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Stonewall National Park Now In Obama’s Hands

COVER DESIGN BY MICHAEL SHIREY.

COVER DESIGN BY MICHAEL SHIREY.

BY ANDY HUMM | The momentum for declaring the area outside the Stonewall Inn a national monument overseen by the National Park Service seems headed for an inevitable conclusion, with all the political, LGBT rights movement, and community forces aligned in its favor at a May 9 public hearing at PS 41 in Greenwich Village.

The hearing was chaired by US Representative Jerry Nadler, a West Side Democrat widely credited with coordinating support for the designation. Nadler was joined by US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Jonathan Jarvis, the National Park Service (NPS) director.

The Inn, site of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion that sparked the modern LGBT rights movement, would be the first national park designated because of its significance to gay history if — as expected — Jewell recommends that President Barack Obama use his powers under the Antiquities Act to declare it a monument by the 47th anniversary of the uprising in late June.

A national monument designation for Christopher Park would serve as the anchor for a larger national park area incorporating surrounding streets.

Congressmember Jerry Nadler, who coordinated support for designating a Stonewall national monument at Christopher Park. | DONNA ACETO

Congressmember Jerry Nadler, who coordinated support for designating a Stonewall national monument at Christopher Park. | DONNA ACETO

Nadler opened the proceedings by saying he was “confident” the president would act given that the other route to a national park — congressional legislation sponsored by him and New York’s two US senators, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand — is unlikely to pass with Republicans in charge of both houses.

The small triangular Christopher Park across the street from the bar has been transferred to the federal government as the result of a City Council resolution sponsored by Chelsea Democrat Corey Johnson, support from the de Blasio administration, and legislation quietly and unanimously passed in Albany through the leadership of Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Senator Brad Hoylman, both Democrats who represent the area, and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo last month.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who will make a recommendation to President Barack Obama on establishing a national park. | DONNA ACETO

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who will make a recommendation to President Barack Obama on establishing a national park. | DONNA ACETO

These three out gay and lesbian officials, along with City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Public Advocate Letitia James, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, spoke at a press conference Nadler held just prior to the hearing to announce the final push for the monument’s designation.

James, who noted she is the first African-American woman elected citywide, said, “The Stonewall Inn represents to the LGBT community what Selma represents for the civil rights movement and Seneca Falls represents for the women’s movement,” echoing Obama’s own linking of these three historic places in his Second Inaugural Address in 2013.

Jewell, in opening remarks at the hearing, said she was in eighth grade when the Rebellion happened and “oblivious to the struggles” of LGBT people, along with most Americans at the time. She noted that in 1969 “two people of the same sex could be arrested for dancing together” or for “wearing clothes of the other gender, so I’m inappropriately dressed” by that standard, given her pants and suit-jacket ensemble.

Jonathan Jarvis, the National Parks Service director. | DONNA ACETO

Jonathan Jarvis, the National Parks Service director. | DONNA ACETO

While Christopher Park — which already includes George Segal’s statues titled “Gay Liberation” of a male couple and a female couple, both painted solid white — will anchor Stonewall National Park, its appearance is not likely to change much other than in terms of signage (though the Stonewall Veterans’ Association, a group run by Williamson Henderson, who has long made widely disputed claims, for which no police or court records exist, of having been arrested during the uprising, was pushing an elaborate redesign at the Nadler hearing). Friends of Christopher Park, a volunteer group, will continue its unpaid efforts at maintaining the park, and the city will continue to contribute to upkeep.

During the hearing, Community Board 2 chair Tobi Bergman praised the proposal as “preserving the character of the neighborhood” while celebrating it as “a source of influence on the world.”

HUMM christopher park IS

George Segal’s statues of “Gay Liberation” in Christopher Park. | ANDY HUMM

 

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, credited the private and influential National Parks Conservation Association’s push for this park over several years with helping to advance the idea. He noted that the park will not include the actual site of the Stonewall Inn, already protected with federal, state, and city historic landmark designations, but urged that it be included.

Activists Mariah Lopez and Jim Fouratt confer during the hearing. | DONNA ACETO

Activists Mariah Lopez and Jim Fouratt confer during the hearing. | DONNA ACETO

Veteran gay activist Jim Fouratt, however, called the bar itself “a symbol of our oppression” and insisted that “what happened in the streets” is what needs to be commemorated. The Gay Liberation Front, he noted, was formed as a direct result of the Rebellion, making Stonewall distinct from earlier uprisings of LGBT people in spurring ongoing militant organizing that created a permanent political movement.

While the hearing was contentious at times as witnesses debated who was there, what it meant, and what else should be memorialized, they were unanimous in support of making the area a national park.

Michael E. Levine, 73, said he was in the Stonewall the night of the raid and that it marked a seismic shift in how gay people felt about themselves.

“From that date in ’69, I have been out to everyone I know,” he said.

Longtime activist Randy Wicker.  | DONNA ACETO

Longtime activist Randy Wicker. | DONNA ACETO

Gil Horowitz, who said he participated in the Rebellion’s second night, testified that the bulk of those who rebelled were “homeless youth who hung out in Christopher Park — thrown out because they were gay.”

Randy Wicker, a gay activist since 1958, said, “There is no such thing as gay rights, there is just human rights.” He urged those creating the monument to fully incorporate the role played by people of color at Stonewall and in the movement that followed.

Scott Caplan, of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, said the story of Stonewall must also include the account of “oppression by the NYPD.” It was a police raid, after all, that sparked Stonewall’s patrons to fight back.

Josephine Fantasia Perez spoke up about the needs of the transgender community. | DONNA ACETO

Josephine Fantasia Perez spoke up about the needs of the transgender community. | DONNA ACETO

Transgender activist Josephine Fantasia Perez, who described herself as a daughter of Sylvia Rivera and niece of Marsha P. Johnson, two early transgender street activists of the Stonewall Era, made an impassioned plea about the life and death burdens that continue to weigh on transgender people.

“Give them a safe place,” Perez said. “Too many of us are homeless. There are too few jobs and job training programs. Educate parents so that they don’t throw their transgender kids out into the street.” She and other transgender witnesses, such as Mariah Lopez, argued that the Hudson River pier in the West Village, home over the years to many transgender homeless people, should also be part of a national park.

NPS Director Jarvis told the audience at the hearing’s conclusion, “I heard unanimous support. My job is to recommend to Secretary Jewell and her job is to recommend to President Obama that the Stonewall should join the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon” as a national park, not just in recognition of the history of the Rebellion and the role the streets outside the Stonewall played in moments of both trauma and celebration for the community, but to highlight the “continued struggle” for LGBT rights.

Michael E. Levine was in the Stonewall the night of the police raid, he said at the hearing. | DONNA ACETO

Michael E. Levine was in the Stonewall the night of the police raid, he said at the hearing. | DONNA ACETO

Interior Secretary Jewell, who listened attentively but did not speak during the testimony, told Gay City News afterward that she heard “community support for telling an important civil rights story,” something she earlier said the 100-year-old National Park Service, as “America’s storyteller,” excels at.

Historian David Carter, author of “Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution,” widely considered a definitive account, sounded a cautionary note about storytelling — the importance of the Park Service settling on the facts of what happened and who was there in June 1969 before assuming the mantle of authority.

“Insist on the same level of evidence and the careful examination of evidence for this event that we expect for any other important event in our nation’s history,” Carter urged.

2 Responses to Stonewall National Park Now In Obama’s Hands

  1. perrybrass May 13, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for this really beautiful account, Andy (and Paul) of a groundbreaking moment in the history of same-sexualized and gender non-conforming people (that, for people tired of acronyms already). I especially like Jim Fouratt bringing in the importance of the Gay Liberation Front which really needs to be emphasized in our era of over-hyped queer celebrity. None of the members of GLF or its subsequent break-off, the Gay Activists Alliance, became national media stars, and during the Right-slap swing that the country convulsed into with Ronald Reagan, the accomplishments of both organizations were buried in the corporatization of our movement. What Christopher Park shows is that we have a history and culture. We are only starting to understand this; we have barely scratched the surface of it. My only disagreement comes with David Carter: I don't think it's up to the National Parks Service to "settle on the facts" as far as the importance of this historic site. Most of the other "important events in our nation's history" are still being interpreted and seen through the lenses of shifting times and attitudes. The personality and place in history of Alexander Hamilton, whom many believe should also be included in Gay American History, is only one of them.

    Reply
  2. Gerard Koskovich May 15, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Here's hoping the monument presents a critical and nuanced story rather than simply repeating the origin myth that "the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion … sparked the modern LGBT rights movement."

    What's fascinating about Stonewall is how it became symbol — first national, then international — of a cultural and political change that had been emerging for nearly two decades. From the homophile movement starting in the 1950s to the assertive liberation-style discourse, tactics and organizing that appeared in the mid-1960s outside of New York, the movement was already underway.

    Efforts by New York activists to promote the anniversary of Stonewall as a moment for gay parades across the country certainly gave birth to the creation of Pride celebrations, but other than that important phenomenon, I find it hard to see how Stonewall directly caused change at the national level. And without the movement that had developed before Stonewall, the anniversary efforts likely would have had little resonance. Stonewall merits recognition as the symbol of a movement, not as its "spark" or the "birthplace."

    Reply

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