Jonathan Capehart is a Post opinion writer.
Truth be told, the Stonewall Inn was nothing special. Just a dive bar on Manhattan’s Christopher Street where drag queens and drag kings gathered with others from what we now call the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But how many Americans today would know what the acronym LGBT meant if not for what happened there in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, and during the six days that came after?
Police raids of the Stonewall were nothing unusual in those days. Being gay then was an open invitation to state-sanctioned harassment. But Stonewall’s patrons had had enough, and this time they fought back. The New York Daily News report on the Stonewall raid and riot was as horrifically homophobic as it was vividly written. It also made a bold prediction: “The police are sure of one thing,” reporter Jerry Lisker wrote. “They haven’t heard the last from the Girls of Christopher Street.”
That was an understatement. What emerged was the beginning of the modern LGBT civil rights movement, with Stonewall as its Edmund Pettus Bridge.
It’s been quite a journey from there. In 2000, the Greenwich Village bar was named a National Historic Landmark. In 2013, President Obama invoked the site in his second inaugural address, linking the drive for equality for LGBT Americans at Stonewall to that of women at Seneca Falls and African Americans at Selma. Now, Sunday, marchers in New York’s annual gay pride parade will file past the Stonewall as they have every last Sunday in June for the previous 45 years. But this time they will be crossing through a national monument.
The White House announced Friday that the Stonewall Inn, Christopher Park directly across the street and the surrounding streets and sidewalks — some 7.7 acres of land — will join the Statue of Liberty, Rainbow Bridge and Muir Woods as a place of national honor. Think about that. A bar that was home to persecuted societal outsiders will be recognized by a federal government that once viewed its patrons with contempt — by order of the president of the United States.
Of course, the march to this moment for the Stonewall Inn started before the 1969 rebellion that bears its name. I’m thinking back to 1965, when Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny led the first-ever pro-gay pickets in front of the White House and the Pentagon. Kameny had been fired from his job with the Army Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. His petition for relief at the Supreme Court in 1961 was denied, but not before he made history as the first gay person to argue on behalf of LGBT equality before the highest court in the land. Fifty-four years later, the justices would rule that denying the right to marry to same-sex couples was a violation of the Constitution.
And of course, there have been setbacks and pain at the same time. The AIDS epidemic robbed the community and the nation of a generation of talent in the 1980s. So-called religious freedom laws and bathroom bills are present-day efforts to chip away at the progress made. Because sexual orientation and gender identity are not covered under federal civil rights law, you can be fired for being LGBT in 28 states. The mass shooting in Orlando at an LGBT dance club in the early hours of June 12 was the worst of its kind in U.S. history and a devastating blow to the community’s sense of unrelenting progress.
“Stonewall is a living, breathing national treasure, as we saw last week when thousands of New Yorkers gathered outside to mourn Orlando or last year when we celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality,” said New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D), who lives in the historic neighborhood. “As a gay dad, 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.”
Hoylman’s point about future generations is important. As what happened at Stonewall gained in national prominence over the years, ironically the bar itself became a victim of its own success.
I’ve never been inside the Stonewall Inn because, when I moved to New York in 1991 in my 20s, there were better options, like the Monster and Uncle Charlie’s. By the end of the decade, there were other, more modern bars to go to — ones with big windows that allowed the patrons to see out and the outside world to see in. And then there were the coffee houses and restaurants with their unabashedly gay vibe and clientele. Folks, brunch, that most public of activities, became a verb thanks to us.
Actually, all that progress, in New York and beyond, began with a small group of LGBT Americans who got fed up and fought for their rights and their dignity 47 years ago outside an unremarkable bar in Greenwich Village. That that bar is now a national monument tells you just how much they won.