Inside Stonewall: What it’s like to visit the LGBTQ landmark 50 years after the uprising that changed history

The Stonewall Inn, pictured in 2019. Kat Tenbarge
  • The Stonewall National Monument and Stonewall Inn are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising on June 28 that serves as a milestone of the LGBTQ civil rights movement.
  • The Stonewall Inn, where the police raid occurred in 1969, still operates on Christopher Street, across from Christopher Park, where today’s LGBTQ monument stands.
  • Here’s what it’s like to visit the bar and monument fifty years after an uprising incited what New Yorkers celebrate today for LGBTQ pride.
  • Read more stories like this on INSIDER.

The Stonewall Inn and surrounding landmarks are instantly recognisable, even if a Greenwich Village passerby isn’t walking past intentionally.

The sheer number of rainbow flags surrounding the park, the nearby subway station, the bar, and the neighbourhood are a colourful indicator of how crucial Stonewall is to the LGBTQ community and its history.

Fifty years after the Stonewall uprising that launched the LGBTQ civil rights movement into the national spotlight, Christopher Street has a different atmosphere. LGBTQ people and their families and allies are celebrated openly in Greenwich Village, with corporations and companies sponsoring rainbow banners and advertisements (to varying degrees of controversy).

This is what it’s like to visit Stonewall and its monument, 50 years after the New York City Police Department began a raid on a gay club that changed the course of LGBTQ history in the US up through today.

Across the street from the iconic bar, the thin strip that is Christopher Park serves as the family-accessible Stonewall National Monument.

Christopher Park near Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

The Stonewall Inn is nestled comfortably between an unmarked, privately owned building and a space for lease on Christopher Street. Across the narrow one-way road, the bar is complemented by a public space that’s open to all ages – Christopher Park.

In 1999, thirty years after the Stonewall riots, Christopher Park and the surrounding streets were placed on the New York State Register of Historic Places. The block itself became the first national monument dedicated to LGBTQ history in 2016 when President Barack Obama dedicated the Stonewall National Monument.

At the center of Christopher Park is a large rainbow flag with symbols of peace superimposed over its colourful bands.

LGBTQ flags flying in Christopher Park near Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

Christopher Park contains several monuments to aspects of New York City history, but the rainbow flags that flutter in and around its gated space set a tone of LGBTQ pride and acceptance.

Greenwich Village has a unique configuration of neighbourhood streets, with blocks that were not laid out in a standard grid. Overcrowding in the early 1800s and a devastating fire led to village residents petitioning for an open space, which became the diagonal strip that is Christopher Park.

The fence that surrounds Christopher Park is decorated with rainbow pride flags, as well as the pink, blue, and white stripes of the transgender pride flag.

Christopher Park near Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

Different pride flags ascribe different symbols for the various sub-groups in the LGBTQ community. Flags in and around the Stonewall National Monument represent the transgender community especially, likely given the continued focus in the LGBTQ community on transgender rights, as gender non-conforming individuals strive for better legal protections, healthcare, identification, and representation, among other civil rights.

The archway into Christopher Park forms the main entrance of the national monument.

Christopher Park near Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

Run by the National Park Service, the Stonewall National Monument website says services will be added to the park, which just turned 3-years-old, in the coming years.

The statues in Christopher Park are titled “Gay Liberation” and were completed in 1980 by artist George Segal.

‘Gay Liberation’ in Christopher Park near Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

Located within the Stonewall National Monument are the four statues of two same-sex couples. First commissioned in 1979,Segal’s installation was the first piece of public art dedicated to LGBTQ rights, according to the GLBTQ encyclopedia. From 1986 to 1991, “Gay Liberation” was installed in Madison, Wisconsin, because the statue proved too controversial for Greenwich Village residents.

Stonewall veteran Marsha P. Johnson commented, “How many people have to die for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognise gay people?” after the statues were moved to New York.

‘Gay Liberation’ in Christopher Park near Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

Johnson, an important pioneer in the LGBTQ community, continued on to say, “How many years does it take for people to realise we’re all brothers and sisters in the human race?”

City representatives recently announced that Johnson and fellow transgender activist Sylvia Rivera will be memorialised in a monument in Greenwich Village, potentially placed down the street from the Stonewall Inn. It will be one of the first monuments to transgender women, according to the city of New York.

The “Gay Liberation” statues are bronze and covered in white lacquer, which has led accusations of “white-washing” history.

‘Gay Liberation’ in Christopher Park near Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

While the “Gay Liberation” statues continue to receive whitewashing upkeep, the monument has received criticism throughout its lifespan, including as recently as 2015, when anonymous activists painted two of the faces brown to protest the perceived memorialization of cisgender, white, LGBTQ figures in an uprising “led by black and brown queer and trans people,” as black transgender activist Miss Major told Autostraddle.

Performers, events, tourists, and LGBTQ community members join together on any given day in Christopher Park to commemorate and celebrate the community.

A performer at Christopher Park near Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

Musicians and activists often use Christopher Park and the surrounding block as a place to promote LGBTQ art and causes. The space within the park is small, but benches line the perimeter of the brick interior, and standing room near all three entrances can hold booths as well as pedestrian walkways.

Tech companies like Snapchat and Google have created augmented reality experiences for Stonewall’s 50th anniversary accessible via app.

A Snapchat banner near Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

The Stonewall Forever project created by Google gives visitors at the Stonewall National Monument or at home, from their computers, access to an augmented reality rainbow superimposed over Christopher Park that contains portals to different elements of LGBTQ history.

The front facade of the Stonewall Inn includes its iconic neon sign, posters for upcoming drag performances, and a banner advertisement for the bar’s partnership with airline JetBlue.

The front of Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

The two branded banners above the Stonewall Inn’s entrance have been hanging for years, and Stonewall co-owner Stacy Lentz told Eater that both JetBlue and the Brooklyn Brewery “are actually great authentic partners and both are good examples of how corporate sponsors should be.”

Next to the bar, a plaque describes the history of the Stonewall uprising in brief.

A plaque designating Stonewall as a New York State Historic Site. Kat Tenbarge

The real history of the Stonewall uprising takes into account the LGBTQ movement of the ’60s, which coincided with other civil rights movements at the time, and included police raids of gay bars and clubs across the US.

The sign outside the Stonewall Inn explains that the Stonewall riots “catalyzed the LGBTQ civil rights movement,” due to the national media attention it garnered and decisions of activists to commemorate the uprising a year after with what would eventually become the New York City pride parade.

The building for lease next to the Stonewall Inn still serves as a backdrop for political action, with homemade posters decrying hate crimes and discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Protest signs in a building next to Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

The LGBTQ community, as illustrated by protest signs outside the building for lease next to the Stonewall Inn, continues to fight for progress and social justice.

The signs currently on display next to Stonewall ask passerby to donate to a cause to stop hate crimes against LGBTQ people with disabilities.

Signs put up in a vacant building next to Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

LGBTQ people still experience hate crimes nationwide due to sexual orientation and gender identity, and the community continues to advocate for equality and representation, with causes that include reducing LGBTQ homelessness, making health care more equitable and accessible, and advancing criminal justice reform.

The Stonewall Inn displays an array of pride flags, including the iconic rainbow flag, but also orientation and subset-specific flags, including lesbian, bisexual, genderqueer, leather, bear, nonbinary, and straight ally pride flags.

Flags outside of Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

While most of the flags around Christopher Street are either the rainbow pride flag or the transgender pride flag, the Stonewall Inn has flags for almost every conceivable identity that falls under the LGBTQ umbrella.

A sign outside the Stonewall Inn lets passerby know what drafts are available.

They still serve plenty of drinks at Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

The Stonewall IPA on draft was created by the Brooklyn Brewery and some proceeds go toward The Stonewall Inn Gives Back initiative, a non-profit “committed to eliminating the social intolerance that is profoundly impacting the lives of LGBTQ citizens throughout America and abroad,” according to its website.

Once inside Stonewall, patrons have a view out into the street next to where the bar’s bouncer checks IDs.

The neon sign in the front window of Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

Inside the Stonewall Inn, patrons are stopped at the door by a bouncer. There is no cover charge, unlike in 1969, when patrons paid $US1 on weekdays and $US3 on weekends to get into Stonewall, but visitors must be 21 to enter.

Mike “Flava,” a 44-year-old who works at Stonewall as a bouncer, said he personally is not a part of the LGBTQ community but has had gay family members. The father of two said he “knew people needed protection” in LGBTQ spaces after a cousin who was too afraid to come out committed suicide last year.

“If anyone asks who threw the first brick, a black transgender woman threw it first,” Mike said, alluding to the widely criticised 2015 film “Stonewall” that portrayed a white gay male as the inciting figure in the uprising. “People have lots of different stories about it, but it wasn’t a white guy.”

While reports of who started the Stonewall riots are inconclusive, most eyewitnesses say the patrons on June 28 at the inn were mostly drag queens, transgender women, butch lesbians, LGBTQ people of colour, and homeless LGBTQ youth.

Right inside the doorway, the raided premises notice from the Stonewall riots hangs as a historical reminder.

The old ‘raided premises’ sign at Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

On June 9, NYPD commissioner James O’Neill apologised for the police raid on the Stonewall Inn, saying “the actions taken by the NYPD were wrong.” Police raids on gay bars and clubs were extremely common, and the Stonewall Inn regularly paid off police forces, since the bar did not have a liquor licence.

Wall decor near the entrance and around the bar includes newspaper clippings from 1969 with coverage of the Stonewall riots.

An old copy of the Sunday News at Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

Mike pointed out newspaper clippings near his stand at the bar’s entrance and said “If you wrote that in the paper today, the whole paper would get shut down,” referring to derogatory language like “Homo Nest” that could be used by members of the news media in 1969.

Above the bar are many of the same pride flags hanging outside, along with signs advertising Stonewall merchandise.

Various flags at Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

One first-time Stonewall patron, a 59-year-old woman named Tina visiting from California, purchased a commemorative button from a stand at the back of the bar for her queer niece.

“The history, the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising was important for me to come and celebrate the pride that has gone on in those fifty years,” Tina said. “I want my niece to have a piece of her community’s history.”

Opposite from the bar, the stage in the Stonewall Inn stands empty during the afternoon, but hosts drag performances in the evenings.

The stage at Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

The bar hosts drag performances multiple times a week, and some celebrities have made appearances – most recently, Taylor Swift gave a surprise performance at the request of her friend and out gay “Modern Family” actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

Rainbow pride flags hang from almost every ceiling tile in the Stonewall Inn.

Rainbow flags are everywhere at Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

32-year-old Casey Davison, a St. Louis resident, decided to visit the Stonewall Inn while visiting New York for work. He told INSIDER it was important to him that he and his husband had visited the bar together.

“It’s great because you get a lot more people out and it’s an easier way to conceptualize what it means to so many people,” Davison said. “It’s not just gay men. There are different genders and races, and it seems like a nice point to bring the entire spectrum of the community together.”

Stonewall patrons have access to a full bar, where bartenders say no one specific drink is most popular.

Stonewall’s special beer. Kat Tenbarge

The Stonewall IPA brew serves as the bar’s special, with prices falling in the normal range for New York bars.

Stonewall’s patrons are largely comprised of members of the LGBTQ community, but many allies and supporters visited to commemorate the 50th anniversary, too

The bar at Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots approached, many of the bar’s patrons said they were tourists visiting specifically becoming of the historical impact of the location. However, Stonewall Inn employees were quick to recognise regular patrons from in and around Greenwich Village.

Subtle and not so subtle rainbow decor is everywhere in the Stonewall Inn, including this stained glass panel above the main entrance.

A stained glass archway above the doors of Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

The rainbow colours were the main element of decor around the bar, but TV screens also played black-and-white films in view of patrons at tables around the main floor.

The bar at Stonewall is crowded even at 4 PM on a Friday, before most offices in Manhattan clear out for the weekend.

The bar at Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

During drag performances and special events, Stonewall employees like Mike said the bar could become extremely crowded. It has an upstairs and basement performance space, but neither were accessible during the weekday afternoon.

The bar takes up the entire left side of the Stonewall Inn, with tables, counters, a neon rainbow installation, and a pool table occupying the main floor.

The pool table at Stonewall. Kat Tenbarge

Some patrons at the Stonewall Inn were able to use the pool table, placed in front of the neon rainbow decor installation.

Besides the overabundance of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple flags, the bar had a resemblance to any other. Stonewall’s history plays out most visibly in its patrons, who join together to commemorate and celebrate LGBTQ pride in a historic location that signifies just how much has changed since the 1969 riots that incited a civil rights reckoning.