Reports in the press indicate that President Barack Obama is planning to honor the Stonewall Inn as the first ever National Monument dedicated to GLBT rights. The bar on Christopher Street in New York’s Greenwich Village was the site of riots on June 28, 1969.
The customers suddenly violently opposed the police in one of their regular raids of pubs with a suspected presence of queer men. These riots, which lasted for several days, would become a turning point in the history of the fight for gay rights. However, this was not the first time homosexuals rebelled against homophobic conditions in hospitality.
As early as April 1965, protests were organized at Dewey’s restaurant in Philadelphia, where they refused to serve certain customers on the grounds of “improper behavior,” meaning people dressing “showily” or those suspected of “unnatural” interests. This resulted in a spontaneous sit-in, and a week later members of the Janus Society, an early gay rights organization in the “City of Brotherly Love,” handed out flyers there.
One year later in August 1966, there were riots at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. This was one of the few establishments that turned a blind eye to the presence of drag queens and other sexual outsiders. Staff, however, started calling the police at a certain moment, which led to the arrest of hustlers and drag queens. They did not let this pass without a fight, and a riot broke out. Many of the militant hustlers and street queers were members of Vanguard, the first ever gay youth organization in the USA. Vanguard had been founded a year earlier with the help of radical ministers associated with the Glide Memorial Church, which had been a center for progressive social activism for a number of years in San Francisco.
Ten years prior to the Stonewall Uprising, there had been a smaller riot in Los Angeles. The drag queens and hustlers who frequented Cooper’s Donuts and who were regularly maltreated by the police, fought back after the police had arrested three people.
One of the arrested men was John Rechy, who would establish himself as an author in 1963 with the autobiographically inspired debut novel “City of Night,” in which the sexual adventures of a hustler take center stage.
After the arrest, visitors of Cooper’s Donuts pelted the police with donuts and coffee cups. The police asked for back-up and arrested several rioters, with the three originally detainees escaping into the streets.
As with the Stonewall riots, these early occasions of resistance against often violent police actions were carried out by street kids and other, often marginalized groups - even within the gay community itself. Middle-class homosexuals, of course, would keep their distance from such subversive behavior, as it would only disturb their quiet lives, deeply hidden in the closet. What was special about the Stonewall riots was that as a consequence, small gay groups in New York united into the Gay Liberation Front and other affiliated groups, such as Sylvia Riviera’s Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
Furthermore, the activist Craig Rodwell (1940-1993) - who in 1967 opened the first ever gay bookshop in the world, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, on Mercer Street in Greenwich Village - had the brilliant idea to commemorate the riots a year later, originally calling it the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day. It was an unregistered demonstration from Christopher Street to Central Park. The number of participants was a lot higher than expected, and its success quickly made other American cities and the rest of the world follow suit.
The news of Obama’s intention to honor the Stonewall Inn came early May, from two anonymous sources that are “familiar” with the Obama administration, but are not authorized to publicly discuss the plans. On May 3, the press agency Associated Press reported that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the head of the National Park Service will travel to New York later for a public meeting about the proposal, which also includes a little park on Christopher Street and the surrounding area. For now, the White House is not commenting on the reports.
Last year, the Stonewall Inn was already declared a New York City landmark, the first location in the city designated to this status for its importance in gay history. Earlier, the bar had become a National Historic Landmark in 2000, which means it is “officially recognized by the United States government for its outstanding historical significance.” If Obama intends to go ahead with this presumed intentions and the Stonewall Inn and surroundings do get declared a national monument, this part of New York will be “a protected area that is similar to a National Park, but can be created from any land owned or controlled by the federal government by proclamation of the President of the United States.”