For people celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act this week, social media was a great place to share the initial thrill. Facebook and Twitter lit up as soon as the decision was announced and kept sparkling for hours afterward.
But let’s face it, social media isn’t really a "place" at all. And in the hours after DOMA was struck down, many people wanted to find a physical location where they could share the elation they felt.
Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the landmark case that moved the court forward, said it herself: "I wanna go to Stonewall right now!"
That would be Stonewall as in the Stonewall Inn, the bar near Sheridan Square in New York’s Greenwich Village, considered to be the birthplace of the gay rights movement in the United States.
The Stonewall, one of the most popular gay bars in the city in the late 1960s, was the site of a series of riots that broke out in late June 1969 in response to a police raid. Such raids, designed to intimidate and humiliate gay people in an age of rampant homophobia, were common at places where gay men and women gathered. But for some reason, in the wee hours of June 28, the patrons at Stonewall spontaneously decided to fight back against the cops with fists and bottles.
"We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough of this kind of shit," one man was quoted saying in David Carter’s book about the events, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. The Stonewall Inn closed later that year, but the site was the focal point for the first gay pride march on the one-year anniversary of the riots. In the 1990s, the name was revived in a space at the old location, and some version of Stonewall has been on Christopher Street pretty much ever since.
A lot of people besides Edith Windsor felt moved to go to Stonewall yesterday, including myself. The scene outside the bar’s current incarnation at 53 Christopher was festive and peaceful when I arrived around 1 in the afternoon. News trucks were lined up across the street and reporters from around the world were doing stand-up reports with the bar’s rainbow flags flapping in the background. HIV-rights activists staged a brief demonstration, kissing passionately on the sidewalk. Many people just milled about, smiling and taking pictures. Inside, people had drinks and chatted while the TVs played footage of New York politicians reacting to the events.
Everyone was just happy to be together.
"I went because I wanted to feel a sense of communal celebration, not just be at home reading tweets and blogs and Facebook posts," says Beth Greenfield, a writer who has often covered gay news and culture, and a friend of mine. "I feel like when I was younger and had just come out, I was always heading to Sheridan Square for something or other—angry protests, kiss-ins, celebrations—so it is, in a sense, a sort of instinct still, though it doesn't happen as much anymore. I also wanted to be there with my daughter, who is 4. Though it may not have meant anything to her, it was a historic moment, and I think the joy seeps in."
For those who couldn’t go, the lack of a physical place to celebrate made the day’s events bittersweet.
“We SO WANTED to be at the Stonewall Inn," writes my friend Deborah Jacoby-Twigg, who lives north of the city with her wife and two kids. "But that wasn't realistic for us out here in the Hudson Valley. We briefly considered inviting fellow gay married friends to join us at the bar section of our local coolest, artsiest restaurant. But there, instead of full-throated congratulations, our little group would have been engulfed by general 'not my issue' oblivion. Mmm: no." Instead, she and her family had a private celebration and are planning on attending upcoming Pride weekend events.
When history happens, people instinctively head for public places where they can feel like they are part of something bigger, something that matters. I myself didn’t stay long at Stonewall. I took a few pictures, drank a seltzer, and then went back to work. But standing in that spot had real meaning.
So many social movements have sprung from a particular place and become symbolized by that place. Think of Tahrir Square, or Taksim Square. Think of the Bastille. Remember, too, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, outside of Selma, Alabama, where civil rights marchers were beaten by police on a day in 1965 that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. That pivotal event ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a piece of legislation that was this week gutted by the same court that one day later opened up rights for gay people. The significance of that place has now changed yet again.
We are physical creatures in a physical world. Cities are the things we build to hold our human desires and aspirations. The streets and buildings become the vessels of history, reminders of our collective past and the people who are no longer with us. No matter how much connection we find with our fellow citizens online, we return to these exact spots because of the primal power they have over us.
On June 26, 2013, the Stonewall Inn was once again the place to be.