As American as the Stonewall Rebellion

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Stonewall Monument Dedication
Officials and activists at the Stonewall National Monument dedication included US Representative Carolyn Maloney, successful DOMA plaintiff Edie Windsor, New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Representative Jerrold Nadler, City Councilmember Corey Johnson, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis, White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and Assemblymember Deborah Glick. | DONNA ACETO

While not quite as deep as the Grand Canyon or as tall as the Statue of Liberty, the 7.7 acres in and around the Stonewall Inn, scene of the monumental 1969 multi-night rebellion in the streets that sparked the modern LGBT movement, were declared, like those iconic parks, an official national monument by President Barack Obama on June 24. Three days later, in the light of day on June 27, the area was dedicated as such by federal and local officials and LGBT activists, including a handful who participated in the rebellion.

Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. | DONNA ACETO
Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. | DONNA ACETO

This recognition of an uprising by LGBT outcasts, who were officially criminal, sinful, mentally ill, and almost wholly closeted before that June 28, 1969 night, was an all-American inclusive affair steeped in patriotism. A soulful version of the national anthem was sung by actor Anthony Wayne. Edie Windsor, 88, who won federal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2013 at the US Supreme Court, led a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance — leaving out the words “under God,” which is the way she grew up saying it before Congress inserted the deity in 1954 at the behest of the Knights of Columbus. Windsor and her partner and later wife Thea Spyer returned to New York from a vacation the second night of the rebellion and soon became activists themselves.

The crowd heard from Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and out lesbian Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, West Side Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, who is credited with quarterbacking the designation locally, and Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Village’s out elected local officials –– State Senator Brad Hoylman, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, and City Councilmember Corey Johnson also delivered remarks.

Obama makes the scene of 1969 uprising a national monument

White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. | DONNA ACETO
White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett. | DONNA ACETO

The keynote speech was delivered by Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, who was an 18-year-old participant in the rebellion and is now a prominent artist, who painted a vivid verbal picture of the Stonewall in 1969 — “a dingy non-descript building that was like a speakeasy, run by the Mafia.” When the police hit the bar with a routine raid that night, “we didn’t fight back because we loved the management of Stonewall,” he said, “but because we were humanized in there,” the one bar where slow dancing — “a full embrace” — was allowed.

There was much praise for the administration and local government officials who worked with the near unanimous support of both the LGBT and Village communities to get the national monument designation in place, mainly through the city’s transfer to the federal government of little Christopher Park, across the street from the bar.

Secretary Jewell said, “It takes a village to make a national park.” She also said, “We want our history to be known and to reflect who we are — the diversity of our people.”

Stonewall Monument Dedication
Transgender activist Octavia Lewis. | DONNA ACETO

Acknowledging the atrocity in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub that was fresh in everyone’s minds, transgender activist Octavia Lewis said, “We have not come far enough. I want this to be a place where I can bring my children and not be fearful.”

“We want to tell the American LGBT story to the world,” said Gillibrand, who will continue to work with her congressional colleagues to make it “a national park, not just a monument,” though monuments designated by the president, like parks, are run by the National Park Service.

Tribute was paid to the history of activism that led up to the rebellion by Obama advisor Jarrett, who cited Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon of the early lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis, Harry Hay of the Mattachine Society, Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings who led a gay and lesbian demonstration each Fourth of July in Philadelphia from 1965 through 1969, Stephen Donaldson, the bisexual activist who formed the Student Homophile League at Columbia University in 1966, and the transgender patrons of San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria who rioted over mistreatment, also in 1966. Jarrett also ticked off the achievements of the Obama administration on LGBT rights, from getting rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to its current efforts to protect transgender rights.

State Senator Brad Hoylman, flanked by Assemblymember Deborah Glick and City Councilmember Corey Johnson. | DONNA ACETO
State Senator Brad Hoylman, flanked by Assemblymember Deborah Glick and City Councilmember Corey Johnson. | DONNA ACETO

Hoylman called Obama “our first gay president.”

De Blasio said, “We are not going to sanitize our history, we are going to remember the struggle.”

The Stonewall, after all, was a direct rebellion against oppression by the NYPD.

Two mini acts of rebellion took place at the ceremony. Ken Kidd and Ann Northrop of Queer Nation unfurled a big Gilbert Baker rainbow banner reading “Equal in Every Way” behind the speaker’s platform, and none of the many government security or NYPD personnel on hand tried to remove them.

Veteran gay activist Jim Fouratt, a rebellion participant, walked out on the ceremony, writing in an email later that while he supported the monument designation of the streets where the rebellion unfolded, the Stonewall Inn itself “was a symbol of our oppression not our liberation.” He objected to the fact that no “reference was made to how the following three nights were organized in part by a small group of political gay men including myself, disillusioned members of the Mattachine youth component, and gay anti-war activists and lesbians kicked out of the Women's Liberation Movement.”

Fouratt also objected to the “erasure of the Gay Liberation Front birthed in the third night of the Stonewall Rebellion.”

Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. | DONNA ACETO
Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. | DONNA ACETO

Indeed, the historical significance of Stonewall was that it led to immediate and ongoing militant organizing in the community. Historian David Carter, author of a book on Stonewall, said after the ceremony that there were around 30 gay groups at the time of the rebellion and 1,500 just two years later nationwide.

Transgender activist Stefanie Rivera, 37, talked afterwards about the continued peril “of going out and not knowing whether you will make it back” and the challenge of finding employment.

“This should have happened years ago,” said her friend, Elizabeth Rivera.

Veteran gay activist Steve Ashkinazy, a founder of the Harvey Milk High School, said he went to the Stonewall at 16 “because they didn’t card us.” He said of the ceremony: “I am emotionally moved and thankful every time I see progress and change.”

The monument is heralded on a banner hung onto the wall of the Stonewall Inn. | DONNA ACETO
The monument is heralded on a banner hung onto the wall of the Stonewall Inn. | DONNA ACETO

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Michael Sheafe says:
Glad to see mention of Barbara Gittings.
July 17, 2016, 3:44 pm
scottybgood says:
This is a memorable event for me as well as the others pictured here. I am blessed to be alive at 75 years old to see the Stonewall become a National Monument. My memoirs of the 1969 Stonewall riots are a testament
July 25, 2016, 12:19 am
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Aug. 26, 2016, 6:10 am
G. & L. Richter says:
Kudos on a well-done article. However, besides the JHL promoters and immediate neighbors of the proposed nursing home of West 97th Street, the report should also include comments by many of us who live nearby. We're two. Almost everyone with whom we've spoken about the proposed JHL building feels it would simply overwhelm an already very crowded block, which already has a Whole Foods, Associated supermarket, health facility, and a pre-school. We're on that block several times daily, both day and night, and the traffic flow is often very slow, and backed up because the outlet from Central Park is one block east. The city made enough building concessions to JHL at its present 106th Street location, which is far less congested, and the facility should remain there.
Aug. 26, 2016, 5:19 pm
Jean Green Dorsey says:
On 08/27/16, wrote: FYI -- Cathy is one of the "neighbors who built this neighborhood." A dedicated health care professional, she deserves your attention and consideration. Add the following to all of the issues already raised and no way should this project just "slip through the cracks." Jean On building a 20+ story prison ... Advocates for nursing home residents have long opposed this plan that would confine frail individuals in a long-repudiated institutional high-rise, severing forever their connections with the normalcy of going outside, accompanied, on nice days. There is neither the possibility nor plan for evacuation in the event of fire or other catastrophe. The proposed street is already congested before the nursing home is built, delaying ambulances and fire engines from timely responses. If JHL were to build on 97th St, they would endanger both nursing home and community residents alike. The proposed site has been found to be a highly toxic lot, within 30 feet of an elementary school and surrounding buildings with children from infancy on and elderly at risk from lead-laden dust and other toxins. Yet, Jewish Home, a health care organization, refuses to adopt safe practices re removing contaminated soil and risky construction activity. JHL has a positive alternative to re-build an improved lower-rise nursing home on their more spacious property on 106th St which has no risk of toxins, no traffic congestion, no proximity to a public elementary school and affected housing. On that far larger property, they could also build affordable housing which the city needs as well as market rate housing which would yield income in perpetuity to offset declining Medicaid reimbursements. Jewish Home is pursuing a reckless course that would be as detrimental to nursing home residents as it would be to community residents. The rights of elderly to not be stored away, the rights of children to not be poisoned by lead, the rights of long time residents of Park West Village to not have their only access via their own driveway appropriated by Jewish Home - all these and more cry out for the more humane and enlightened alternative on 106th St, long advocated by the overwhelming majority of informed, concerned citizens. Catherine Unsino, LCSW Psychotherapist Advocate for Nursing Home Reform"
Aug. 28, 2016, 2:43 pm
Martin Rosenblatt says:
Martin Rosenblatt It is indeed ironic that an institution dealing with health as JHL is, apparently could not care less about anything except their own interests.Other peoples health including children, pregnant women, small children who live in multiple buildings near the proposed construction site,as well as senisor with compromised health issue, do not matter to JHL. What hypocrisy. Their highly paid PR spin doctor, Ethan Geto justifies whatever they do as being hunky dory. The neighborhood does not think so!! We will fight this proposed JHL project to the bitter end!!
Aug. 30, 2016, 2:33 pm
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