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Stonewall bartender headlines Legacy Project event at Sidetrack
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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The Legacy Project kicked off Pride month with a talk featuring Stonewall Inn bartender Tree Sequoia and LGBTQ historian and Legacy Project co-founder Owen Keehnen on June 5 at Sidetrack. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

On June 28, 1969, Tree ( he prefers that people use his first name only ) was scheduled to be interviewed for a bartending job at the Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher Street in New York City; while he was there for the interview, the Stonewall Riots began. What many may not know is that it took decades for Tree to start that job because the Stonewall Inn was shut down after the riot and did not reopen until the mid-'90s. ( While the Stonewall Inn was not in operation, Tree worked at the nearby 9th Circle and the Julius bars. )

Sidetrack General Manager Brad Balof told the packed house, "Fifty years ago, it would have been illegal for this many homosexuals to gather in the same place," adding that this year's Pride motto for the bar is "Sidetrack Celebrates."

Legacy Project Co-Founder/Executive Director Victor Salvo spoke about the need to bring LGBTQ history to the forefront because it has been redacted from textbooks and school curriculums. Salvo explained that, along with the Legacy Walk, Legacy Wall and website, he recently attended the first meeting to discuss the new LGBTQ-inclusive middle and high school curriculum that will begin across Illinois in 2020. He also teased the Legacy Project's upcoming music-focused event on Saturday, June 29, at Sidetrack.

Keehnen asked Tree ( who grew up in Brooklyn ) about his first introduction to Greenwich Village. Tree said when he arrived in Greenwich Village, the first place he went was Mama's Chicken and Ribs—where he encountered a gathering of gay men for the first time in his life. He explained that going to this restaurant and then the Stonewall Inn ( which the mafia owned ) to dance was the way he spent many weekends.

The conversation turned to the rules gay people had to follow when they were out at the bars so they could order drinks since they were not supposed to be served alcohol in public. Tree said the police would monitor the bars in Greenwich Village and raid them when the bar owners had not paid them off in a while. He explained that this is how he ended up being arrested more than a dozen times—but it would only be for a night because the mafia would pay everyone's $20 fine so they could return to the bar the next night.

Tree said he met Sylvia Rivera, who was then known as a drag queen, and Marsha P. Johnson, whom everyone identified as a street kid, before the Stonewall Riots. Johnson was let into the Stonewall Inn when the weather was bad, even though she had no money, Tree said, adding that the riots raged all night, with Johnson showing up until around 2 a.m.

Keehnen asked Tree about the first night of the riots, including the scene inside the Stonewall Inn.

Tree said it was painted black—including the windows and doors—so no one could see inside the bar, among other details. He said while he was dancing with some other patrons they heard screams, and that was when he knew something was wrong. He explained that this raid was different because it was the vice squad, not the regular police officers, and they pushed Storme DeLarverie—a butch lesbian who died in 2014—against the wall. DeLarverie, according to Tree, started beating the vice officers up, which was how the riots started.

Continuing, Tree said a neighborhood police officer got him and four other people away from Stonewall so they would not be arrested. When Tree got safely outside, he and others helped break the lock on one of the paddy wagons so the bar patrons inside could escape. Tree said all the stores and residences on the block let paddy wagon escapees hide in their hallways so the vice officers could not re-arrest them.

Tree explained that no one knows who threw the rock or brick into the Stonewall Inn window. He said some people took a parking meter out of the ground and used it as a battering ram against the vice officers and they lit garbage cans on fire to throw them into the bar to burn it down with the police inside.

Keehnen wondered what the biggest misconceptions about the riot were and Tree said the things stand out that were not true—such as Johnson throwing the rock, that a high heel broke the window and that Judy Garland's death had something to do with it.

In terms of when Tree knew the riots were a big deal, he explained that it was not until much later, when he was asked to give a speech at the United Nations on the 25th anniversary of the event.

Tree said he is proud to have been at the Stonewall Inn when the riot started and to be working there since it reopened. He added that middle and high school students now come to the bar on field trips to learn about the riots and other LGBTQ history, concluding that this means so much to him because he gets to share his experiences with them.

A Q&A session followed.

Note: Carrie Maxwell is also a volunteer with the Legacy Project.

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