Inclusivity, Strength, and Resilience: How the Stonewall Inn Endured an Unconventional Pride Month
Five decades after the Stonewall Inn Uprising, the historic New York tavern proves its staying power as one of the world’s foremost patrons of queer community. Co-owner Stacy Lentz, who co-founded the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, is leading the charge.
When Stacy Lentz first moved to New York City in 1994 to pursue a career in recruiting, activism wasn’t necessarily top of mind. Lentz, who identifies as a lesbian and had long felt misunderstood growing up in a conservative small town in Kansas, recalls having cursory knowledge of the Stonewall Uprising, but wasn’t fully aware of its crucial role within the queer liberation movement. (During a six-day period in 1969, members of New York’s LGBTQ+ community took the unusual action of fighting back during a routine police raid at the bar, catapulting the queer liberation movement to the global stage.) Above all, she hadn’t visited the bar until 1998, when she was shocked to discover what was then a mostly male-centric watering hole. “I was the only woman there,” she recalls. “I was a little disappointed because besides the plaque outside, nothing else indicated its importance to our community.”
Fast forward to 2006, when the Stonewall Inn was facing permanent closure. She quickly joined a team of investors to rescue and renew the historic site in its current form, becoming a co-owner and the property’s only lesbian investor. Since then, her LGBTQ+ rights activism has taken off—she has participated in organizing hundreds of events and fundraisers for LGBTQ+ organizations such as GLAAD, Marriage Equality USA, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, HRC, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, Sylvia’s Place, Lambda Legal, and SAGE. In 2017, she co-launched the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, a nonprofit charitable organization inspired by the struggles and ideals of the LGBTQ+ rights movement from the Stonewall Inn Uprising. She has also partnered with Heritage of Pride to produce some of the largest events during its annual NYC Pride Week, which attracts more than two million visitors from across the world.
That is, under normal circumstances. As with almost all bars and restaurants across the five boroughs, the Stonewall Inn was forced to shutter when New York became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic earlier in the spring, calling the tavern’s future into question. (A GoFundMe page, launched on June 13, has since raised more than $300,000 to keep Stonewall’s doors open.)
Enter Jägermeister’s Save the Night campaign, which the German spirits brand launched to offer financial resources to nightlife workers who lost their jobs during the government-mandated closures. Jägermeister partnered with The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative to host a virtual fundraising concert on World of Wonder, which attracted more than 300,000 viewers and raised more than $85,000. Through those efforts, the team disseminated 75 grants of $1,000 to nightlife workers to help make ends meet. Lentz, who rarely gives interviews, describes the initiative in a deeply personal short film organized by Jägermeister and directed by Set Free, a filmmaker and owner of the disruptive Bronx gallery Compound.
Needless to say, the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have caused cultural programming across the world to grind to a halt. Couple this with the recent Black Lives Matter protests, which swept the nation following the May 25 murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, and this year’s Pride month has taken on an entirely new significance. “The Stonewall Inn Uprising continued thanks to two trans women of color—Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera,” says Lentz. “As white people of privilege, we owe everything to trans women of color. We’re nothing without the intersectionality of our community, and it’s key that all marginalized groups are in this together.”
We sat down with Lentz, Set Free, Jägermeister’s Olivia O’Leary, and Brittnay Vollmar, a Save the Night grant recipient, to learn how the Stonewall Inn has fared during an unconventional Pride month. (Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Stacy Lentz: I came to New York around 1995. I was talking to a friend outside a bar in the West Village about queer-friendly spaces and they told me what happened during the riots, which was my first time hearing firsthand about Stonewall’s importance to our community. I first went there in 1998 and thought, “Wait, this is where it happened?” It wasn’t what I expected at all. I was the only woman there; it was a very male-centric gay bar. I was a little disappointed because besides the plaque outside, nothing else indicated its importance to our community.
Set Free: My first time seeing Stonewall was being a New Yorker on the West Side. I had always seen the place and knew it was for the gay community, but it looked happier than your normal gay bar. It almost felt like a Christmas building with its illuminated words on the window. It had a big feeling coming from it.
Olivia O’Leary: I was born in Ireland, but moved to New York 15 years ago. I always knew what Stonewall was and what it represented, but didn’t know its full history. Part of my job at Jägermeister is to identify key accounts in New York and learn about the different facets of the city’s nightlife. I spent a good two weeks in some of the best bars in New York, and I learned so much. From then on, it was always part of my prerogative to make sure we were taking care of these spaces.
Brittnay Vollmar: I’m from Florida, but I’d always see my New York friends going to Stonewall. I thought, “Next time I’m in New York, I have to go!” I went and had an amazing time. We had queer-friendly spaces in Orlando and Miami, but they weren’t super lesbian-friendly. Stonewall felt like a place where everyone could get together and bond—more like a family environment. You feel very welcomed when you walk in. When I moved here a year and a half ago, I immediately applied for a job at Stonewall. I finally heard that they might be looking for someone and thought it may be the highlight of my bartending career. It’s a dream come true. A month and a half later, Covid-19 hit.
Lentz: Covid-19 caused so much confusion, shock, and deep concern—not just for Stonewall, but for LGBTQ+ safe spaces everywhere. Bars for us are completely different than for other communities. Our movement, our activism started in a bar, at Stonewall. Bars are such an important part of the LGBTQ+ culture. I was very concerned that many wouldn’t survive. We tend to be more isolated—depression and social stigmas exist that cause many problems within LGBTQ+ youth and people in their early 20s. We rely on bars when we’re first coming out and meeting our chosen family. Where could that happen if these LGBTQ+ spaces shut down? We partnered with Jägermeister for the Save the Night campaign to help LGBTQ+ workers and drive awareness to safe spaces—they’re not just bars or businesses, they’re our community gathering places. They’re crucial, especially in small towns throughout the country. Not having those spaces is a devastating prospect physically, mentally, and financially.
O’Leary: When Covid-19 hit, and when bars shut down, our headquarters in Germany was already affected. We were ahead of the curve. It became apparent that the nightlife industry and workforce was in jeopardy. We immediately conceived ways to give back and donated €5 million to artists, creatives, and bartenders. In the U.S., we knew the importance of donating, but we wanted to make sure that we were inspiring people and giving them opportunities to create.
Lentz: We launched the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative concert, which provides financial resources to LGBTQ+ nightlife workers across the country. We teamed up with Jägermeister for this as part of their Save the Night campaign. We were the first LGBTQ+ group to throw a massive concert to bring the community together. No one did it before us. We got that together very quickly even though it didn’t go entirely according to plan! We raised $85,000 total and provided 75 $1,000 grants to LGBTQ+ nightlife workers across the country.
O’Leary: We got some amazing feedback, ranging from DMs and emails to community members reaching out and saying that we helped them raise enough money for groceries or a month’s rent, or helping them getting back into the creative mindset again. Save the Night alone helped more than 360 individual artists just through our grants and microfunding in the U.S.
Lentz: We really try to be a financial resource for people who serve our community: DJs, bartenders, photographers, event planners, and so many others. They rely on tips and don’t receive unemployment, so it’s important to make sure they can make ends meet. They’re part of the magic that makes nightlife come together.
Vollmar: When I first learned about the closures, everything felt uncertain. In nightlife, if you need money, you pick up extra shifts or work later. When those opportunities disappear, you don’t have other options and wonder how to move forward. I applied for unemployment, but didn’t receive it until two months later. I wasn’t sure if I could make rent. I went through all my savings. When I heard about Save the Night, it felt like a chance to catch up. I didn’t want to leave New York—it was a hustle to get here and I wanted to stay with my community. This gave me a huge amount of relief and made me not worry about how I’m going to buy groceries.
Set Free: Everything that happens in nightlife is a bigger story and experience. Holding on to that moment—and what that moment means—is super important. These are organic relationships. Everyone we work with is authentic and not here to just cut a check or place their name.
Lentz: Back in 2006, my business partners had heard through the grapevine that Stonewall was closing. They came to me, knowing that I was starting my activism career, wanting to make sure that women were included this time around. My role has been trying to make sure that women, our trans friends, and everyone of any color under the rainbow felt included. During that time, many people didn’t know Stonewall’s history, so our job was to put it back on the map. We worked with the media and various organizations to make sure Stonewall’s story was told properly by talking to people who participated in the riots and listening to their stories.
Set Free: The gay community has one of the hardest fights. They’ve been fighting for years, years, and years. It’s similar to what African Americans have been going through.
Lentz: The Stonewall Inn Uprising continued thanks to two trans women of color—Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were central figures. As white people of privilege, we owe everything to trans women of color. What they did was incredible—they were so in-your-face and ready to fight. They really kept the movement alive. Marsha once said, “We’re not free unless we’re all free.” The minute that the protests against systemic racism started, we encouraged the community to gather around Stonewall. Black Lives Matter is central for the LGBTQ+ rights movement, and we started seeing protests immediately. We put up a banner from the activists that says “BLM” and “Pride Is a Riot”—not “was a riot” or “should be a riot,” but is a riot. We’re nothing without the intersectionality of our community, and it’s key that all marginalized groups are in this together.
Set Free: It’s weird not being in the country for the protests. I’m in Mexico—I was on vacation with my wife when the pandemic hit and we’ve been stuck out here for five months. You know, America wasn’t built in favor of any minorities. I always think about that. To fix any problem, you have to start at the root of the tree.
Lentz: Everyone is racist. We all have work to do. We need to work on systemic forms of oppression and understand—especially those of us with white privilege—that we need to educate each other. It shouldn’t rest on BIPOC folks to do that. I consider myself progressive but I’ve had a few awakenings throughout this process. I’ve had difficult conversations with friends and family and hope people will call me out too, as I’m bound to make mistakes.
Vollmar: I agree, this has been an awakening. My first thought when the protests broke out was “How do I get involved?” My partner and I got a bunch of people together to go protest, but got some backlash about possibly spreading Covid-19. We tried self-quarantining two weeks after, but I found myself idling at home. I started self-educating and sharing information on social media but I wanted to do something more, so I hosted a “bartending for beginners” class on Zoom and donated the proceedings. We tried to bring light to how to get involved virtually if they couldn’t get out there, especially since some people have underlying health issues.
O’Leary: My biggest priority is education. I never considered myself racist, but the more you learn, you realize “I shouldn’t have said that or used that term, and need to be more aware of this.” I’ve been educating myself so much more about Black culture and ancestry, and holding myself accountable. I was deleting people on Facebook who didn’t share my viewpoint but realized that I need to start having more tough conversations. One of our Meisters made a great analogy about this. You don’t work out once and become fit—you need to exercise this muscle daily.
Set Free: I’ll always love communication. As a producer, I consider myself an advocate of the arts—it talks so much louder than politics. I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to help by putting a message out there, but I’ve learned that no one has the answers right now. Our first step is being open and honest with each other and communicating. If I can create in every way possible and start honest conversations, that’ll help bring change to social justice and racism. And when shooting this documentary, my first task was convincing Jägermeister why we’re doing this, and how. Creativity will fuel us through these times, so it’s important that we embrace the moment we’re in. We have to do it! And Olivia really went to bat to make this happen.
Lentz: Shooting the documentary was so different for me! Give me a crowd of 1,000 and I’m good, but having a camera in my face was something new. But even from a distance, Set made me feel very comfortable and safe.
Set Free: I started doing research and came across Stacy, who’s like the LGBTQ+ community’s Wolverine. What I’ve realized with Covid-19 and the increased use of Zoom and FaceTime is that you finally get to see everyone’s home! I thought showcasing Stacy in her home could be very powerful. This is the first time in history that most of us can say that we’re working from home, so I wanted to capture a day in the life of Stacy working from home. She’s a rebel, but she risked her life to let the crew inside her home and take the necessary precautions.
Lentz: Save the Night was such a vision for them, and a perfect match when we found each other. It’s important to partner with brands in an authentic way, which is what the Save the Night campaign is. It’s visionary—an incredible mission to help everyone who works within that space.
We’ve always tried to do this through the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative. We decided after 12 years of our activism work—fundraisers and events at the physical space—why not start our own nonprofit and formalize this process? We found a niche, from my personal experience growing up in a small Christian conservative town in Kansas, understanding that those spaces don’t get the same attention or financial resources. Those are underserved LGBTQ+ communities—the most marginalized groups that we wanted the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative to focus on. We want to make sure that these marginalized communities have a voice. Through our global platform, we can bring awareness to organizations not only through funding but by amplifying the work they’re doing on the ground.
O’Leary: Totally. At Jägermeister, before the protests broke out, I called my boss and said that all of our Meisters are invested in this movement right now. I said that we need to address this and figure out how we can help. It’s fine to donate, but it doesn’t make a huge impact unless you can see it on a local level. To begin with, we set up biweekly Zoom calls with our Meisters like Set Free, Atiba Jefferson, KidSuper and others who are active and affected within the community. We wanted to hear from them first and have frank discussions about how we can help. KidSuper raised more than half a million dollars on t-shirts and donated to charity. We helped with some of the production costs so all the money raised went to the movement. We had money set aside in our Save the Night budget to support Set Free’s Covid-19 relief efforts. We ended up pivoting these funds to instead support “The Art of Protest” at Compound. Also, in our weekly Meister sessions we pivoted from Covid-19 relief charities to those supporting the movement. This is just the beginning of our continued support.
Set Free: Compound, my gallery, is hosting a virtual exhibition called “The Art of Protest,” which opened this past Friday, July 17. We’ve been reading for years about slavery, segregation, and racism, but photography really sticks. Growing up in the ‘70s, I saw images of water hoses being sprayed at Black people, dogs fighting Black people… Those images told me that racism is real.
It’s an art to protest, from the signs we make to the way we unify ourselves. One day, it clicked that I saw self-made t-shirts and signs that were drawn beautifully, like a painting, with the faces of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on them. In the show, we interview and showcase the work of eight photographers from around the country. We can’t stage a physical show given the circumstances, but we also can’t stop. We have to keep pushing forward.
Lentz: We like to think of ourselves as innkeepers of history. Our role is to make sure that younger generations are aware of the uprising and what happened on June 28, 1969, because that’s why our community has rights today. We try to make sure that Stonewall stays at the forefront of that fight and isn’t simply a bar. It’s so much more than a bar! It’s a living, breathing piece of activism and a piece of a fight that still continues 51 years later. And it has been an incredible journey.