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Stonewall Inn’s owners look back while moving forward

LGBTQ landmark continues to evolve 50 years later

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Stonewall Inn, gay news, Washington Blade
The modern Stonewall Inn is about half the size of the original bar and was last sold in 2006. (Photo by Travis Wise via Flickr)

Open the front door to the Stonewall Inn today and you’ll find LGBTQ people from every walk of life. Locals and tourists alike gather for reasons as diverse as they are. Some patrons want to see the world-famous Stonewall Inn; others pop in for a cocktail and the rest simply want to hang out in a gay bar. 

Among the crowd, you may even spot a famous face. Taylor Swift recently performed at Stonewall Inn; Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden came by to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots; and Madonna surprised fans with a New Year’s Eve performance at the historic bar in 2019.

Co-owners Kurt Kelly and Stacy Lentz gave birth to this modern-day Stonewall Inn when they purchased it in 2006. 

Kelly, who is gay, felt that the Stonewall Inn had lost its connection with the LGBTQ community. He and a group of investors decided to purchase the property and brought investor Lentz, a lesbian community activist, on board as co-owner. 

It was the first bar Kelly and Lentz had ever owned but they were ready to return the Stonewall Inn to its LGBTQ roots. 

The original Stonewall Inn was a Mafia-owned bar located on 51–53 Christopher Street in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. 

“The Mafia bought up a lot of the gay bars because they saw money involved in there. They saw money in those spaces because gay people would go there and spend a lot of money,” Kelly says. 

Police raids were common for gay bars during that time and one such routine raid would make history on June 28, 1969 when bar patrons resisted arrest. The Stonewall Riots sparked a movement one year later when the first-ever Pride march was organized to commemorate the event. The march route stretched from the Stonewall Inn to Central Park.

Shortly after the riots, the Stonewall Inn shut down. Over the years, it was converted into a bagel shop, a deli and a shoe store before reopening as a bar at 51 Christopher Street from 1987 before shuttering in 1989. The 53 Christopher Street location reopened as a bar in 1990 as New Jimmy’s but the name was changed to Stonewall a year later. 

Kelly, Lentz and their group of investors purchased the space at 53 Christopher Street making the new Stonewall Inn half the size of the original bar. 

Today, the Stonewall Inn is recognized as the catalyst for the modern LGBTQ rights movement. In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument, which includes Stonewall Inn and Christopher Street Park, located across the street from the bar. The Stonewall National Monument became the first national monument marking an LGBTQ designated site. 

“I think it was incredible for the entire community, not just the owners of the bar, to have that recognized as telling us the fabric of American LGBTQ history is really important. The Parks Department and the national monument really can do that. We were super, super excited and it was an incredible moment for our entire community,” Lentz says. “It’s just extremely important for the LGBTQ community to have Stonewall, the birthplace, recognized as a national monument. Now it’s as famous as the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon.”

The Stonewall Inn has also become known for its LGBTQ advocacy in recent years.

In 2013, Lentz helped organize 80 non-profits for a rally outside of the Stonewall Inn in support of marriage rights. 

After the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre, the outside of the Stonewall Inn became a memorial for the victims. The outside of the bar has also been the site of protests against the Trump administration. 

Lentz decided to make Stonewall’s advocacy work more official in 2017.

She spearheaded the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, a non-profit organization working toward LGBTQ equality in the United States.

“We wanted to focus on places all over the country where equality has been slow to arrive. So a lot of that emphasis is on the 28 states where you can still be fired for being LGBTQ. They like to say you can get married on Friday and fired on a Monday. Legally, they don’t have the same options that we have and those places also have that daily stigma because of the prejudice of the communities around them,” Lentz says. 

As World Pride draws near, Kelly and Lentz say they’re prepping for the momentous occasion. 

“We’re planning to keep the doors open. We’re the epicenter. We’re at ground zero. We just have to make sure all the beer is there and the liquor is there for everyone to enjoy,” Kelly says. 

Stonewall Inn interior (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots has drawn more attention to the iconic bar and Kelly and Lentz hope that people will remember just how instrumental the Stonewall Inn was to the LGBTQ rights movement. 

“That’s where Pride began and that’s where Pride lives,” Kelly says. 

For Lentz, it’s also a conversation that needs to keep going. 

“What happened there in 1969, the brave men and women that started that fight, is not over. We have to honor that and all continue to vow to work and keep going until we have full equality and that’s what we all have to do together,” Lentz says. 

For more information on the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, visit  stonewallinitiative.org.

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Photos

PHOTOS: High Heel Race

Spectators cheered along drag queen contestants for the 24th annual event

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@dragqueenathena and Dan won the 24th annual High Heel Race. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The 34th annual High Heel Race was held along 17th Street on Oct. 26. The winners this year were @dragqueenathena and “Dan.” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee and members of the D.C. Council joined drag queen contestants and hundreds of spectators for the event.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Movies

New music documentary is ‘Velvet’ perfection

A piece of pure cinema that exemplifies its genre while transcending it

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The Velvet Underground (Photo courtesy of Apple TV)

When it comes to great music documentaries – the ones that stick with you after you watch and make you want to come back to them again and again – there is one ingredient that stands out as a common thread: immediacy.

From D.A. Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall chronicle of young Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the UK in “Don’t Look Back,” to Martin Scorcese’s joyful document of The Band’s final concert performance in “The Last Waltz,” to Jonathan Demme’s thrilling cinematic rendering of the Talking Heads in performance at the peak of their creative genius in “Stop Making Sense,” all of these now-revered films have endured – indeed, even grown – in popularity over the years because they captured the talent, the personality, and the power of their subjects on celluloid and preserved it for the ages, allowing generations of audiences, fans and soon-to-be-fans alike, to feel as if they were there.

But none, perhaps, have ever done it quite so viscerally as Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground.” This is a remarkable feat when you consider that the films listed above, as well as most of the other highly regarded “rockumentaries” of the past, were all concert films, showing the performers at their center in the full bloom of their musical gifts, and Haynes’ film is not that. It’s something else, something singular, a piece of pure cinema that exemplifies its genre while transcending it entirely.

The basic outline of the band’s story is well known, now. Coalesced in the early ‘60s New York art scene around a pair of charismatic geniuses (John Cale and Lou Reed), the Velvet Underground was swept into the orbit and under the wing of Andy Warhol, who turned them into the house band at his famous “Factory,” added to their mix an exotic European chanteuse named Nico, and launched their record career by producing their first album – and designing an instantly iconic cover for it featuring a banana, to boot. They were, for a while, the darlings of the New York underground set, birthing a handful of additional albums across the latter years of the decade; but their sound, which was experimental, rough, and a far cry from the flower-power sound being embraced within the status quo of Middle American music fans, did not catch on. That, combined with the volatility of the relationships at its core, ensured an ignoble and unsung dissolution for the band; though its two front men went on to forge expansive solo careers on their own, the Velvets themselves remained a kind of blip, an ephemeral presence in the history of rock – and the history of New York – remembered by anyone who wasn’t actually on the scene as nothing more than a buzzy band they never actually heard with a catchy name and a familiar album cover.

As one of the voice-over interviewees in Haynes’ movie points out, however, the counterculture wasn’t actually the counterculture – it was the culture. The rest of the world just didn’t know it yet. Decades later the Velvet Underground is credited with, among other things, providing early inspiration for what would become the punk rock movement, to say nothing of influencing the aesthetic palate of (surely without exaggeration) thousands of musicians who would go on to make great music themselves – often sounding nothing like the Velvets, but somehow cut from the same raw, edgy, white-hot honest cloth, nonetheless. Yet in their moment, they were doomed before they had even begun to become a sideshow attraction, hurling performative realness in the face of a curious-but-disinterested glitterati crowd that was already embodying the superficial fakeness that would be so aptly monikered, both as an ethos and a watchword, as “Plastics” by Buck Henry and Mike Nichols in “The Graduate” barely a year after their first album was pressed.

Frankly, it’s the kind of story that makes for a perfect rock ‘n roll legend, and the kind of legend that deserves to be explored in a film that befits its almost mythic, archetypal underpinnings. There’s nobody more qualified to deliver that film than Todd Haynes.

Haynes, of course, is a pioneer of the ‘90s “New Queer Cinema,” whose body of work has maintained a consistent yet multi-faceted focus on key themes that include outsider-ism, dysfunctional socialization, and the fluid nature of sexuality and gender. Each and any of these interests would be enough to make him a perfect fit as the person to tell the story of the Velvet Underground, but what gives him the ability to make it a masterpiece is his ongoing fascination with music and nostalgia. Beginning with his controversial debut short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” the musical landscape of his formative years has been inseparable from his milieu, and films such as his glam-rock fantasia “Velvet Goldmine” or his post-modernist Dylan biopic “I’m Not There” have dotted his career like cornerstones. Likewise, his painstaking recreation of the past in period pieces like “Far From Heaven,” “Carol,” or “Wonderstruck” has proven his ability not just to capture the look and feel of a bygone era, but to transport audiences right back into it.

In “The Velvet Underground,” it’s more like he transports the era to the audience. His comprehensive chronicle is not just the story of the band or its members, but the story of the time and place that allowed them to exist, in which a generation waking up from the toxic artificiality of their parents’ “American Dream” took creative control of the future through an unprecedented explosion of art and culture. Art was a by-any-means-necessary endeavor that now demanded a fluency across various forms of media, and a blending together of any and every thing that worked to get the message across. And yes, sometimes the media itself was the message, but even within that depressingly superficial reality was room for an infinite layering of style and substance that could take your breath away.

That description of the era in which the Velvet Underground thrived, in which Andy Warhol turned the shallow into the profound (whether he knew it or not), in which music and film and photography and poetry and painting and every other form of expression blended together in a heady and world-changing whirlwind, is also the perfect description of Haynes’ film. Yes, there are famous veterans of the age sharing their memories and their insights, yes there is copious archival footage (including the godsend of Warhol’s filmed portraits of the legendary faces in his orbit), yes we get to hear about Lou Reed’s struggle with his sexual identity – and it’s refreshing that Haynes makes no effort to categorize or finalize that aspect of the rock legend’s persona, but merely lets it be a fact. But even though “The Velvet Underground” checks off all the boxes to be a documentary, it’s something much more. Thanks to Haynes’ seamless blend of visuals, words, history, and – always and above all – music, it’s a total sensory experience, which deserves to be seen in a theater whether you subscribe to Apple TV or not. It puts you right in the middle of a world that still casts a huge shadow on our culture today.

And it’s unforgettable.

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Photos

PHOTOS: Best Of LGBTQ DC party

Blade’s 20th annual awards celebrated at Hook Hall

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Cake performs at the Best of LGBTQ D.C. Awards Party on Oct. 21. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Blade presented the 20th annual Best of LGBTQ D.C. Awards at a party at Hook Hall on Thursday, Oct. 21. To view this year’s winners, click here.

Event sponsored by Absolut, DC Brau and Washington Regional Transplant Community.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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