Can the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center Honor the Rebellion’s Radical Roots?

The only thing my public school ever taught me about queer people was that we weren’t allowed.

I didn’t know enough queer history to question why it was absent in our textbooks, but I knew enough about the queer present to try to get a gay speaker at our annual Acceptance Week the year I co-chaired. The administration rejected this bare minimum.

In fact, the only inclusion of queerness I can recall was a unit on Oscar Wilde my senior year. The word dandy was defined. Wilde’s sexuality was not. We learned he was put on trial for indecency, the details of what that meant still left out.

Our cultural attitude toward queerness has evolved dramatically since I graduated high school in 2012. The current backlash — through anti-trans bills, through LGBTQ book bans — has succeeded in terrorizing young queer people, but it has failed to return us to the ignorance of a decade ago.

But what is education without support? What does it mean for young people to know they exist when they immediately have to fight for their existence?

I thought of these questions during my private tour of the new Stonewall Visitor Center which opens officially this Friday. Built adjacent to the bar, this restoration of the second half of the landmark location aims to preserve and evolve one of the most important — or, at least, famous — places in queer history. It arrives eight years after Barack Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument, making it the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ+ rights and history.

For many in 2016, this declaration felt like a triumph. With the recent federal legalization of gay marriage and mere months from our expected first female president, progress seemed unstoppable. But even before Trump won the election, this progress was a combination of fact and myth. How could Obama celebrate a rebellion led, in-part, by sex workers of the past while criminalizing sex workers of the present? Does it matter that he evolved on gay marriage when he continued to deport and bomb people of all sexualities?

Developed by Pride Live in collaboration with the National Parks Service, the Stonewall Visitor Center requires a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. There is a quote from Obama when you first walk through the door. The — admittedly very cool — jukebox was created in partnership with Amazon. Google and Chase Bank are celebrated as partners. Chelsea Clinton appears in a photo montage on the back wall.

But, I would argue, it is a cognitive dissonance worth engaging in. “We’re excited that this can be a destination for families and kids,” Pride Live executive director Efrain Guerrero told me. “We’re partnering already with some summer youth camps. We’re reaching out to primary education. We’re looking into how to put this visitor center on the list of recommended field trips.”

I’m not one to quote anyone in the current administration, but Kamala Harris was correct when she said, “You exist in the context of all in which you live and what came before you.” And while the combination of radical queer voices and watered down corporate Pride saddened me, I couldn’t help but still feel excited about the visitor center’s existence.

Every federally recognized place, person, and object carries the asterisk of the violent history and present of the United States of America. But I’m still happy Pink Flamingos is preserved in the Library of Congress and I’m glad Yosemite can’t be turned into condos and I’m glad young people will take field trips to Stonewall.

I asked Guerrero how Pride Live navigated the need for big name donors within the context of Stonewall’s radical roots. “We’ve gotten lucky,” he said before explaining that their partners — like Google and Chase Bank — already had a history of supporting LGBTQ+ people. What was he going to say? It’s my job as a journalist and artist to ask that question and it’s his job as the executive director of a non-profit to feel relieved he can partner with Google and Christina Aguilera instead of, say, the Sackler family.

I want to hold queer people and queer institutions to a higher standard — I also want to be conscious of the realities of our world. And, in our reality where Google and Amazon are omnipresent, their involvement here does not negate programming like the visitor center’s plans to highlight other queer uprisings around the country.

“It feels like now is a great time to remind our community and allies that progress is not linear,” Guerrero said. “It comes in waves. We go forward and take steps back. So for me this is a reminder of what we can do collectively when we unite.”

Twenty years ago, the existence of this visitor center would’ve been impossible. But to call it radical is to judge our progress on the timeline of our enemies. There is nothing radical here, and that’s okay. It’s still a reminder. It’s still an education. Or, at least, a start to an education. And while the kids begin this education, those of us who long ago learned of Stonewall can keep fighting the deeper fight so their knowledge can be paired with material support.

So let’s celebrate the grand opening of the Stonewall Visitor Center and all the hard work done by the many queer people who made it happen. Let’s just also remember that Sylvia Rivera would’ve fucking hated it.


The Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center opens to the public this Friday, June 28.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 564 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. My fascination with your creations is on par with your own. The sketch you’ve presented is tasteful, and the content you’ve authored is of a high caliber. Nevertheless, you seem uneasy about the prospect of embarking on something that could be perceived as dubious. I believe you’ll be able to resolve this concern in a timely manner.

  2. How about UK Stonewall not be transphobic? Since they employed conservative Iain Anderson they have supported the Cass Review. Maybe this queer publication should call out that gender affirming care has been banned in the UK?

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