President Obama has made it official. The Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park across the street from it and surrounding streets in Greenwich Village will be our nation’s first national monument that celebrates the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. For it was there in the early hours of June 28, 1969, and for the next six days that the Stonewall riots ushered in the modern LGBT civil rights movement.
“Stonewall deserves its special place in gay history because the unlikely scene of drag queens rebelling against a police raid sparked the wave of organizing that made all the subsequent victories of our movement possible,” said Charles Kaiser, author of “The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America.”
New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman, who lives in the historic neighborhood, looked ahead as he reflected on the monument’s significance. “As a gay dad,” he told me, “it means a lot to me that my daughter and future generations will now know it for its place in American history and the broader civil rights movement.”
This monumental announcement comes one year after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Three years after Obama became the first sitting president to mention Stonewall in an inaugural address. Six years after the ban was lifted on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. Forty-three years after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. And 46 years after the first gay pride parade took place in New York City.
But as important as the monument designation is to both Hoylman and Kaiser, so is the person who made it.
“It’s rightly become a moniker for LGBT and human rights everywhere,” Hoylman said of Stonewall. “And it’s entirely fitting that it’s being named a national monument by Barack Obama — the [first] African American president, the first president to mention Stonewall in an inaugural address, and the first president to support LGBT marriage equality.”
For Kaiser, it’s as much the president’s actions as it is the historical link he embodies. “It’s especially appropriate that the designation of this neighborhood as a national monument is being made by this president,” Kaiser said. “First, because Barack Obama has done more for LGBTQ people than all of his predecessors put together; and second, because he is our first African-American president, and most of our success as a movement is the result of our explicit emulation of the black civil rights model.” A model that had Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black man, as the chief architect of one of that model’s most revered events, the 1963 March on Washington.
The civil rights movements for African Americans and LGBT Americans share similar traits. Persistence in the face of inaction. Patience in the face of indifference. Moral suasion in the face of intolerance. And these are all the things exhibited by Obama as he moved his administration and helped guide the nation to the right side of history on LGBT rights. That’s not to say that how the president went about doing what he did didn’t cause consternation. Or that he didn’t need nudging when misguided charges of betrayal threatened to undo his good work done and goodwill earned. But he prevailed. We prevailed.
What makes the advancements in LGBT equality that more meaningful is that the president wasn’t alone in his convictions.
Then-attorney general Eric Holder outlined the legal basis for no longer defending the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in a 2011 letter to the speaker of the House. It was then-associate attorney general in charge of the civil division, Tony West, who urged that the Justice Department no longer defend DOMA in court and give “heightened scrutiny” to cases involving sexual orientation. This was the result of a West-led interagency review due to United States v. Windsor, the case that would overturn DOMA in 2013. And when Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was the general counsel at the Defense Department in 2010, he conducted and co-wrote the impact study that gave Congress the ammunition to repeal the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military.
Now, here’s something you probably didn’t even notice. Holder, West and Johnson are three straight African American men. They acted at the behest of the nation’s chief executive, who happens to be African American. As we celebrate gay pride and the new national monument that recognizes the struggle for LGBT equality and its place in American history, let’s not forget the man (and the men) who helped make it happen.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj