Tuesday, August 4, 2009

At Stonewall, stepping into history

Sometimes it's nice to go "off the grid" of midtown Manhattan's numerically organized streets, which is why I love walking around Greenwich Village. So on the evening I was seeing Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre, I went early to explore and enjoy a terrific dinner before seeing a great play.

Another thing I love about New York is that I'm always stumbling across someone or something unexpected.

On Christopher Street, I spotted The Stonewall Inn. I knew about its place in the gay-rights movement and I'd read Frank Rich's column in The New York Times on the 40th anniversary of the uprising that followed a police raid on the bar, on June 28, 1969.

I love seeing the places where history was made, so after snapping a few pictures, I went in to look around. (Later I learned that this isn't the original Stonewall, which was a little disappointing. But I think it's close to the original location.)

I made some personal history, too - it was my first time in a gay bar. It's not that I avoided them, I've just never been a big bar-hopper and I never had the opportunity, never had any friends take me to one.

Inside, it's a pretty ordinary place - subdued lighting, a pool table, rainbow-colored decorations hanging from the ceiling. It wasn't crowded on a Thursday afternoon - some men sitting at the bar. I thought about what it must have been like 40 years earlier and how the men in the bar that night could have been my friends, people I love.

I walked around, looking at historic photos and newspaper clippings on the walls, including one from a New York City paper the Sunday after the incident that made Stonewall famous, with the unbelievable headline: "Homo nest raided, queen bees are stinging mad."

I know that raids like the one at Stonewall are far from history. In fact, Texas authorities raided a gay club in Forth Worth in June, on very anniversary of the Stonewall riots, sending one person to the hospital with a head injury.

Coincidentally, I visited Stonewall the same afternoon that President Obama was in New York, speaking to the 100th anniversary gathering of the NAACP. The president talked about how far we've come in dealing with prejudice and discrimination but noted that we're not there yet.

To his credit, he did mention the struggle by gay and lesbian Americans for equal rights. Although I wish the rhetoric would be backed up by action to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act and to push for passage of the Matthew Shepard Act that would authorize the Justice Department to investigate hate crimes based on sexual orientation.

The president also talked about how change in America comes from the people, including the four black college students who sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 and refused to leave until they were served.

While that was an act of nonviolent resistance, being in Stonewall still reminded me of those fearless young men. Sometimes history is made in the most unlikely places, at times when ordinary people who have been discriminated against, oppressed or shut out decide that they've simply had enough.

Of course today, no one would deny that our rights as Americans should include the ability to have a cup of coffee at the lunch counter of our choice. It seems to me that those rights should also include sitting down in a bar and having a drink without fear.

In 1999, when Stonewall and the area around it were added to the National Register of Historic Places, Assistant Interior Secretary M. John Berry said:

''Let it forever be remembered that here -- on this spot -- men and women stood proud, they stood fast, so that we may be who we are, we may work where we will, live where we choose and love whom our hearts desire.''


Kathy Garmus said...

Great post, Esther. It is hard to believe that we've come so far so fast, yet still have so much farther to go.

Esther said...

Thank-you, Kathy. I realize that my one little blog doesn't make a difference but I still feel it's important to speak out.