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President Obama Just Created the First National Monument to Gay Rights

The Stonewall National Monument tells the story of LGBTQ struggles in the United States

The site where the historic Stonewall Inn was located will now be the United States' first National Monument to gay rights. (Gryffindor/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

It was the quintessential dive bar—a Greenwich Village gay institution with Mafia ties and overpriced drinks. But in 1969, the Stonewall Inn went from dive bar to historic icon when a police raid led to violence and a historic protest on behalf of civil rights. Now, reports the Associated Press, Stonewall will become America’s first national monument to gay rights.

The New York tavern's designation was announced today to coincide with gay pride celebrations in New York City, writes the AP, and it will be celebrated with video of the President and historical footage played on the billboards in Times Square on Saturday. The Stonewall National Monument, as it will now be called, will cover nearly eight acres and include nearby Christopher Park.

In the 1960s, the simple act of going to a gay bar was a risky one. LGBTQ people who wanted to socialize did so at the risk of harassment, arrest and physical threats. Though New York had a reputation for being a progressive city, it was home to harsh anti-sodomy laws that made gay people treated as “an underclass,” as legal historian William E. Nelson put it. At the time, being gay meant being labeled as mentally ill, being legally denied the right to work at many jobs and being monitored and threatened by police vice squads.

The Stonewall Inn was one of the rare places where gay people could come together and be themselves. Frequented by what one observer characterized as “drags,” “queens” and young and homeless people, the bar was the hub of a community of people who felt like outsiders because of who they loved. But in the 1960s, police started to crack down on gay bars in the Village.

On the night of June 28, 1969, police officers descended on the Stonewall Inn. In and of itself, that wasn’t so unusual—the bar had been raided frequently in recent years. But usually police tipped off the bar’s owners, who then passed the information on to patrons. This time, there was no warning, and when the police came, the bar patrons and onlookers would not submit to the raid, rather they fought back.

Contemporaneous reports dismissed the initial incident, focusing more on drag queens throwing lipstick tubes than on the plight of the people who were fed up with police harassment. But it was harder to ignore what came next. The altercation turned into a people-powered uprising that led to several nights of protest. The actions brought unprecedented visibility and organization to the cause of gay civil rights.

As June Thomas notes for Slate, the raid’s timing came right as women, people of color and other groups were becoming more vocal and organized. “The Stonewall raid also occurred on the first hot weekend of the summer, at the biggest club in the area, and in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood,” she writes. Those ingredients—and a history of civil rights violations—stoked an entire movement.

The Stonewall riots marked the first widely visible salvo in the war for gay rights, but the battle still continues today. Despite the legalization of same-sex marriage, civil rights gains and increased awareness of LGBTQ issues, it is still legal to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation in many states. And as a 2015 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found, hate violence against LGBTQ people is still common, especially for transgender people, and people of color within the community as a whole. On June 12, a gunman targeted LGBTQ people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in the largest mass shooting in United States history, which killed 49 people and injured 53.

The creation of the new monument won’t solve these problems, but it will provide official recognition and visibility for gay civil rights. In a release, President Obama remarked that national parks “should reflect the full story of our country.” The Stonewall National Monument may be new, but it tells a history of people who have always been in the United States.

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