Stories from the Road: Stonewall Inn - New York City, NY (January 14, 2017)
The old Britney Spears song is almost deafening as I push open the door to the bar. And, for a moment, this could be any bar. To my right is an old sign encased in plastic that says “This is a raided premises — Police Department, City of New York”. On the wall directly in front of me is a paper poster listing the names of those killed in the Pulse Nightclub shooting. The Britney song ends, but another late 90s/early 2000s song picks up as my eyes adjust to the darkness of the crowded room. When I imagined what The Stonewall Inn looked like, this wasn’t it.
The snow was falling hard as I crossed the street to the little park in the median of Christopher Street. For reasons I still don’t understand, the gate was locked, but I could still see the plaster figurines inside. The snow made the statues almost blend in with the landscape, as opposed to more temperate days with greener surroundings. In the background I could see the neon sign in the window, ‘The Stonewall Inn’.
Before the controversy around the movie a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about Stonewall. Even as I moved past the park, I couldn’t recite anything more than a general idea that Stonewall was a regularly raided bar where the occupants had decided to fight back and thus started some of first protests for LGBTQ rights. Even as I headed to the bar, I was worried that I didn’t know enough. What if someone questioned me? What if I forgot the name of the revolutionaries who made this place historic? Of course, it seems stupid in retrospect to assume that people at a bar, even a bar as revered as Stonewall, would only talk about its history. Also that anyone would even care I was there. (Let’s be real, no one in New York cares what anyone else is doing.)
There was barely anywhere to sit in the bar, but I finally snagged a seat right at the end. Paying $7 for a beer reminded me, once again, that I was in a New York City bar where actually no one cares. Rainbow flags adorned the ceiling and the bottles behind the bar reflected the ever-changing colors of the twinkle lights over my head. I did my best not to look at the magazine cover of an attractive, shirtless man next to a fishbowl full of condoms on the bar.
Sitting at the end of the bar, I tried not to be uncomfortable. Or at least not look uncomfortable. Part of me felt like I didn’t belong. Maybe I didn’t. For me, visiting a physical space has always felt like a connection to the past. Whether that be a historic home or a battlefield or whatever else. I’ve never been to a place that has history, but also continues to make history. How does someone act in a space that is part sacred, but also part normal? Especially in a space that isn’t directly sacred to me. Even while knowing that I live my day-to-day life trying to be the best ally that I can and also knowing that Stonewall is a bar for customers, I still couldn’t help but wonder if my presence was intruding. I wanted to see it, sure, but I can’t help but wonder now if I wanted it to see me. Was I looking for some sort of validation of my own ‘progressive’ self-image?
Seeing the physical space didn’t teach me much about the actual events at Stonewall. But there was something truly affecting about seeing a group of friends drinking at a table underneath a huge photo of protestors with a “Stonewall means fight back — smash gay oppression” sign. Leaning against the pool table full of coats, I couldn’t help but smile at all the people laughing and singing and dancing and feel like maybe I did belong, at least for a moment. However, walking into the gender neutral bathroom with urinals (as opposed to the one with the toilet) brought me back to feeling out of place.
Stonewall, in some sense, is a sacred place, at least in terms of history. It began an important fight for civil rights that continues today. But I wonder if I almost built it up in my head to be something it wasn’t. Something it isn’t. The most important thing seems to be what it actually is now. Seeing the life that continues to flow through the place is the true legacy of the work of the activists. I imagined the space as being sacred because of what the walls remember. Rather, the space is sacred because of what it still provides. A place to pay homage at the alter of history on the dirty edge of a bar stool.