To celebrate Stonewall 50 and WorldPride in NYC, we gathered a group of remarkable people with their own Stonewall stories to tell. Read them all in our blog, and say hello when you see them at Stonewall.
“How did I get involved with Stonewall? Well…I bought the place.”
Even coming off a week of travel and press interviews and “running on zero sleep,” Kurt Kelly is quick with his jokes. The co-owner of The Stonewall Inn has to be, as he’s one of the most recognizable people in the bar. He and his partners, including co-owner and fellow The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative founder Stacy Lentz, have made The Stonewall Inn into the destination it is today.
When Kurt first moved to New York City, the LGBTQ+ bar scene had just started to gain widespread popularity. “I came of age in the Studio 54 era,” he says. “Everyone went to the gay bars for the music and the dancing– your gay friends went, your straight friends went, people who were just figuring themselves out, everyone.”
While working at another gay bar in the neighborhood, he learned the story of the Stonewall Riots and its place in the Pride movement. Kurt grew up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, so those stories were the first time he learned about the movement’s roots. He was fascinated, but it still wasn’t a place people usually went. “It wasn’t treated with respect, the way it should have been. It was run down.” he recalls.
That remained true until the early 2000s, when Kurt and his coworkers at the bar caught wind that The Stonewall Inn was going out of business. “We called up the building management, and they said if it happened, they’d be in touch. A few months later, we got that call.”
Kurt and his partners recruited some investors and set out to save The Stonewall Inn. “We wanted to preserve the history, but we didn’t want to make it a museum. It was disgusting when we first came in…so we re-did the place to capture what it would have looked like if this gay bar had been legal in the 1960s.” Above all, they wanted to make it a place that anyone could come and feel safe: “We wanted this to be like a gay church, and to be a place for everyone. For gays, lesbians, leather daddies, bears, transgender people, drag, straights, everyone. And now, they’re all here– it’s like a circus!”
That circus will reach a new level with the coming of Pride this June, drawing millions of celebrants to New York City and The Stonewall Inn itself. Among the incredible amount of work to be done to get the bar and its staff ready and Kurt’s own long list of appearances and celebrations for Pride, he’s still focused on one of the most important parts of the Stonewall mission: spreading the history of the movement.
“You have to remember your gay history. Because without your history, you don’t have a future.”