This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a series of violent protests that catalyzed the gay civil rights movement in the United States. The Stonewall Inn became a holy site for the LGBTQ community, but as the years went on, the iconic bar—which had changed hands and locations a few times—fell into disrepair.
With the bar on the brink of bankruptcy, in 2006, local businessman Kurt Kelly bought The Stonewall Inn in an attempt to save LGBTQ history. “You want to take care of your history,” Kelly said. “This is gay history. It’s like abusing the liberty bell.” He brought on activist Stacy Lentz as an investor, and together, they have returned the Christopher Street bar to its former glory. Today, the site looks just as it did a half-century ago: chestnut-colored walls (bathed in pink neon light), overstuffed couches, strung pride flags, and a well-loved pool table. Going to Stonewall is like entering a museum, a time capsule, and a church all at once.
The Greenwich Village institution also happens to be the location of Vogue.com’s 2019 pre-Met Party, which is now in its fifth year. To find out more about how the space has transformed over the past 50 years, Vogue.com spoke with the bar’s co-owners about Stonewall’s legacy and what gay activism looks like in 2019.
Kurt, you acquired Stonewall in 2006. How did you come to work here? How has the bar changed in the 15 years that you’ve both been involved?
KK: I came to work here in 1990 I didn’t really know anything about Stonewall, and I learned about it from working down here. It wasn’t being treated how it should’ve been: as the gay church of the gay community. It wasn’t even known as a gay bar—well it was, but it wasn’t treated as the gay bar where pride began.
SL: For me, since the beginning, it was an opportunity to save history, Kurt brought me in, we had been longterm friends, and I was working with a lot of different non-profit groups, including Marriage Equality New York. I was doing a lot of organizing and working with about 80 different nonprofits to hold rallies and marches to get DOMA overturned.
What is inspiring to you about the events at Stonewall as the 50th-anniversary approaches?
KK: Well this is where it all began. In 1969, the gay community fought back for the first time; they were being abused. It was illegal to dance with a same sex partner, it was illegal to wear more than two articles of [the opposite sex’s] clothing. The cops were coming in here, and they were extorting money; the mafia owned it at the time. If the mafia didn’t pay off the police department would come in and they would harass and arrest [the patrons]. And in June 28 of 1969 they fought back for the first time and that was the beginning of the gay civil rights movement.
SL: This place is really the birthplace of the modern-day LGBTQ movement, and utilize it, and to remember that the fight that began here in 1969 is certainly not over. We have an incredible opportunity to use this globally recognized space and [use it] to help keep the fight alive.
Since you took over the space in the early 2000s, this neighborhood has also changed a lot. How are you working toward keeping the spirit of Stonewall alive in a rapidly gentrifying city?
KK: When we reopened, it brought a lot of people down to this area. I know a lot of bars around here said thank you because all of a sudden their business started booming. It was sort of like that for the first six or seven years, but now I’m seeing a decline and everything is closing. And that’s not because of us, that’s because of the highrises of rentals and leases and just grubby landlords wanting more money. They’d rather have empty buildings than keep the area alive.
SL: You’re seeing all neighborhoods in New York are dealing with gentrification. LGBTQ people don’t gather in gayberhoods anymore; they gather all over the city because of online dating and because of the Internet. They don’t feel like they all need to flock to the village like they did in 1969 when it was the gay hub, or even when we took over in 2006. People are finding community outside of your typical gay neighborhood, which can be problematic because you feel like a younger generation really needs that community and that sense of family in person, not online. On a community level, I think it would be amazing to see a law passed in the same way that we have rent stabilization for people in New York City, to have rent control for businesses that provide jobs that are mom-and-pops. And offer tax incentives and tax breaks to landlords. I think that would be a way to combat this, but, as far as Stonewall is concerned, it’s a hard struggle just to keep these doors open sometimes because the rent is so high. It can be packed.
What do you want the future of Stonewall to look like?
SL: I hope that at Stonewall 100 or Stonewall 75 that homosexuality and gender identity and gender expression are normalized. Our goal is to say we want every single person globally to know what happened here in 1969, and to have that story of Stonewall be told either through the people that were there or us as the innkeepers of that history to make sure everyone understands so we don’t repeat the past and so we can just move forward.