to that effect. Think the knights of the round table. (And maybe not a tankard in more modern times.) The role of the tavern in promulgating social upheaval has been vital, serving as a place to meet, air ideas and plan strategies. The Upper Canada Rebellion, an 1837 insurrection against the government of the British colony of what is present-day Ontario, started in a brewery. The Sons of Liberty, established to undermine British rule in colonial America, organized the Boston Tea Party at The Green Dragon Tavern in Boston. Andrew Jackson met Jean Lafitte in a New Orleans grog shop to plan their defense against the British. “America, as we know it, was born in a bar,” is the thesis of a book called “America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops,” by Christine Sismondo. So it’s no surprise that the modern-day gay rights movement was founded largely as a result of the Stonewall riots, named for the Stonewall Inn where it all began.
And now the area surrounding New York’s Stonewall Inn is poised to become the first national monument dedicated to gay rights. President Barack Obama is expected to move quickly to green light the monument. (The Stonewall is already listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark. It was designated a New York City landmark last year, the first time a site had received the designation because of its significance to LGBT history.) The tavern was the site of the June 28, 1969 uprising that is widely viewed as the flashpoint that began the entire gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn, and the rebellion there, sparked the long, uphill battle toward equality for all members of the gay community. It’s often referred to as the “Rosa Parks moment” in gay history.
So what was it like to be gay in 1969 in New York City? Police raids on gay bars occurred regularly. It was illegal to serve gay people alcohol or for gays to dance with one another. During a typical raid, the lights were turned on, the customers were lined up and their identification checked. Those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested. Women were required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing, and would be arrested if found not wearing them. Employees and bar managers were also typically arrested.
The Stonewall Inn itself, despite its iconic status, has suffered through several permutations over the ensuing years since the original uprising. The space was occupied for years by other businesses, including a bagel shop and a Chinese restaurant, before it reopened as a bar in the 1990s. In Stonewall’s current incarnation, under new owners since 2006, half the original space occupied by the bar is now a nail salon. Co-owner Stacy Lentz said she and her partners bought the bar “to preserve history and make sure it wasn’t made into a Starbucks.” She says she is thrilled by the national monument discussions. “This solidifies everything we have worked for to keep the legacy alive for generations to come,” she says.
But U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who’s been pushing for the national monument designation for years, says nothing would force the Stonewall to remain a bar. There’s actually nothing in the national monument designation or even the city’s landmark law to prevent New York’s most famous gay bar from someday becoming a coffee shop, a frozen yogurt joint or anything else.
That would be a tragedy according to Greg Rothman, for whom the significance of Stonewall is highly personal. He sums it up, describing his background as a boy from the Midwest. “I grew up not having the words to describe my feelings or truly understanding that I was gay,” he says. He remembers becoming aware of Stonewall at the public library in New York where he was a student. Rothman had been furtively looking up homosexuality in the card catalog (and finding out it was considered a disease), and noticed a stack of magazines. One of them was a publication called Christopher Street, and had an ad for The Stonewall Inn. His first time “out” as a gay man came soon after. “I got off the subway on Christopher Street and met up with a bunch of Australian guys, and they took me to Stonewall.”
Rothman goes on, “I still go maybe a half dozen times a year. What I really love is the upstairs, which wasn’t there back in the day. They do amazing performances and have really terrific shows.” Rothman feels like today’s young gays don’t really have an understanding of the gay identity and cultural movement that began at Stonewall. “They really take it for granted, especially now that we have marriage equality,” he says. “They need to know our history, and that’s why Stonewall’s status as a national monument is vital.”
For more information, please visit thestonewallinnnyc.com.
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.