FILE - The Stonewall Inn, in New York's Greenwich Village.
FILE - The Stonewall Inn, in New York's Greenwich Village.

President Barack Obama has designated a site in the heart of New York City as a national park and the first U.S. national monument to gay rights.

The Stonewall National Monument, in the city's Greenwich Village area, includes the landmark Stonewall Inn, a tavern where the gay rights movement gained political momentum nearly 50 years ago. The tavern, popular with gays and lesbians, was the focal point of street rioting that broke out in 1969 after a police raid.

Obama praised the activists who fought back against the 1969 police action: "They stood up and spoke out. The riots became protests. The protests became a movement. The movement ultimately became an integral part of America."  

The president's message was part of a video the White House released in time for Saturday's annual LGBT pride celebration in New York, and for events on Sunday marking the U.S. Supreme Court ruling one year ago that confirmed marriage between two people of the same sex was legal throughout the United States.

The Obama video, including scenes of the 1969 Stonewall riots, will be broadcast on huge screens in the city's Times Square, a central gathering point for the LGBT pride celebrations.

FILE - People celebrate in front of the Stonewall
FILE - People celebrate in front of the Stonewall Inn, right, after the passing of the state's same-sex marriage bill in New York, June 24, 2011.

'Uniquely American spirit'

"Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story for the struggle for LGBT rights," Obama said. "I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country — the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us.''

Obama has used his executive powers in the past to recognize American sites of great significance to African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and women.

The Stonewall Inn has been a rallying point for gay activists for decades. Crowds gathered there last June 26 after the Supreme Court decision, and again this month after the mass shooting that killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, popular with the gay community.

The events 47 years ago that made the tavern a gay landmark grew out of a raid by police who said they were enforcing an old city ordinance prohibiting bars from serving alcoholic beverages to homosexuals, and other measures targeting cross-dressers. Bar patrons refused to cooperate with the police, and their resistance spiraled into a spontaneous riot that drew in bystanders.

Movement was launched

A small green space nearby — Christopher Park, now part of the 3-hectare area that comprises the Stonewall monument — was the scene of several days of protests and riots, which became known as the Stonewall Uprising.

Those protests are “considered by many to be the catalyst that launched the modern LGBT civil-rights movement,” the president wrote in a proclamation announcing the monument. “From this place and time, building on the work of many before, the nation started the march — not yet finished — toward securing equality and respect for LGBT people.”  

Obama mentioned Stonewall in a speech beginning his second term in office, in 2013, arguing that the battle for gay rights was part of a larger civil rights movement, also including women and African-Americans.

The president's position on gay rights issues has broadened during his time at the White House. He had long supported equal rights for LGBT people, but spoke out against gay marriage during his first campaign for the presidency, in 2008. He reversed his position in 2012, however, saying he had gone through "an evolution" on the issue.

Orlando also remembered

Many political figures and rights groups in New York have for years sought national recognition of the Stonewall Inn as a site of historic importance.

The Human Rights Campaign, a group that says it works for a world in which "all people are ensured of their basic equal rights, and can be open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community," was among those cheering Obama's Stonewall proclamation.

A man walks through the crowd holding a sign durin
FILE - A man walks through the crowd holding a sign during a vigil and memorial for victims of the Orlando nightclub shootings near the historic Stonewall Inn in New York, June 13, 2016.

"The announcement is especially significant," the group said in a statement, "following the horrific massacre in Orlando, a heartbreaking reminder of the hate and violence we continue to face as a community."

U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat whose district includes Greenwich Village, said, "Stonewall is finally taking its rightful place in American history.''

"We are faced with painful reminders daily," Nadler added, "of how much further we must go to achieve true equality and tolerance for the LGBT community. But honoring and preserving the stories of all of the diverse participants in Stonewall in our national park system is a clear symbol of how far we have come."

Others who celebrated the announcement include New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio; and the state's two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.