The newest unit of the National Park Service celebrates a gay bar and the rebellion it inspired. It took a 110-year-old conservation law, and a long struggle for LGBT equality, to make that happen.
By Jimmy Tobias
People attend a dedication ceremony officially designating the Stonewall Inn as a national monument to gay rights on June 27, 2016. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Christopher Park is a tiny triangle of benches, fences, sculptures, and gardens that sits directly across from the Stonewall Inn, a slight brick-front bar festooned in rainbow flags and party posters. Compared to greener parks and grander gay bars they might not look like much, but together they constitute a bright star in the constellation of historic queer institutions scattered across lower Manhattan. The park and the Inn, after all, are the iconic site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising that many mark as the beginning of the modern LGBT liberation movement.
When I stopped by Greenwich Village last week, visitors and locals alike poured out of the nearby subway or emerged from shady streets and strolled into Christopher Park’s intimate confines. There were mothers with daughters and fathers with sons, gay couples holding hands and straight couples taking selfies. Elders lounged on benches, while herds of tourists admired the famous George Segal sculpture that honors same-sex love. There were also 10 heavily armed police in the vicinity, a lingering sign of security concerns since the Orlando nightclub massacre. On the park’s brick plaza, mounds of dried candle wax recalled the tearful and outraged post-Pulse vigils that took place here.
Standing amid it all, to my surprise, were two National Park Service rangers, donning those famous wide-brimmed hats while they answered questions and distributed rainbow-colored pins. The rangers were there for a reason.
Late last month, in a stunning and overdue federal recognition of the LGBT community’s dignity and history, President Barack Obama announced that he would recognize Christopher Park and its immediate environs as this country’s newest national monument. Stonewall National Monument, it shall be called, and it is the first unit of the National Park Service that specifically honors LGBT people in the United States. The designation is a government-sanctioned hat tip to the queer community’s hard-won, though still incomplete, achievements. It’s also an example of the unique way in which our country’s evolving system of public-land conservation can be used to lift up the persecuted and celebrate their struggles for justice.
In the early hours of June 28, 1969, police barged through the Stonewall Inn’s front door and, in a classic act of transphobic and homophobic harassment, arrested 13 people. The police said they wanted to shut down the bar for liquor law violations. Such intimidation was nothing new: Law enforcement had closed other neighborhood gay bars in similar fashion, but this time the police were in for serious pushback. The bar’s patrons, many of them drag queens and transgender people and homeless youth, poured into the street and a rebellion against police brutality and anti-gay bias raged on and off for nearly a week in the New York neighborhood. Windows were smashed. Bottles were thrown. Bricks flew through the air. Chants of “gay power” filled the streets. The LGBT movement mobilized, and the Stonewall Inn was saved.
“There’s been a lot of energy, most of the people I’ve talked to feel validated. They feel that this means our history is just as important and worthy of recognition as other people’s history.”
Was there anyone among the rebels who could have imagined, even in the most fantastic dream, that someday the most powerful individual in the U.S. government would recognize this moment as a worthy and important part of national history?
Then again, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act in 1906, could he have possibly contemplated that it would one day be used to protect and preserve the legacy of a class of citizens all but invisible and widely despised?
Yet here we are. Under the Antiquities Act, now celebrating its 110th year, a U.S. president may protect and preserve federal public land of historic or scientific importance by declaring it a national monument. (To establish a national park, by contrast, requires an act of Congress.) From the Statue of Liberty to Grand Staircase-Escalante to Craters of the Moon, there are 122 such monuments in the U.S. today. Once a landscape or landmark is so designated, it cannot be demolished or harmed. In the case of the Stonewall National Monument, for instance, federal protection will prevent any future development from replacing or otherwise destroying Christopher Park. In fact, in order to complete the monument designation, the Department of the Interior acquired ownership of the small urban open space. The area to be interpreted as part of the monument, including neighboring streets and the Inn itself, is more than seven acres in total.
At Christopher Park, I meet Sean Ghazala, one of the two federal rangers at the new monument. He says the park service hopes one day to open a visitor center in the area, and to conduct interpretive tours of local LGBT history. His job right now, though, is to meet the neighbors, to gauge their interests, to take questions. And there are many questions, even concerns, about what the monument means.
“I think that, obviously, government recognition is really important,” says Mik Kinkead, a staff attorney at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a local queer legal organization named after the transgender Latina activist who was a leading figure in the Stonewall Uprising. “But it is also important to remember that [Stonewall] was a police riot and a fight back against the government, so what does that mean to now have the government recognize it?”
(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Kinkead worries that the monument could mean a larger and more militarized police presence in the neighborhood, and that the role of people of color, transgender people, and homeless youth will be left out of the Park Service’s interpretation of the site.
These are the sorts of questions that Ghazala’s in the neighborhood to address. He says the Park Service wants to make people feel comfortable in the space, and to that end it will be doing a great deal of community outreach in the months ahead as it develops a monument management plan. “There’s been a lot of energy, most of the people I’ve talked to feel validated,” Ghazala says. “They feel that this means our history is just as important and worthy of recognition as other people’s history.” The monument, in other words, is supposed to signify respect.
What it does not signify, of course, is an end to the long-term LGBT struggle for equality and justice. If Orlando — or the hundreds of anti-LGBT bills that were passed in states around the country last year, or the thousands of homeless queer youth on our city streets — tells us anything, it’s that the monument might be validation, but it’s not victory. Nevertheless, like Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s recent denunciation of North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom bill, the preservation and protection of Stonewall sends a strong message that the executive branch, with its immense power, is finally beginning to defend the interests of LGBT people in this country.
The monument means something else too. As right-wing politicians and activists continue their relentless assault on LGBT equality, they simultaneously seek to undermine the system of federal public lands that enabled the creation of the Stonewall National Monument in the first place. In the last six years, Republicans in Congress have made at least a dozen different attempts to gut, weaken, or undermine the Antiquities Act. The Act is a target precisely because it allows Obama to efficiently and unilaterally protect public land, whether vast Western landscapes or urban historical sites, for the common good of the American people. It’s a practice that special interests, from real estate developers to energy companies, often deplore. Like other assaults on this country’s public domain, from public lands to public education to public services, the attack on the Antiquities Act is part of a broader right-wing effort to roll back progressive legislation passed during the 20th and early 21st centuries.
While the Stonewall National Monument celebrates the LGBT community, let’s hope it also encourages that diverse and politically motivated constituency to fight more fully on behalf of public-interest laws like the Antiquities Act. As our newest monument proves, the law is a precious, but beleaguered, tool for honoring the people’s movements that continue to shape this country.