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Stonewall Inn's journey to becoming a national monument

The Stonewall Inn has added another important title to its name: that of national monument, and the first honoring LGBT equality, to boot.

NEW YORK — President Obama on Friday officially designated the Stonewall Inn a national monument, making it the first in the country to honor LGBT equality.

Obama made the announcement in a YouTube video, saying “our national parks should reflect the full story of our country — the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us.”

“That we are stronger together. That out of many, we are one,” Obama said.

The news comes as no surprise; federal officials had been working toward the designation for weeks. Still, it marks a major milestone for LGBT rights movement as a whole and yet another feather in the cap of Obama, who is widely regarded as the most LGBT-friendly president in history.

Forty-seven years ago, in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, LGBT patrons of New York City’s now-iconic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village refused to quietly cooperate with what was then a fairly common police raid.

In the 1960s, the nation’s leading medical professionals considered homosexuality to be a mental disorder, and police regularly patrolled establishments known to serve LGBT people liquor, hounding those inside for dancing with someone of the same sex or for wearing fewer than three items of their perceived gender’s clothing. On that particular night, however, for reasons that will never be fully known, the crowd at Stonewall decided they had had enough. And they fought back.

Today, the Stonewall riots are widely regarded as the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement — so much so that every June, the quaint neighborhood surrounding 53 Christopher Street is transformed into a rainbow-colored street party during New York City’s Pride Parade, an event created to commemorate the rebellion. Advocates have flocked to the bar, too, in times of significance for LGBT rights history, such as when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 2013 and two years later legalized same-sex nuptials across the country.

It was already a New York City landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But LGBT advocates believed the Stonewall Inn deserved to have another important title to its name.

The campaign to have President Obama designate Stonewall a national monument under his powers via the 1906 Antiquities Act began in earnest two years ago and has since garnered tens of thousands of supporters

Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that would allow the city to transfer ownership of the area to the federal government. And last month, the proposal took another step forward as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis attended a public hearing in the West Village to listen to testimony from dozens of New Yorkers.

Both federal officials were excited about the proposal and optimistic about its prospects.

“It would be an honor for the National Park Service to be responsible with helping tell this story, this incredible civil rights story for America,” Jarvis told MSNBC ahead of a hearing at Public School 41. “When we look this year, our centennial, there are really gaps in the story. And Stonewall has the opportunity to really fill a strategic gap in the story of civil rights in America.” 

There are more than 400 national park sites in the United States, and two-thirds of them are dedicated to cultural and historic significance, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). The Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, for example, honors the first Women’s Rights Convention held there in 1848. Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, another national park site, recognizes the historic marches of 1965 led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act that year.

Though Stonewall is probably be the first national monument centered around a dive bar, it won't be out of place among the other sites, given its role in LGBT rights history.

“Our national parks are the most beautiful, natural places, like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. But they’re also the places where our most significant history took place,” said Cortney Worrall, northeast regional director of the NPCA, outside Stonewall last Monday. “So this will be a place where the civil rights story is told.”

The testimonies at last month's public hearing were mostly all in favor of making Stonewall a national monument. Eighty-year-old Gil Horowitz, who participated in the uprising as a bisexual man, said Stonewall still “serves as a beacon for all of us.”

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, implored federal officials not to “take history for granted.” 

“It’s a story that has to be told and shaped,” he said of the riots.

But not everyone was supportive. Several transgender activists testified that if federal officials were interested in creating a national monument of true meaning for the entire LGBT community, they would have to designate Christopher Street Pier — where transgender women of color have gravitated for decades — in addition to Stonewall.

“I obviously think Stonewall is a huge, significant place, but I’d be lying if I said people of color communities don’t frequent other places,” said Mariah Lopez, executive director of Strategic Transgender Alliance for Radical Reform, who calls herself the daughter of the late Sylvia Rivera, one of the transgender leaders of the Stonewall riots.

“In fact, it’s blatant that people of color communities do not look at Stonewall as the beacon of trans history or gay history of color,” she continued. “They look at the pier, I’m sorry.”

Still, the overwhelming consensus from community members and local lawmakers seemed positive. Outside the bar last week, patrons from all over the world, ranging in ages from their twenties to their eighties, cheered the proposal to make Stonewall a national monument — not just because of what it would mean for the pioneers of the LGBT rights movement; but because of what it would mean for generations to come.

“I dreamed about this place, and actually coming here, and actually being able to come here,” said 27-year-old Matty Kinkel, a DJ who moved from Colorado seven years ago. Stonewall was the first place he went when he arrived in New York City.

“It changed my life,” he said.