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.
“Hi, my name is Tree. I’ve been a bartender here at the Stonewall- on and off- for almost fifty years.”
Yes, fifty years. Tree just turned eighty, but still holds down his shifts behind the pine at The Stonewall Inn three nights a week with the same sharp, subversive wit and care that have made him a landmark in his own right over the past five decades. He’s been a part of the LGBTQ+ scene since it was illegal, and was at the famous Stonewall Inn Riots.
“I went to jail ten or twelve times just for being gay,” Tree recounts. “No fingerprints, none of that, they’d just throw you in the big bullpen for a while and then drag you in front of the judge to hear either ‘you’re wasting my time, go home,’ or ‘you’re a pervert, we’re fining you $20.’” Luckily, “the boys” had an answer for that fine: “They’d send their lawyer out- Enid “The Hat” Gerling- and she’d pay the fine, and you’d go back to the bar.”
The night of the Riots, things weren’t so simple. “We heard screaming and shouting, and the cops came in pushing and shoving,” Tree says. He and his friends snuck out one of the side doors and circled to the front of the bar, where a crowd quickly gathered, tired of years of abuse during similar raids. “First it was ten of us, then fifty, a hundred. Next thing you know, we’d broken the locks off the paddy wagons, broken the windows…two people pulled a parking meter out of the ground, concrete and all, and starting using it as a battering ram.”
He recalls one particular detail that movies have gotten wrong since: “One of those scenes showed people squirting lighter fluid. I don’t know anyone who carries lighter fluid, but we were throwing lit garbage cans through some of the broken windows.” With the police barricaded inside, the local precinct was still slow to act. As Tree puts it, “they were getting a lot of money to not know there was a bar there.” Backup units eventually came to their aid and scattered the crowd, but the riots and protests shook the street for another week. These riots marked the beginning of the modern Pride movement.
Since the riots, the LGBTQ+ community has won numerous victories for equality. There is still an incredible amount of work to be done, but Tree reminds us of the successes already won: “Years ago, cops beat us up, my own friends would have beat me up if they knew I was gay…now we have protection under various laws, we have gay marriage…and most of the bars near us are a mix of gay and straight bars. Everyone goes everywhere.” He’s also very proud of Stonewall’s National Monument status and draw for visitors. “We get groups, families, they want to come in and see the history. It’s fun– for gay people now, we have a Mecca, and it’s the Stonewall.”
You’ll be able to find Tree during Pride weekend in the parade, at ceremonies, and holding down his multi-faceted position behind the bar. He counts himself as, “a rabbi, priest, Father Confessor, lawyer, best friend, mother, father, and the owners call me ‘Granny.’” We highly recommend visiting and finding out which role he’s filling that day, but he’d like you to hurry. With a laugh, he says, “God, I’m old. If I make it to August I’ll be happy.”