Christopher Street | Nonfiction
We were greeted by a rainbow. Our tour guide’s overly peppy voice told the stories I had already memorized, while half of the passengers tensed. As we drove past Greenwich Village, my eyes darted over the old buildings and brightly colored flags. To my left was an area paved with bricks and lined with history. There were plain, steel benches with white figures inhabiting the space.
“Now, believe it or not, those are not real people around the benches. They are actually statues dedicated to the gay and lesbian community!”
Once the words “gay and lesbian” left the tour guides lips, my mother drew in a deep breath. I could feel the discomfort rolling off of her body and into the hot air I was breathing. My body began to collapse in on itself, forcing my arms and legs to pull closer and closer to my chest. Part of me felt like I was hiding a terrible secret from my mother; like I had killed someone on this road or stolen a piece of art from one of the galleries sitting on the edge of the street. But, the secret I was hiding didn’t involve murder or thievery. Instead, I was hiding a piece of my identity that I thought she’d never accept.
“This area is a monument created by George Segal, titled “Gay Liberation”. While it was created soon after the first Pride Parade, it wasn’t placed in New York until 1992. Instead, it was installed in Madison, Wisconsin from 1986 until 1991.”
I looked at the statues and smiled. Seated on the bench were stone replicas of two women, one with her hand on the other’s leg. If I tilted my head and squinted, I could picture me sitting there, smiling happily as I chatted with someone I adored. Standing next to them were two men, looking fondly at each other. The tour bus was filled with people who thought the monument was overbearing and unnecessary, but the statues didn’t seem to mind.
The simplicity was overwhelming. There were no pride flags, no protesters, and no one trying to argue with the message it was trying to send. For the first time, the movement wasn’t being shoved in the faces of the tour bus passengers. Instead, they saw a gay and lesbian couple for what they really were – normal people.
The discomfort was almost suffocating.
“Can we stop on this street later?”
The look in my mother’s eye told me that she was going to need some persuading. I could see the shock and worry in her gaze, but I held my ground.
“It’s just, great writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, and E.E. Cummings used to live here. Shouldn’t I get a taste of their lifestyle?”
My interest in literature had always been something she encouraged. In fact, she spent most of her free time with her nose in whatever novel she found riveting for the week. She swallowed and glanced out the window of the tour bus, taking in all the rainbow flags and gay couples holding hands on the sidewalk. For a minute, I thought she’d say something about fearing for our safety since Greenwich Village was known for its bars and wild parties. But, at noon on a Tuesday, there was nothing to fear but the lesbian coffee house around the corner.
“Fine,” she sighed before turning to look at me again, “but we have to be quick. Our next tour starts at two.”
Karen, my mom’s best friend, and my personal biggest fan clapped her hands together before reaching into her purse and grabbing her iPhone. Before we knew it, she was listing off various historic buildings that were located in the heart of Greenwich. The bus continued to move down the street, but I wasn’t paying attention to anything our driver had to say. Instead, I was listening to Karen’s excited words and noting all of the places I’d heard of before.
The bus had made it less than four blocks down the road by the time the tour had finished. The three of us climbed off with the rest of the tourists, but while the other passengers pulled out their heavily illustrated maps, I made a beeline for the street we just came from.
When I heard the voice of my mother telling me to slow down, I rolled my eyes. Despite my annoyance, I managed to force my feet to reduce their speed down to a casual stroll. Still, I didn’t bother checking to see how far behind the rest of the party was. My time was limited and I knew it.
By the time my tattered Vans had made their way onto Christopher Street, my forehead was covered in sweat and my heart was racing. To my left was Christopher Park, and the simple statues that had caused people so much discomfort. I walked toward them, wanting to get a better look at the figures that had caused so much controversy.
I noticed immediately that they did not look as happy as I thought they did. The two men were looking at each other in sorrow, one with his hand on the other’s shoulder as if to comfort him. I became flustered and somewhat afraid, leading my eyebrows to pull together in confusion. Wouldn’t the artist want the couple to appear content? What caused these men to become so distressed?
The tour guide’s words tumbled through my mind. I thought about the 1980s when the monument was originally built, and wondered what life would have been like then. It didn’t come together for me until I saw pieces of a quilt hanging inside the window of a nearby building. Images of giant quilts covering the National Mall in Washington D.C. flashed in my mind as I glanced back to the statues. I wondered if either of the men had been dying.
The NAMES Project was started in the mid-1980s in remembrance of those who died of the AIDS epidemic that started in 1981. Each panel is three feet by six feet – the approximate size of an average grave – and is dedicated to someone who lost their lives to AIDS-related illnesses. As of 2016, the entire quilt weighs 54 tons, making it the largest piece of community art in the world. By 1984, over six thousand people had died from the epidemic and there was little help from the government to find a cure.
Before the outbreak, the gay community had been flourishing. Many people who had once harbored prejudice against LGBTQ+ people were beginning to open up to the idea of acceptance. But, when the disease became well known throughout the public, many people believed that it mainly affected gay men. Even worse, there were rumors that the disease could be spread through touch or could even be transmitted through the air. This isolated the gay community, pushing the movement back by decades.
By the time my mom and her friend caught up, I was feeling depressed and agitated. I glanced down nearby streets, taking in Stonewall Avenue and all of the pride flags that lined Grove Street. When Karen questioned my unenthusiastic expression, I blamed the heat and blisters that had yet to form. They glanced at the statues with neutral expressions, and it filled me with anger when I realized that they’d never understand the magnitude of the melancholy gesture.
After a short, agitated conversation, we made our way toward the Stonewall Inn. It was obvious that they both knew Stonewall had nothing to do with literary history, but it seemed that they knew better than to argue with me while I was in this state. With my arms crossed, I marched over the brick platform and down a somewhat dirty street before ending up in front of the place that started the modern gay liberation movement.
The place was small and unimpressive; it didn’t seem like the home of a revolution. The front was covered in brick and the large window in the middle was filled with the glow of red neon letters that spelled out “The Stonewall Inn”. The simplicity was overwhelming. There was no glass under my feet and no angry shouting in my ear, but the flame of a recently tamed riot still hung in the air.
If I tumbled back in time to the night of June 28th, 1969, a brick would have just shattered the window I was standing in front of. To my left, the police would have been brutally attacking a lesbian woman that they just forcibly removed from the bar, and two transgender women would have been rushing to her aid. Gay clubs had yet to become legal, meaning that it wasn’t uncommon for the police to raid any nightclubs that were known to be popular in the gay and trans community. Normally, raids ended with the police allowing everyone to go home safely, but that night was different.
When a few officers starting harassing and attacking people they had just forced to leave the bar, angry residents in Greenwich Village decided to fight back. This led to riots that lasted nearly a week. By the time the riots were over, violence toward the gay community had gained national attention. People all over the United States began to sympathize with the Stonewall rioters, and the following decade saw a new wave of acceptance.
“Well, are we going to see Mark Twain’s old residence or not?”
Her voice was bored, and her tone was harsh, snapping me out of the spell that Stonewall Inn had cast on me. I turned to her and nodded, forcing my feet to move away from a piece of history that she didn’t think belonged to me. As we walked, I glanced back at the bar, taking the flyers taped on the window and the flickering neon sign.
“Ya know, Christopher Street is where the first gay pride parade was held.” Despite my attempt at fake confidence, my voice came out quiet and nervous. Karen responded with an enthusiastic, “how interesting!”, but my mother remained quiet. Instead, she watched me with curious eyes before turning to face the flags waving at us from every direction. My heart fluttered when I saw her smile.
Two years later, The Stonewall Inn would become a historic monument dedicated to the gay liberation movement. That same year, I’d come out to my mom via a letter I left on her desk before I went to school. When the public found out that Stonewall was becoming a monument, the response was small but cheerful, giving it just enough recognition to be considered a celebration. My mom responded in a similar fashion, hitting me with a casual “I knew it all along,” and a hug.
The simplicity was overwhelming.
Taylor Paris is a student at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. As a queer person, she hopes that telling her story will help those who are struggling with their identity or trying to find acceptance. Taylor is studying Technical/Professional Writing and has a minor in English. Taylor works as an intern for Amphorae Publishing Company, focusing on finishing school, and trying to find time to write. In the future, she hopes to open her own publishing house.