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With Stonewall, Obama designates first national monument to gay rights movement

The gay rights movement was launched at the Stonewall Inn in 1969. Now it will be the first national monument in honor of gays and lesbians. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

President Obama on Friday designated the first national monument to the gay rights movement, commemorating the Stonewall uprising in New York City nearly five decades ago.

Using his executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act, Obama protected a 7.7-acre area in Greenwich Village that encompasses the Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park and a maze of surrounding streets that were the place of rioting in late June 1969.

The site memorializes the six-day uprising that started June 28 after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned bar frequented by gay men. While patrons of the bar had complied in the past with these crackdowns, that raid sparked a spontaneous riot by bystanders and those who had been detained.

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"Raids like this were nothing new, but this time the patrons had had enough, so they stood up and spoke out," the president said in a video the White House released Friday. "The riots became protests, the protests became a movement, and the movement ultimately became an integral part of America."

Although national monument designations are partly symbolic, they inevitably spur an increase in visitation as well as interest in a site online. 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.

The designation of Stonewall reflects the ongoing cultural shift that the national park system has experienced during Obama's presidency, as the president uses his executive authority to recognize sites that resonate with the country’s diverse makeup. Some of his previous designations have singled out places that correspond to seminal moments for African Americans, women, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans, or are located near communities of color.

"I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country, the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us," Obama says in the video, which will play on billboards in Times Square at noon Saturday, "that we are stronger together, that out of many, we are one."

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Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in an interview that the push to make Stonewall a national monument has helped “bring people to the issue in a very intimate way,” as both people who had participated in the riots and a younger generation of LGBT Americans rallied to the cause.

The bar--a different one is now in operation, in half the original space--and the area surrounding it continue to draw people during critical moments affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, including in the aftermath of this month’s mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

New Yorkers have created a memorial for victims of the Orlando mass shooting outside of the historic Stonewall Inn. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

“People went to Stonewall, and that’s where they held vigils, because that’s where they connect to their history,” Pierno said.

Still, rarely has the president of the United States honored a place that represents such a radical rebellion against the status quo. During the initial stage of the riots, participants rammed a parking meter through the inn and tossed in molotov cocktails, while another set of protesters kicked up their legs in a chorus line to mock the police.

Philip Bockman, who was 27 when he took part in the riots, had grown up isolated in Michigan with no conception of what it meant to be gay. After being thrown out of the University of Michigan because officials there suspected that he was gay, he moved to New York City and began frequenting gay bars that remained shrouded in secrecy.

But at the start of the riots, Bockman realized how he and other gay people could exercise their political power. “Looking around that crowd, I thought, wow, there’s a lot of us,” he recalled. “It was the end of my loneliness.”

At times, Bockman added, he and others were reckless.

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“I ran up and down the streets, I was telling people ‘Come out, come out!’ ” he said, making an allusion to both being open about one’s sexual orientation as well as inviting others to take part in the riots.

Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, another of the original participants, described the conditions for LBGT Americans before the riots as “prehistoric.”

“And when Stonewall happens, history begins for us. Our history, defined by us,” Lanigan-Schmidt said. “That’s the difference, it’s us, saying who we are. It’s not other people deciding that we’re sick, or should be felt sorry for, or all these things. The world before Stonewall was very much like the world that the Christian right would want it to be today.”

David Carter, author of "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution," said gay homeless youths, such as Lanigan-Schmidt, as well as a lesbian who resisted arrest, were the ones who set off rioting at first. "The explosion that happened was with the most marginalized members of society," Carter said.

Unlike other presidential land designations, which can sometimes spark local opposition, the Stonewall National Monument received near-unanimous support from local, state and federal lawmakers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) collaborated with federal officials and those representing Greenwich Village on the New York City Council and the state assembly and senate to arrange a land transfer to the federal government.

"We are faced with painful reminders daily of how much further we must go to achieve true equality and tolerance for the LGBT community, but honoring and preserving the stories of all of the diverse participants in Stonewall in our National Park System is a clear symbol of how far we have come," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who authored legislation with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to make the area a national park.

Some Christian leaders have criticized the idea of creating an LGBT monument, saying the U.S. government should not honor anything associated with homosexuality.

The National Park Foundation has chartered a new nonprofit group to help raise money to support the site, funding dedicated National Park Service personnel, a temporary ranger station and a visitor center. As of Monday, four NPS rangers from the New York area will be detailed to the site on a short-term basis, administration officials said.

Bockman said it was important to recognize Stonewall not to convey its importance for both straight Americans and younger people who are out, but for those who “don’t know what they take for granted” about their current rights.

“It feels like it legitimizes me as a U.S. citizen, as a human being, as part of our country in a way that I’ve never been able to fully feel before,” he said, adding that while he lives in Philadelphia, he visits Stonewall nearly every week when he commutes to Manhattan to see patients in his psychotherapy practice. “It’s my past, it’s my youth, and it’s our movement.”