February 8, 2013

W 4th Street & Memory Lane

Gay Liberation by George Segal (1980)

It was a cold, murky day in New York on the date of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. That morning I was exploring Greenwich Village and decided to have a brunch in a cozy cafĂ© on Bleecker Street to watch the president’s speech. It was a typical New York coffee shop (cash only, indie music playing in the background). A tiny television hanging on the vintage brick wall showed the inaugural ceremonies. The music in the shop was turned down by the time the president came up to take the oath and give his speech. One excerpt from the speech stood out to me immediately:

“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…. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

It was nothing short of a historical moment. This was the first time a president had mentioned the gay rights movement in an inaugural address, and President Obama had just done this  boldly by putting in the context of two other struggles for civil rights, both for women and African Americans.

The Stonewall Riots, to which the president referred, took place in 1969 in the Village as a reaction to the police department’s closing of the nearby Stonewall Inn, a covert gay bar. It is credited with igniting the modern gay rights movement, and the first gay pride parades were held to commemorate the riots

I just so happened to stumble upon Christopher Park later that day as I was looking for the subway station. This is where to Stonewall Riots started. This day, though, there were not any riots. It was mostly quiet in the Village due to the holiday and chilly conditions. There was just an occasional jogger or mother pushing a stroller beneath the overcast sky.

In the park is a sculpture by George Segal entitled Gay Liberation. It depicts two men standing and two women sitting, both couples in natural, relaxed poses. The statues are bronze with a coating of white paint, and a plaque nearby describes the significance of the park’s history.

I was obviously not present for the riots, but I could not help but think of the huge contrast between now and then. In 1969, homosexuality was not only taboo in New York City and most of the country, but there were specific laws barring gay relations. Gays lived in the shadows and risked imprisonment for going to bars like the Stonewall Inn. But now same-sex marriages are allowed within six states and counting, including New York. And Rhode Island seems to be the next one to join the party. Back then, the city police were sent to shut down a gay nightclub but now the President of the United States was announcing to both the country and the world his commitment to marriage equality and LGBT rights.

To be sure, many members of the LGBT community are still persecuted in many places around the world. But it is quite astounding to think of the seismic shifts which have occurred in just four decades, and are still taking place. Sitting in the park stirred up many feelings in me, but the strongest one was pride in our progress and the warriors who brought us here.

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