When something momentous happens in the struggle for LGBT equality—and the last three times this has happened on the eve of New York’s Pride event—there is only one place for New Yorkers and those visiting the city to go.
The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was where, in 1969, a group of drag queens and other patrons of that bar—poor, marginalized, persecuted; far from the predominantly white and besuited, citadel-storming gay activists of today—fought back against police harassment, kickstarting the Riots which became the cornerstone of the modern LGBT rights movement.
And today, Friday, the day marriage equality finally became a reality for the U.S. in the wake of the SCOTUS ruling, a familiar sight greeted us who went there when marriage equality was legalized in 2011, and when DOMA was repealed in 2013.
The Stonewall Riots happened on June 28, which is why so many Pride events happen at this time of year: as these recent moments in history show, fate certainly seems to have a heightened sense of melodrama.
There were people lined up on the sidewalk, couples holding each other, people on their own smiling, a mix of ages and genders and nationalities—and of course, news trucks and, inside, a bar bustling with patrons, partiers, journalists with notebooks, and TV crews whose cameras with lights harshly lit the traditionally dark and shadowy interior.
“I was going to go to the church where my husband and I got married to celebrate,” Michael Blackmon-Ham, 41, said. “But they don’t serve alcohol.”
As the crowd around him cheered and raised their glass to that, Blackmon-Ham laughed. “So it was either go to the church I got married in or go to Stonewall. I chose Stonewall because they got vodka. I love the lord, but I love vodka, too.”
Yes, the booze was flowing at Stonewall Inn—though it was barely after 11 a.m.
“Unfortunately my husband is at work,” Blackmon-Ham said. “And if he knew I was drinking he would not be happy.” Then, with a wink, “It’s 12 o’clock somewhere.”
Those of us who go to the Stonewall anyway—hands up, you got me—see these periodic fits of interest with a wry eye. If only the bar was as frequented on regular days of the week.
This is where I take friends to pay homage on first-time visits to the city; this is where I tell tourists to go when they ask for recommendations of bars, and if they don’t know ‘the story,’ I tell them the story of the Stonewall.
LGBT history may seem positive and momentous at this moment, but to a generation weaned on equality—either its execution or expectation—it is also receding far too quickly.
The Stonewall tangibly reminds today’s young LGBTs to research it, be amazed by it, and be proud of all those who fought in far harder times before them. Today, at moments like this, we are all on their shoulders.
One of the most moving things is watching the crowds standing outside the bar, looking to it, just being there with it, rather than necessarily going inside. If you want to feel warm, part of something, express whatever joy or empathy or something more complicated and personal, go and stand outside the Stonewall this Pride weekend—smile, beam, weep, be around others.
Their gin and tonics are incredibly strong too, if you want to toast anything.
Inside today, my colleague Kevin Fallon and I found a bar brimming with every kind of experience.
Jeff Manning, 28, said: “It feels great, I’m very excited. I’m gay and I can get married anywhere. I never thought I’d see the day. I’m from smalltown Indiana. This wasn’t really an option. I’m single, so now I just need to find a husband.”
David Green, 55, and Robert Miller, 54, were visiting from South Carolina.
Same-sex marriage had been legalized in November 2014 in their home state, something that the couple (who is “commitment phobic” and not married, Green laughed) never imagined would happen—let alone that the right would be extended nationwide.
“There’s no gay person I know who as a child thought gay marriage was possible,” Miller said.
“I think it’s wonderful to have, I hate to say, role models,” Green added. “By and large we are all byproducts of heterosexual coupling and we feel isolated. I think it’s nice for young people to see that ‘I’m not that different from a multitude of people.’”
In the intemperate, mean-minded (and much worse) dissensions of Justices Alito, Thomas, and Scalia are lessons in why, despite today’s joy, we must always remain watchful of all those who would deny LGBTs the equality that is rightfully theirs.
In all the threats of constitutional amendments being demanded, of not respecting the rule of law—as Mike Huckabee has vowed to do—is the ongoing determination to deny LGBTs their civil rights.
The battle is far from over. The (by-nature) bullying right wing is now busily recasting itself as the victim having their religious rights and freedoms being trampled; this after using exactly the same ‘freedoms’ and religious fervor to bash LGBTs with, and stir up hatred against them, over the years.
On a day like today, when the highest court in the land has affirmed the importance and principle of equality, to see them foam at the mouth condemning this and mewling like babies over how unfair it all is, makes one realize just how disgusting they are—and how farcically detached they are from any semblance of the Christianity they claim to espouse.
There are already squalls, and who knows what else to come. On Friday, a clerk in Texas refused to do her job and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and in other states are dark grumblings of resistance—law-defying, mean-minded losers, all of them. One hopes they are made to observe the law of the land and, if unable to do so, prosecuted.
In the Stonewall, David Jackson, a 61-year-old radiologist from Chelsea, New York, was sitting with his partner Mark Samia, a 36-year-old ICU nurse. “It seemed to be the likely way to go, but you never know till the last minute. It seemed the only reasonable outcome, but there are a lot of unreasonable people. The way that most people feel about gay people in New York, perhaps the rest of the country can enjoy that now. I think most people will say a lot more needs to be done. Just as with racism, you cannot eradicate anti-gay feelings by one Supreme Court ruling. There is lots more to do, but it’s certainly a nice gift for Pride weekend. It’s a big step in the right direction.”
Samia was very happy. “Love always wins,” he said, a phrase echoed by many in the Stonewall. “I always thought it was going to happen. In terms of equality we need to be mindful of what our trans brothers and sisters are going through.”
Visiting Oklahomans Rodney Thomas, 36, and his boyfriend of a year John Williams (“I’d rather not have my age published) both grew up in rural Oklahoma, “so to see this day happen—it’s just overwhelming,” Thomas—his arm draped lovingly around Williams’ neck—said. Even when Oklahoma legalized same-sex marriage, he was stunned. “I didn’t think I’d see that for another 20 or 30 years even.”
The greatest impact, they said, will be on the younger generation of out gay people. “When I first came out I was terrified,” Thomas said. “Now that it’s more socially accepted, their lives will be easier. They don’t have to be scared that they’ll lose their job, or not have friends at school, or lose their family.”
“We both had struggles coming out,” Williams said. “On a day like today, you reflect on those memories, but it’s important to remember where you came from. The journey you went on. That you’re here.”
As time passed, more waves of celebrants entered the bar. Selfies in front of the numerous rainbow flags and streamers draped throughout the bar were being snapped with paparazzi-like abandon. A chorus of woos erupted as the bartender increased the volume of the music—Rihanna’s voice intoning, “We found love in a hopeless place…”
At the Stonewall today, I recalled first reporting on LGBT issues 20 years ago in Britain: a different country, and different time. Back then there was so much entrenched discrimination enshrined by statute, homophobia was acceptable, there were few LGBTs on TV, few celebrities who were out.
There was a ban on LGBTs serving in the military, a law forbidding ‘the promotion of homosexuality,’ an unequal age of consent.
Before Tony Blair’s Labour Government took power—setting in train the path to legislative equality in the UK—a senior ministerial colleague of his, LGBT-friendly at that, took me aside, and said, “Gays are asking for marriage. Do they really want that?”
“We (my emphasis) want full equality before the law, so why are you surprised?” I answered.
The fight here has been fiercer, is fiercer, because of the feverishness of the Religious Right, and its yolking to the Republicans. But finally, after years of their bullying, misinformation, and despicable homophobia, they are beginning to lose their influence.
At the Stonewall, as ever at such moments, people were joyful, but also disbelieving. LGBTs have gone through so much, have been denied so much for so long, we are nervous when glimmers of light present themselves. Rights can be rolled back, and the right-wing is in venomous opposition to LGBT equality.
They care less about being on the wrong side of history than maintaining their right to persecute LGBT people.
The Stonewall drinkers were watchful, and knew there was much more to fight for. But they were happy, and this Pride weekend, that’s what they want on display.
Bella Criollo, a 62-year-old “dog nanny,” has been with her partner Olga Vosquez for 32 years. “Now I can decide if I want to get married or not,” she said, laughing. “And I can say no, or I can say yes. There seems to be more gay people than ever, or maybe we‘re all just out of the closet. I live right here on Christopher Street, so maybe we’ll have the reception here at the Stonewall. Don’t you think it would be marvelous?”
Criollo was talking to a group of men including Andrew Nicolosi, 21, from Long Island, who was “ecstatic and ready to party and celebrate, I’m single and ready to mingle. I expected to see marriage equality, I’m just surprised it took so long. In this day and age it shouldn’t be a big deal and clearly, as of today, it isn’t a big deal.
“I was accepted by my family, but didn’t want to be ‘the gay kid’ at school. I didn’t come out till I was at college.” He smiles. “My mom cried, and burned dinner that night when I called her. My dad said, ‘OK.’ But he helped me spray my booty shorts gold for a Gaga concert. He knew.”
One of the most jolting stories came from Daniel Duenas, a 27-year-old barista from Brooklyn, who originally grew up in Modesto, California, which he described as very conservative.
On the outside Duenas looks like a handsome, urban, fashionable guy, but that image hid a much more complex story.
“This is a very humbling day for me,” the bisexual Duenas told me. “I was actually somebody who was anti-equality, anti-gay marriage. It took a lot of growing up, searching, and self-discovery to realize I was wrong. I was not thinking from a place of truth, humility, and grace. It took me a long time to figure out that I was the bad guy and needed to fix my perspective on this. It was not being judged by others for my opinion that made me see how much this community has to offer.
“Coming out was really hard for me. Once I had to face the fact that I was fighting people who wanted to support me, that made it all the more difficult to wrestle with. From people who are hostile, there’s going to be initially a lot of either silence or pushback. Once people realize that fire and brimstone isn’t going to rain down from the sky, or these people are not here to contaminate and corrupt, but just want to share their lives with people they love, that will help them.”
Aaron Katzmen, a 25-year-old neuroscience grad, said he had to be at the Stonewall, because “while I didn’t live through the Stonewall Riots and didn’t deal with so much of the persecution that so many people I know did, it feels like I am benefiting from history. Knowing history and being aware of all happened in the last 40 years has been so important in shaping my identity and helping me come out.”
Katzmen had a cold and had taken Dayquil, and was feeling—surprise, surprise—revived by the joy of the bar. “I play in the gay volleyball league: it’s huge, 1000 people, I joined at 21/22. It has an age range of 21 to 70. The most eye-opening thing is to hear the stories of guys who lived in New York during the AIDS epidemic who survived.”
Elizabeth Bohnel, straight and 30 years old, was at the Stonewall not just because she wanted to share in the happiness of the moment, but because of her gay sister Erica who came out, aged 15, in “a small, all-white, Christian town. It was really hard on everyone in our family. Right after the Supreme Court announcement, she called me, crying, ‘Thank you, you’ve done nothing but love and support me from the beginning.’
“This is the happiest day to be here, the happiest place on earth. Love rules. It’s been a long time coming. It changes everything for the future. Kids that used to grow up being sad and scared don’t have to feel that way anymore: they will know they have the same rights as everyone else, although they still haven’t made discrimination illegal. Let that be the next thing.”
Bohnel’s words reminded me of the other significant LGBT event of the week—now long forgotten because of the SCOTUS marriage equality win.
At a White House reception, Jennicet Gutiérrez, an undocumented trans activist, interrupted his speech to draw attention to the plight of LGBT immigrant detainees. She was booed and shushed by fellow activists. Obama reminded her sternly she was in his house.
Yes, she was, and yes it may seem rude—but where else could she get her voice heard at such a high level, and subsequently reported on.
Gutiérrez, in her passion and confrontational pose, has more in common with the original Stonewall rioters than the besuited activists—supposedly her LGBT fellows—who booed her. I get their nervousness—finally we’re being being lavished with Obama-love, don’t ruin it, don’t make them not like us—but Gutiérrez’s intervention was a thrilling, necessary reminder of our responsibility to be ready for fights still-to-come.
Away from the Stonewall, Lisa Cannistraci who owns lesbian bar Henrietta’s and a key played in the marriage equality fight, confessed that a few other campaigners had converged on the bar soon after the 10am announcement.
Cannistraci, 52, who is also overseeing this weekend’s Siren event at the South Street Seaport, said she felt goosebumps on her arms, thinking of her good friend Stormé DeLarverie, the well-known lesbian present the night of the Riots, who died last year.
“I think what changes people’s minds are not court rulings,” said Cannistraci, “but familiarity with somebody who is gay. When we were fighting for marriage equality, the big campaign was to call all your family members and get them to call people they know. We need straight allies to vouch for us.
“I came out at 19. My mother was so incredibly cool about it. She said, ‘People think gay people have gay sex all the time, and who wouldn’t want to do that? I want to do that! You’re in college, you have a job, you pay for an apartment. Being attracted to the same sex is such a small part of your life.”
Just as people flock to the Stonewall Inn, they also go at historic moments to New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, its executive director, Glennda Testone, said.
“It’s a great day, and feels very celebratory in the march towards equality and justice for the full community. For all my friends in non-marriage equality states, it sends the message that we deserve to be treated equally, and our love is no less deserving of respect. Next on the agenda is fighting for equality and justice for our trans brothers and sisters, and our youth on the street who have nowhere to sleep. We won this fight. There are still many more fights we have to win.”
The Center itself is its own living monument to changing times. Recently renovated, and sparkling and new, it has a coffee shop, support groups meeting in each of its bright-as-a-new-pin rooms, a brilliant bookstore, BGSQD, and the recently restored Haring Bathroom, with its mural of proudly pulsating penises.
The bathroom, deliciously cool on a hot day, is a marvel to see—and it also, in 2015, remains the best kind of shocking. Keith Haring’s time was the time of Act Up, Robert Mapplethorpe—of vivid political and cultural resistance to the rampant prejudice of the time, exacerbated by the homophobia and bigotry around HIV and AIDS.
That may seem like another world away, or such a different world young readers cannot conceive of it. That is a sign of success, and they should enjoy growing up in a more equal world.
But, as nearly everyone at the Stonewall told Kevin and me, the campaign for full equality goes on: we all know that. So, enjoy Pride—beam, smile, and holler—and carry on fighting.