President Obama to Designate the First National Monument to Gay Rights

A couple of months ago I wrote about President Obama’s legacy of preserving over 260 million acres of land and water as national monuments – more than any other administration. At the time, the White House identified what their next priorities would be.

…areas that help foster resilience to climate change or are “connected to people and communities that have not been historically represented” in national parks and other federal sites.

Since then we have seen the addition of the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument last month. And look at what’s coming next : the first national monument to the gay rights struggle.

President Obama is poised to declare the first-ever national monument recognizing the struggle for gay rights, singling out a sliver of green space and part of the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood as the birthplace of America’s modern gay liberation movement.

While most national monuments have highlighted iconic wild landscapes or historic sites from centuries ago, this reflects the country’s diversity of terrain and peoples in a different vein: It would be the first national monument anchored by a dive bar and surrounded by a warren of narrow streets that long has been regarded the historic center of gay cultural life in New York City…

Protests at the site, which lasted for several days, began in the early morning of June 28, 1969 after police raided the Stonewall Inn, which was frequented by gay men. While patrons of the bar, which is still in operation today in half of its original space, had complied in the past with these crackdowns, that time it sparked a spontaneous riot by bystanders and those who had been detained.

I was immediately reminded of what this President said in his 2013 inaugural address.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth…

That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life. It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.

For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

In designating these historic sites as national monuments, President Obama is taking one small step in living out those words. It is part of his effort to ensure that everyone is included in our definition of “we.” As he said in Selma:

Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.