“We’re here to stay. The community is too strong to go backward.” That’s how Kurt Kelly, co-owner of the historic Stonewall Inn, responds when asked about the Trump administration’s latest attacks on LGBTQ people. Kelly, an activist himself, bought The Stonewall Inn in 2006, almost four decades after the legendary 1969 riots that catalyzed the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
When Kelly took the helm in 2006, the bar was largely frequented by cisgender gay men, and many in the community steered clear. In partnership with co-owner and lesbian community leader Stacy Lentz, Kelly has spent the last decade transforming the iconic bar into a thriving community space where all are welcome.
In 2016, President Obama designated a seven-acre area around The Stonewall as The Stonewall National Monument, the first LGBTQ national park site in the United States. At a time when revered LGBTQ bars, particularly lesbian bars, are shuttering left and right, The Stonewall remains.
GO sat down with Kelly to hear about what The Stonewall Inn means to him, why he preserves its history and how he sees its future.
GO Magazine: How did you end up co-owning and running The Stonewall Inn?
Kurt Kelly: I actually started my career as a bartender. In 2006, I was tending bar at The Duplex. At the time, The Stonewall Inn was in dire financial straits. I was approached by Bill and Tony, who co-owned The Duplex, about the possibility of purchasing the bar with them. After a challenging year of negotiations and work, we were finally able to acquire the bar in late 2006.
GO: What was your vision as you took part-ownership?
KK: I always knew what The Stonewall Inn meant to our community. In 2006, however, The Stonewall wasn’t really known to the younger gay community. And I wanted to change it and help make it what it is today. I’m trying to make The Stonewall bigger and better. The rich history of Stonewall should be known. It’s a church. It’s a mecca. Where it all began, where Pride began.
GO: Why was it important to you to take over The Stonewall? Is it living up to your vision 11 years later?
KK: When I first went to The Stonewall, my boyfriend at the time had a job there. It was a hard atmosphere. Frankly, it was one-dimensional. It was all guys. That’s something that I set out to change. I wanted it to be mixed. I wanted it to be bi, gay, lesbian, the leather community, the bear community, drag queens, trans people. It’s our landmark. When I first opened, a marketing guy came up to me to offer help. I told him, I don’t want it to be exclusively for guys. I wanted the whole community to feel welcome. And he said, “That’ll never happen.” And I said, “Watch me.” Gay bars are disappearing as our community gains acceptance into the [mainstream] world. I’m even seeing it at The Stonewall. I would hate to see gay bars go, because wherever I go, I can always go to a gay bar and there’s that ‘I’m home’ feeling washing over me.
GO: How has your understanding of the LGBTQ community changed over time?
KK: Our community consists of a bunch of people who have been prejudiced against their entire lives. It’s about unity. I was told by someone when I bought The Stonewall that “Stonewall” means “strength in numbers.” Like a real stone wall: The more stones you put together, the stronger it is. GO: How else are you working to keep the history of Stonewall alive? KK: Just keeping the doors open. It’s expensive. The first few years I wasn’t sure if we were going to stay open. We also just started a nonprofit called The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative. We’re going grassroots, donating money to places where there’s still prejudice, more or less the southern U.S. Eventually, when it gets big enough, I would love to go to Russia and the Ukraine to help them. We’re starting out small, but I want to go big. So does the rest of the team.
GO: What can the community do to help support The Stonewall?
KK: Come in and drink! Without the customers, we can’t stay open. We’re a national landmark. People think, ‘Oh, it’s not gonna go anywhere.’ But it’s expensive. For us to keep The Stonewall alive, we have to support it.
GO: Who are the role models that inspire your work with The Stonewall? KK: Vito Russo [LGBT & AIDS activist, founder of GLAAD, author of “The Celluloid Closet”]. He’s inspired me more and more. We’ve got to make sure history is written to reflect reality. We hear nothing about him except at the GLAAD awards. He was such a pioneer. He’s getting lost. Stacy Lentz. She’s an activist. I admire her determination and her love. Her belief is so strong and powerful that it rubs off on you. Also Obama. C’mon, that’s a given. He wasn’t afraid to bring The Stonewall and the community out in the open.
GO: What do you wish the younger generation of LGBTQ people knew?
KK: The younger generation should appreciate the older generation. Not even my generation. Even older. They’re the ones who went through hell so they could walk down the street and hold their boyfriends’ or girlfriends’ hands. Even 15 or 20 years ago, you couldn’t really do that. In the ‘60s, you weren’t allowed to dance with the same sex. It was illegal. At The Stonewall they used to have a blue light, and when the cops came, it would go on. Everyone would grab a person of the opposite gender so they weren’t same-sex dancing. What happened at The Stonewall [in The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969] was the beginning of a more accepting culture in which the younger generation are finding their voices now: People were fighting for their freedom, for many of our rights finally recognized today. But we still have a long way to go, and The Stonewall remains a community haven today, just as it was back then.
GO: As we face the Trump presidency, what gives you hope? What keeps you going?
KK: We’re not going backwards. We’re here to stay. We’re not going anywhere. We’ve built that wall called The Stonewall, and it’s not going anywhere.
Visit the historic Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher St, New York, NY 10014.
To learn more about The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, go to stonewallinitiative.org.
Aaron Rose is an educator and writer who helps build cultures where people of all identities can thrive. He teaches and writes about empathy, conflict transformation, healthy masculinity, and all things LGBTQ. For more about his work visit aaronxrose.com.