More than 40 years ago, after witnessing the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, lesbian activist Martha Shelley led the coordination of a parade observing the one-year anniversary of the historic event. That subsequent demonstration on Christopher Street started the annual tradition of Pride parades in support of LGBT rights.
Now she’s working with a new campaign calling for designation of a national park site recognizing the initial uprising that was key to starting the modern LGBT movement.
“It’s important for people to know the history, and instead of being a shameful secret and being the kind of people who get destroyed really for being who they are, we ought to be celebrated for who we are,” Shelley said. “And it’s important for people to understand change has happened, those kinds of changes, because ordinary people protest, because ordinary people are out in the street.”
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are set to announce on Sunday the new initiative at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Joined by LGBT advocates and community allies, they plan to call for designation of a national park site days before the debut of the “Stonewall” motion picture depicting the uprising for which they’re seeking recognition.
In an interview with the Washington Blade, Nadler said the designation of a national monument recognizing the riots — which began after patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back against police during a raid — is important for many reasons.
“The National Park Service, through national monuments, through national battlefields, all kinds of national things, illustrates the story of this country,” Nadler said. “It’s important to expand the diversity of this story presented by the National Park Service, in this case, to present the story of the struggle for civil rights of LGBT Americans. There is nothing in the National Park System that deals with this, and that’s a huge omission in terms of the history of this country, the history of this struggle and the ongoing struggle for human rights.”
Of the more than 400 national parks in America, two-thirds are dedicated to sites of cultural and historic significance. The Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., tells the story of the first Women’s Rights Convention held there in July 1848. In Alabama, the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail traces the march led by black activists in their struggle for civil rights.
Drawing on President Obama’s invocation of Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall in his second inaugural address, Nadler said the designation of a site for Stonewall would enable the National Park Service to “tell the whole story” of the civil rights movement.
Among the groups coordinating the campaign is the National Parks Conservation Association, a non-profit that advocates for the national parks and the National Park Service.
Cortney Worrall, Northeast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said her organization about a year ago started to hold informal discussions with New York’s LGBT community about designating a national monument for the Stonewall uprising.
“Over several months, the overwhelming feedback that we received was ‘Please do!'” Worrall said. “It was just overwhelmingly positive and pointed us in the direction that this could be a national campaign to establish the first LGBT unit within the park system to commemorate the birth of the modern LGBT civil rights movement.”
Other supporters of the campaign include Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), all but one member of New York City’s delegation to the U.S. House, 13 state senators, 36 state Assembly members, five city council members as well as the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union and Log Cabin Republicans.
The U.S. government already designated the privately owned Stonewall Inn in 2000 as a national historic landmark, but that’s considered a lower-tier designation given to 2,500 sites throughout the country.
Last year, the Department of the Interior announced it was undertaking a theme study to examine ways to incorporate LGBT stories into the the National Park Service. The new effort to have a national monument dedicated to the Stonewall Riots shares a similar goal, but is separate and distinct from the agency-led initiative.
Worrall identified two ways to designate a national park. The formal way is through legislation passed by Congress; the other is for the president under the authority of a 1906 law known as the Antiquities Act to designate a national monument.
“It’s a designation of national monument, but…for all intents and purposes, it is a national park,” Worrall said. “He would be designating it as a national park. And he does not require congressional approval for this at all; this is something that he has the administrative authority to do.”
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on whether President Obama would be willing to designate a national monument for the Stonewall demonstrations.
Jessica Kershaw, a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior, said the Obama administration isn’t in a position to comment on the proposal.
“That should not diminish the department’s commitment to capturing and telling a broader story of our nation and more stories reflective of all Americans and their experience, as the park service approaches its centennial in the next year,” Kershaw said. “That commitment is exemplified in the service’s current work underway to research and collect these stories and sites through its ongoing LGBT theme study.”
Worrall said those behind the campaign have informed the White House about the initiative, but “we’ve not heard anything other than that they’re interested in hearing more.”
As for the legislative route, Nadler said he plans to soon introduce a bill that would designate a national park in honor of the Stonewall uprising. Still, the New York lawmaker said in the GOP-controlled Congress he’s “not terribly hopeful that my Republican colleagues will rush to celebrate the freedom that was fought for at Stonewall.”
It’s the fear of a potential Republican administration in 2017 that’s prompting Nadler to call for Obama to act before his second term is over. Nadler said he’s “confident” Obama will take action when land ownership issues regarding the site are resolved.
“If, God forbid, a Republican happens to be elected president, and this hasn’t been already, one doesn’t have confidence in the fact that Log Cabin Republicans are supporting this means that Donald Trump, or [Scott] Walker, or whoever it might be would do so,” Nadler said. “We hope it’s before then.”
One site advocates are pushing for designation as a historic site to commemorate the Stonewall uprising is Christopher Park, the area across the street from the Stonewall Inn where the rioting began.
But the president can only designate a national monument on federal property and Christopher Park is owned by New York City. Advocates pushing for the recognition are seeking to have New York City Parks & Recreation transfer ownership of the park to the federal government.
Nadler said the process for such a transfer requires involvement from New York City and a meeting of the local community board to meet, adding, “I hope and believe it will not be an insurmountable issue.”
“We don’t know exactly what would be designated, but, for example, the park in front of the Stonewall Inn is owned by the city, so somehow, and we’d have to work that out,” Nadler said. “It has to become at least legally federal land, and the National Park Service is working with New York City to figure out how to meet the federal legal requirements so the president can make the designation.”
Among those to speak at the launch for the new campaign is New York City Department of Parks & Recreation Commissioner Mitchell Silver.
“Memorializing the historic events that occurred at Stonewall goes a long way toward validating the struggle, and sacrifice of self, that many in the LGBTQ community made then and continue to make now,” Silver said in a statement. “Let’s make history again, nearly 50 years later.”
The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation didn’t respond to a follow-up email over the weekend on whether that means the city would be open to transferring Christopher Park to the federal government.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed the campaign in a statement to the Washington Blade emphasizing the importance of the Stonewall riots.
“Stonewall represents a seminal moment in American history, and in the history of civil rights,” de Blasio said. “This site deserves to be honored for the brave people who stood here against injustice. Their actions served as a catalyst for the equal rights movement and should never be forgotten.”
Should a national site be designated in honor of the uprising, Worall said it would be a “monumental event” that would keep alive the events that took place outside the Stonewall Inn more than 40 years ago.
“We know that the bartenders are asked questions by the public about what happened there and what their experience was and whether they were there or not,” Worall said. “We also know that the bar has on occasion gotten phone calls from children doing book reports on the history of LGBT civil rights rights and just on Stonewall itself, and so we know that there is demand for interpretation of this story and of the history of what happened during the uprising. And the National Park Service is the best entity we have in the country to do that.”