March 2, 2016

Reel vs. Real: Stonewall

The exterior of the Stonewall Inn in New York's West Village.

photo by: NPCA

The Stonewall Inn was the site of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a pivotal moment in American LGBT history.

Every June in cities across the country, revelers parade through the streets bearing rainbow banners in celebration of LGBT pride. Bystanders line the sidewalks and reach for brightly colored beads, and loud, beat-heavy music fills the air. Amid all this merriment, it almost seems unthinkable that there was ever a time when “Pride” wasn’t synonymous with one big, inclusive party.

The conversation that sometimes gets lost amid the festivities, however, is the true reason behind Pride: the commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

The clashes with police, which started on June 28 and lasted for six days, centered around a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn and represented a major moment in the gay liberation movement. It was the breaking point for the city's openly LGBT men and women, who were tired of suffering frequent harassment at the hands of the NYPD and larger marginalization in society.

The 2015 film Stonewall, directed by Roland Emmerich, attempts to bring the now-legendary, larger-than-life Stonewall Riots back down to a human scale. The film follows the fictional Danny Winters, a high school student from Indiana who moves to New York after he is kicked out of his family home when he's caught with the football team’s quarterback.

Danny's been admitted to Columbia University for the fall semester, but first he must make his own way on the streets of New York while completing his remaining high school credits. On Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, he falls in with a group of LGBT street kids who frequent the Stonewall Inn. They help him acclimate to his new city and identity, and when the bar is raided one evening, they band together with other Stonewall regulars and face off with police. (In 1969, it was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals, and law enforcement frequently made the Mafia-owned Stonewall Inn a target of their raids.)

Many members of the gay community took issue with the film’s focus on the fictional Danny, a masculine James Dean-lookalike. In the movie, Danny is shown throwing the seminal “first brick” through a window at the Stonewall Inn. In reality, no one truly knows who started the riots. Critics accused Emmerich of whitewashing the event’s true history—transgender women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both of whom were present at the riots, were much more characteristic of the Stonewall’s regular clientele at that time than the fictional Danny. Rivera is quoted in Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked A Gay Revolution, a 2004 book by David Carter, as saying, “This was started by the street queens of that era, which I was a part of, Marsha P. Johnson and many others that are not here.”

The backlash in the gay community against the film was swift. Organizations like the Gay-Straight Alliance Network circulated petitions calling for its boycott. The movie currently has a 9 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and it made just $187,674 at the box office.

Luckily, there's been a happier ending for the Stonewall Inn and its across-the-street neighbor Christopher Park. After stint as a shoe store and a bagel shop, among other things, the Stonewall reopened as a bar in the early 1990s. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2000 and a New York City Landmark in 2015.

Christopher Park, across the street from the Stonewall Inn.

photo by: NPCA

This sculpture by artist George Segal, titled "Gay Liberation" and originally cast in 1980 and installed in 1992, sits across the street from the Stonewall Inn in Christopher Park.

Now, the National Trust is partnering with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) to campaign for the Stonewall Inn's designation as the nation’s first national park site dedicated to LGBT history. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler voiced their support for the designation in a September 2015 press conference, and the National Trust and the NPCA are lobbying for President Obama to exercise his authority through the Antiquities Act and designate the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park as a national monument.

“It would be wonderful if the federal government recognized the special role that this place plays in our history,” says Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which was instrumental in getting the Stonewall Inn listed as a New York City Landmark in June of last year and is supporting the NPCA in its current efforts. “That’s one of the things that the Park Service designation would accomplish.”

As a national monument, the Stonewall Inn, billed as the place "where Pride began," would be a place for everyone's stories to be told.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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