A gay rights activist celebrates outside of the iconic Stonewall Inn on the day the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states. (Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
President Obama is poised to declare the first-ever national monument recognizing the struggle for gay rights, singling out a sliver of green space and part of the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood as the birthplace of America’s modern gay liberation movement.
While most national monuments have highlighted iconic wild landscapes or historic sites from centuries ago, this reflects the country’s diversity of terrain and peoples in a different vein: It would be the first national monument anchored by a dive bar and surrounded by a warren of narrow streets that long has been regarded the historic center of gay cultural life in New York City.
Federal officials, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), will hold a listening session on May 9 to solicit feedback on the proposal. Barring a last-minute complication — city officials are still investigating the history of the land title — Obama is prepared to designate the area part of the National Park Service as soon as next month, which commemorates gay pride.
Protests at the site, which lasted for six days, began in the early morning of June 28, 1969 after police raided the Stonewall Inn, which was frequented by gay men. While patrons of the bar, which is still in operation today in half of its original space, had complied in the past with these crackdowns, that time it sparked a spontaneous riot by bystanders and those who had been detained.
Although national monument designations are partly symbolic, backers of the move said it could bolster the fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which led to the landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
Jewell announces search for LGBT landmarks at the Stonewall Inn
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced in May 2014 a study to find landmarks important to LGBT history for inclusion in the national parks program. President Obama is expected to declare the site of the Stonewall riots a national monument. (US Department of the Interior)
“We must ensure that we never forget the legacy of Stonewall, the history of discrimination against the LGBT community, or the impassioned individuals who have fought to overcome it,” Nadler, who has co-authored legislation that would make it a national park, said in a statement. “The LGBT civil rights movement launched at Stonewall is woven into American history, and it is time our National Park system reflected that reality.”
The president described Stonewall as a critical event in the nation’s social progress during his second inaugural speech, reflecting the idea “that all of us are created equal,” and alluded to it again when celebrating the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, Ala.
Interior Department spokeswoman Amanda Degroff said Obama “has made clear that he’s committed to ensuring our national parks, monuments and public lands help Americans better understand the places and stories that make this nation great” — though at the moment the administration has no official announcement on the designation.
Noting that Jewell and Jarvis are attending next week’s public meeting at the invitation of Nadler and federal, state and local officials, Degroff added, “Insights from meetings like this one play an important role in identifying the best means to protect and manage significant sites like Christopher Park, whether a designation is established by Congress or through executive authority.”
Nadler and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have asked the president to protect the site under the 1906 Antiquities Act. In a sign of how much has changed since 1969, the three officials who represent the area — City Council member Corey Johnson, state assembly member Deborah Glick and state senator Brad Hoylman — are all openly gay and endorse the idea of making it a monument, as does the local community advisory board.
The decision to recognize a critical moment in the fight for gay rights, at a time when politicians in several states are moving to strip away legal protections for transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual residents, enjoys considerable support within the administration. But the path to declaring the monument has been a complicated one, largely because the site involves private property and a dense urban area where land-use planning is never simple.
But late last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation, backed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and several state lawmakers, that would allow the city to transfer ownership of Christopher Park to the federal government should it become designated as a monument. That patch of green, spanning less than two-tenths of an acre, lies opposite the Stonewall Inn.
In the same way Chicago’s Pullman National Monument — which Obama declared last year to highlight the struggle for labor and civil rights a century ago — encompasses a federally owned former railroad-car factory and part of the surrounding neighborhood, the proposed monument would include several streets that served as a battlefield between activists and law enforcement.
“History’s messy,” said David Stacy, government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign, whose group has pushed for the designation along with others such as the National Parks Conservation Association and Gill Foundation. “This raised the consciousness of people throughout the country. It said to people, you don’t have to be quiet. You don’t have to stay in the closet.”
[He’s on a quest to visit all 411 parks — and hoping Stonewall will be the 412th.]
The site has become a gathering place following victories in the fight for LGBT equality: Many came there after key court rulings in 2014 and 2015, and Cuomo officiated at a same-sex wedding outside the Stonewall Inn last summer.
Gill Foundation president and chief executive Courtney Cuff, whose group helped fund a two-year study to identify what LGBT sites might qualify for National Park Service recognition, said a monument designation would mean “interpreters will be talking to visitors about the LGBT community and the contributions of the LGBT movement writ large.”
Hoylman, who lives in the neighborhood with his husband and 5-year-old daughter Silvia, said he has taken her there and “tried to explain to her how important it is to her daddy and her papa.”
“The president has mentioned Stonewall along with Selma and Seneca Falls in his second inaugural. So it’s fitting that he would be the president to bring this forward,” he said. “It’s breathtaking how far we’ve come, in so short a time.”