With dozens of tiny rainbow flags fluttering from the facade of the Stonewall Inn and dignitaries assembled on the street outside, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt described the events of nearly half a century ago that led to this Greenwich Village bar on Monday becoming the first national monument dedicated to the struggle for LGBT rights.
On June 28, 1969, the New York artist was there when police officers broke down the door and charged inside what was then an illegal gay bar where patrons danced behind boarded-up windows.
Such raids were common. “We grew up in an era when everything was totally repressed,” Lanigan-Schmidt said. “Liberals thought we should be thrown in mental asylums and conservatives thought we should be thrown in jail.”
But the police vans that were usually on hand to take rounded-up patrons to precinct houses arrived late that night, giving a crowd time to form. The police were outnumbered. A riot ensued and lasted several days.
“We fought back because we were humanized in there,” Lanigan-Schmidt said. “Nowhere else could we dance slow. That night everything changed.”
The Stonewall riots were the flashpoint that launched the gay rights movement.
The Stonewall National Monument was designated as such by President Obama last week and officially dedicated Monday. Overseen by the National Park Service, it includes the Stonewall Inn, a small park and some nearby streets.
“Today we welcome Stonewall and Christopher Park into the family of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the Statue of Liberty, America’s most important places,” John Jarvis, director of the park service, told a cheering crowd. “This story is a key component of the American experience.”
Speaker after speaker emphasized the importance of having a national monument dedicated to Stonewall and the struggles of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens.
“It’s a sacred place where we honor those like Tommy [Lanigan-Schmidt] who bravely stood up and spoke out so others weren’t compelled to live in silence,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), the first openly gay U.S. senator.
The inn has long been a powerful symbol of the LGBT rights movement.
It was a place people gathered to celebrate last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding same-sex marriage, and to mourn the mass killings at Orlando’s Pulse gay night club this month.
The streets around the bar are usually jammed during New York’s massive gay pride parades, including the march held one day before the dedication.
Jennifer Richards, a 35-year-old teacher, said she first heard about Stonewall when she was about 14 and “beginning to know myself.” In her 20s, she went inside — her first gay bar.
Its elevation to a national monument “means recognition and getting our stories out there to a wider audience,” said Richards, who drove from her home in upstate New York to attend the dedication.
The celebration was tempered by the killings in Orlando, as several participants said more needed to be done to secure full equality for the community.
“We would have celebrated what is good about today and remembered the pain of the past either way, but Orlando put things into a sharper perspective,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “This is not a place where change happened easily or calmly or gently. It came through a fight. It came through a struggle and that fight must now continue.”
Spectators echoed those emotions. “I feel joyous, sad and hopeful, a melting pot of emotions,” said 26-year-old Gabrielle Silverstein-Tapp, who made the short trip from Brooklyn. “This is so incredibly moving, but there is so much more that needs to be done.”
Haller is a special correspondent.