President Obama created the first national monument to gay rights Friday when he designated almost eight acres around the legendary Stonewall Inn, a gay nightclub in Greenwich Village that became the a cradle of the movement after riots erupted there almost 50 years ago.
Using his executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act, Obama protected a 7.7-acre parcel in Greenwich Village as the Stonewall National Monument in memory of the riots that marked a significant turning point in American gay rights activism. The monument includes the Stonewall Inn itself, Christopher Park and the maze of surrounding streets where the riots unfolded.
The site memorializes the six-day uprising that started June 28, 1969, after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned club frequented by gay men. Although there had been previous crackdowns on the bar and its clientele, that time it sparked a spontaneous riot by bystanders and those who had been detained.
“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 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 tourism. 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 the national park system has experienced during Obama’s presidency, as the president has used 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.”
The National Park Foundation also created a new nonprofit division Friday that aims to raise $2 million to support the site by funding dedicated National Park Service personnel, a temporary ranger station and a visitor center.
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 building and the area surrounding it, including Christopher Park, continue to draw people during critical moments affecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
“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 understanding 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.
“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 participants, described the conditions for LGBT 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.”
Bockman said it was important to recognize Stonewall for those Americans who “don’t know what they take for granted” about their current rights.
“It feels like it legitimizes me as 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 although 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.”
David Nakamura contributed to this report.