The first time I ever went to the Stonewall Inn, I was 23. I had just moved to New York, and a friend and I, realizing that neither of us had ever been to the historic bar, made the spur-of-the-moment decision to pop in. We didn't stay for more than a couple of drinks, but I'll never forget the warm, welcoming atmosphere the venue provided—or the non-single off of Bionic playing over a projection of Mommie Dearest upstairs.
I've yet to return inside Stonewall itself, but, as a gay human being who lives in New York, I've frequented the surrounding Sheridan Square area many times since. I might be aware of the area's significance—that it was the site of the Stonewall riots of 1969—but history is always vulnerable to erasure. That's why the National Parks Conservation Association is pushing President Barack Obama to preserve the birthplace of the modern LGBT civil rights movement for generations to come.
The NPCA formally announced their petition to ask Obama to grant Sheridan Square national park status—the first national park dedicated to American LGBT history—at a rally held outside Christopher Park in Greenwich Village on Sunday, The New York Times reports. So far, the campaign has found support at the local, state, and federal levels. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Jerry Nadler, two of the proposal's biggest supporters, spoke at Sunday's event.
"We have a responsibility to preserve and respect the places important to our history, and the Stonewall Inn deserves our highest recognition," Sen. Gillibrand said, according to an NPCA release. "It's time for a national monument honoring the legacy of people and events that took place here."
If the campaign is successful, the Stonewall National Monument would be the first national park in the U.S. with a specific focus on American LGBT history. And Obama, with the powers granted to him under the Antiquities Act of 1906, could make that park a reality without congressional approval—something that often proves impossible in today's legislative climate.
When you hear the words "national park," you probably picture an outdoorsy setting more akin to Yellowstone than Downtown Manhattan. But Cortney Worrall, Northeast Regional Director for the NPCA, told me that the majority of national parks are actually on the smaller side with a focus on preserving American history—not just wildlife.
"Two-thirds [of national parks] are smaller historical sites like Seneca Falls in New York, which tells the story of the suffrage movement," Worrall said over the phone on Monday. "There's Selma, Ala., which tells the story of the struggle of civil rights for African-Americans. There's Little Rock High School, which would actually be a really good model for how [the Stonewall National Monument could exist]."
Although the original Stonewall Inn closed decades ago, the current bar operating under that name has been declared a local and national landmark. But the riots on June 28, 1969—in which marginalized transgender and/or queer patrons, led by artists and activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, resisted police during one of their frequent raids on the tavern—were not contained to the bar itself. The act of LGBT resistance, commemorated by the city's annual Pride Parade, spilled out into the surrounding streets of Sheridan Square, a major impetus for the NPCA's petition.
Establishing a single LGBT-focused national park in New York would allow for many of the city's other historically significant queer sites to get the recognition they deserve. For example, Worrall told me that the National Park Service could use the Stonewall National Monument as a home base for tours that would trek all over the five boroughs.
"LGBT history in New York City goes back [at least] to the 1800s, and the very first known bar that served gay patrons was somewhere and Broadway and Bleecker," she said. "There are many ways to expand the story [of Stonewall], and this park would give the National Park Service many opportunities to expand that story."
The area surrounding Stonewall continues to connect LGBT people with their history to this day, but, increasingly, only for those who can afford it.
While the Village still retains an identifiable LGBT character, it has become less democratically queer since 1969. The average price of a studio rental has cleared $3,000, a far cry from the mid-20th century prices that allowed the neighborhood to transform into a haven for struggling artists and economically marginalized groups. And, while the LGBT Center on West 13th Street remains, many of the historical gathering places for homeless trans and queer youth, like the pre-Giuliani Chelsea Piers, have been disrupted thanks to aggressive policing by the NYPD. Obama has the authority to preserve the continuity between Sheridan Squares past and present, should he heed the NPCA petition's call.
When I walked into that warm, welcoming bar four years ago, I felt a sense of history greater than myself. That's something that any young queer person should have the right to access for years to come—give or take the Christina Aguilera deep cuts.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.