By Gina Cherelus
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York bar known as the birthplace of the gay pride movement could become the country's first national monument honoring LGBT rights under a plan to be considered by President Barack Obama.
The Stonewall Inn in Manhattan's Greenwich Village was the site of a 1969 police raid that touched off riots and ignited a long struggle to bring lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people into the mainstream and guarantee their rights.
A year after the Stonewall riots, activists staged the country's first gay rights parade. The event has evolved into LGBT Pride Month, which begins Wednesday, with parades and street parties around the world that draw millions of people of every sexual orientation.
To honor that legacy, Obama is being asked to designate the tavern and adjoining Christopher Park as a national monument, the second highest recognition in the U.S. National Park Service. U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, several members of Congress and local and state officials have strongly endorsed the effort.
Stonewall is already a National Historic Landmark and both inn and park are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Melissa Sklarz, a transgender rights activist, was among those attending hearings in Manhattan this month to push for the national monument status.
“It was great for me to be able to stand up for my part of the community, that LGBT includes trans women and it's important that that voice be heard," she said.
NEW FIGHT FOR LGBT RIGHTS
The proposal has its critics. Some of them say national monuments should honor war heroes or the Founding Fathers, not a symbol of gay rights.
"A monument to sin?" said Franklin Graham, the Christian evangelist continuing the work of his famous father Billy Graham. "That's unbelievable," he added in a Facebook post this month.
The proposal to elevate Stonewall coincides with a contentious national debate over protections for transgender people that is considered the next frontier in the fight for LGBT rights after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year.
The recent battle between North Carolina lawmakers and the Obama administration over bathroom access for transgender people suggests that equality issues that came to the fore in 1969 are yet to be fully resolved.
Back in the 1960s, police raids on gay bars were common. But when officers arrived at the Stonewall Inn, in the early hours of June 28, 1969 to clear the bar and make arrests, patrons decided to resist, according to witnesses. It was a galvanizing event, ultimately destroying the tavern.
Now, the reconstructed Stonewall is a low-lit, two-level space decorated inside with wooden floors, high-rise bar stools, mirrored walls and televisions playing music videos from artists like Rihanna and Enrique Iglesias.
With its trademark brick exterior, blood-red neon sign and rainbow flags, the tavern continues to attract people from all over the world.
For Fred Etree, who at 77 years of age still works as a bartender at Stonewall after nearly 50 years, the memories of the riots are vivid.
"I was in there dancing with my friends Frank and Charlie when the cops came in and we heard everybody screaming," Etree recalled. “They came in nasty."
As patrons were being led outside and loaded into police vans, a crowd of several hundred people gathered in the park across the street. Eventually bottles and other objects were thrown at police and violence erupted. Tactical officers were called in to clear the streets and days of unrest followed.
OBAMA'S LGBT LEGACY
For Obama, the monument designation in his last year in office could solidify his legacy as a defender of LGBT rights.
While he started his first term opposed to gay marriage, he came out in favor of it before his re-election in 2012. In the battle over transgender rights, he asked all U.S. public schools this month to allow all students to use the bathroom of their choice, a non-binding directive that conservatives have vowed to resist.
His administration has also sued North Carolina, saying limits on bathroom access are a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But state lawmakers say the law, which limits people to using the bathroom of their gender at birth, protects women and girls from predators. Eleven other states are suing the administration for an overreach of power on the issue.
A White House spokeswoman said the president is aware of "the overwhelming support" for the monument proposal from Greenwich Village residents and the LGBT community. But she would not say when he would make a decision or what he is leaning toward doing.
Down in the Village, proponents say making the Stonewall a monument would send a powerful message to states opposing transgender rights.
"I think it's absolutely fabulous," said Etree. "I think it will be very good for our community, that recognition."
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Mary Milliken)