Stonewall is one of America’s newest national monuments, and there’s not much here to see or do—but there is certainly a lot to think about. Celebrating the landmark decisions that granted legal rights and protections to the LGBT population, Stonewall National Monument sits at the place where in 1969, six days of rioting and demonstrations occurred to fight for the civil rights of LGBT people. The Stonewall Inn, a gathering place for the LGBT community in the 1960s, was raided on June 28, 1969, by police looking to enforce NYC’s harsh laws against homosexual activity. Unexpectedly, the bar’s patrons and the surrounding neighborhood fought back, and the resulting uprising, which drew crowds of thousands to vocally demand the rights and protection of the LGBT community, is credited with sparking the gay rights movement.
The NPS doesn’t have much of a presence here—a sign marks the site of the monument and a few plaques give information. You can also get information and printed materials from one of the other NPS sites downtown (we got ours at Federal Hall). But instead of our usual routine of learning about a site by attending a ranger program and checking out displays, at Stonewall we just sat down with the kids to have a conversation.
Though our kids have been around plenty of LGBT people, neither of them had ever asked about or seemed to notice it until a few days before our visit to Stonewall, when we were watching together an episode of the Great British Baking Show in which one of the female contestants kept referring to her wife.
“Wait,” Graham said. “Isn’t she a girl?”
Even though we have gay neighbors and gay friends, have seen lots of same-sex couples holding hands or kissing around the city and have attended Pride events, this was the first time the idea of homosexuality ever really seemed to click for Graham. We explained a bit, that while a lot of the couples he knows are a man and a woman and that seems normal to him, some men fall in love with other men and some women fall in love with other women. Some people fall in love with both men and women, and some people don’t fall in love at all. It was a short, casual and by no means comprehensive conversation, but it’s always been important to us to establish for our kids that just because something is different doesn’t make it bad or weird. Graham just nodded, said “ok”, and went back to watching the show.
A few days later at Stonewall, we got to elaborate a bit on that conversation and talk about why it’s so important not to believe that differences are bad or threatening. We talked about how, not too long ago, LGBT people in New York were punished for dating or holding hands, how these people were treated badly and sometimes even killed because of who they loved. We talked about how people were scared that homosexuality would “spread” like a disease if gay people had civil rights and were scared, too, that love could look different from what seemed normal to them. We talked about how a lot of gay people were getting sick and not very many people would help them. We talked about how important it is to stand up for people and make sure they’re protected and not punished for the choices they make as long as those choices aren’t hurting others.
This little spot in the Village is called Sheridan Square after General Philip Sheridan, a Civil War hero who also, coincidentally, was key to getting Yellowstone named a national park.
It was a pretty short conversation, and we followed Graham’s curiosity in what we talked about, trying not to shy away from his questions while keeping it all age-appropriate. The most important thing in the world to me is to raise children who are kind, who can step outside their own experience and see how life must be for someone else, who can recognize that most issues are complicated, if not in ethics than at least in practice, and that compassion and listening are always, always the right path.
I grew up in a place where things like homosexuality, race, and economic inequality never really came up. I was 11 when I saw my first black person besides Sesame Street’s Gordon, and a teenager before I knew what the term “gay” meant. My hometown is not affluent, but it also has no homeless population to speak of. I was not raised, in other words, around much diversity and I didn’t think about these issues much at all until I was in college. I was, however, raised to be kind and helpful and to think about how I would want to be treated if I were in another’s position; those values inform every one of my views now. Our kids have already experienced diversity that I wasn’t around til my late 20’s, and their sense of what’s “normal” is much more broad than mine was at their age. More than anything, I hope this will help them grow up with a natural inclination toward listening, compassion, and assuming the best in other people. I don’t know the best way to teach them about all the ways people can be different. I do know, though, that my job is to love my kids fiercely and to love others as well, to do everything I can to make sure we are helping and protecting the most vulnerable members of our population and ensuring that we are keeping them safe. Teaching our kids what happened at Stonewall, that sometimes protecting and helping people means fighting back against injustice, seems like a pretty good place to start that conversation.
Excuses Margie’s sad expression; it had been a very long day ;).
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