By Molly Anderson and Beth Porter, National Park Service
“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 – that we are stronger together, that out of many, we are one.”
With this statement, on June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama brought Stonewall National Monument into the national park system. For the first time, a national park officially recognizes the struggle that LGBTQ Americans have faced to secure equal rights under the law. Christopher Park, the Stonewall Inn, and the adjacent block of Christopher Street in Greenwich Village received this designation because of the role these locations played in the 1969 LGBTQ rights uprising. This event signified a turning point in the LGBTQ rights movement; a vocal group of activists refused to accept the prevailing societal sentiment that homosexuality was illegal and immoral.
To better understand the significance of the uprising, one must step back in time to the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, a tidal wave of civil rights reforms swept the country. Public awareness of discrimination and mistreatment of minorities was at an all-time high, but these new laws and protections did not extend to the LGBTQ community. Establishments that catered to this community, such as the Stonewall Inn, were frequently raided and the patrons arrested. It is not completely known why this particular raid, in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, set off the chain of events that spawned the modern day LGBTQ civil rights movement. What is known is that LGBTQ activists, as well as members of antiwar and racial civil rights movements, protested for six days and nights in the streets surrounding the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park. The Stonewall uprising led to a nationwide cascade of marches, LGBTQ-owned publications, political advocacy, and eventually a landmark Supreme Court decision that made marriage equality a right for all Americans.
For the moment, the NPS rangers have no official structure, choosing instead to partner with local churches, coffee shops and community centers when they need indoor space for programs. Inside Christopher Park is a replica of the statue “Gay Liberation” by George Segal. The Stonewall Inn itself is still operating, but it is a privately owned business and therefore not controlled by the National Park Service. Rangers in full uniform are outside in Christopher Park and on the streets five days a week giving tours, interpreting the Monument and answering questions for curious passersby. Both rangers currently employed at the Monument feel as though they have a personal and professional duty to those who took a stand here and to all LGBTQ people to educate visitors on the Stonewall uprising and the subsequent push for equal rights. When asked about the vision for the monument, Allan Dailey, the site supervisor of Stonewall said:
As the planning process has not begun for Stonewall I can’t answer definitively what the vision for the monument’s future will be. We want the park to tell the stories of people advocating for rights over time with the uprising interpreted as an important turning point in the process but certainly one of many. Through programs we expect to interpret the events of the uprising and help visitors connect the history to what’s happening today.
One of the most important roles that the National Park Service plays is to tell America’s stories. Stonewall National Monument is a prime example. This story is about more than one moment in time. It sheds light on the events and people who paved the way for the Stonewall uprising to occur, and embraces the events and people who followed. It is through places like Stonewall that the LGBTQ community can learn, share, and find itself in the rich tapestry known as America’s national park system.
This is the second in a series of blog posts highlighting urban units of the National Park System.