Lesbian LGBTQ rights activist, co-owner of the Stonewall Inn, and co-founder of the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative
February 7, 2018, 10pm (Cubbyhole, New York, NY)
Gwen Shockey: I’ll just ask you to begin by introducing yourself in whatever way you wish.
Stacy Lentz: My name is Stacy Lentz and I’m a co-owner of the Stonewall Inn. I also run the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, which is a non-profit we formed last year. We had done over 100 different non-profit events since we all chipped in and purchased Stonewall circa 2007. We felt like it was time to formalize our own process, to give our name to grassroots organizations in the Midwest, the deep South and places where individuals face daily discrimination unlike the coastal cities of New York, San Fran and LA. So, we formalized that process and set up a 5013C. That way grass roots organizations that really need help can use our social media and the Stonewall Inn name for good.
GS: Can you talk a little bit about how your involvement with the Stonewall Inn started?
SL: I came to New York circa 1994 with no job, everything I owned in the back of a car and no place to live. I had been an assistant camp director at an all-girls private Jewish camp in the Berkshires even though I wasn’t Jewish. They wanted me to stay on as a director but not only was I not Jewish, I was gay and I was just beginning to discover that about myself and figured that in 1994 this was not the place to be. So, I literally moved to New York, subleased an apartment from one of my camp friends and walked into a recruiting firm where they said oh my god – you’ve done sales, you’ve hired people globally, you seem passionate about helping people – you’re perfect. So, I had a 20-year career placing people in accounting and finance on Wall Street but I’ve always had this passion and interest in LGBTQ rights after having grown up in a conservative Christian town in the middle of nowhere. I literally graduated with 16 kids in my high school class in a corn field where being LGBTQ was just a horrible way of life and it was really hard for me to accept myself. I was visiting home around 1994 when the Teena Brandon incident happened in Falls City, Nebraska. The famous movie Boys Don’t Cry came out of that. I knew a couple of the people who were involved and ran around with her. My grandmother lived in Falls City, my mom went to high school with the crazy sheriff who was responsible for that – so that really spurred me to be like “ok, I need to get the hell out of here or I’m not going to live!”
GS: How old were you when that happened?
SL: 24. I was starting to figure out my sexuality and having just left camp and being in that area I was like ok, I need to be in a safe, big city and I’ve always wanted to live in New York. That was one of the things that prompted me to want to do LGBTQ rights work and be an activist because I saw what can happen to people in those little towns first hand. Long story short I started hanging out at the Duplex around 1999 and I met Tony DeCicco who was the owner of the Duplex and then Bill Morgan and Kurt Kelly who was the manager there and I just became a regular. I was friends with them over the years, had a great relationship with them and then Katrina happened down in New Orleans in 2005. I had a house, a bar and a deli that I had invested in with my brothers down there. My brother literally lost everything that he owned and I lost a house that I owned. It was also a crazy time because my uncle was in a car accident that same weekend which is probably what saved my brother because my mom was like “Get him home for the funeral.” He was going to stay in Gulf Port in the bar which was leveled by the storm so that was crazy. About three months after that I turned to the boys at the Duplex and said “I know a lot of people affected by Katrina and I want to do a fundraiser at the Duplex.” They said ok. I got my company to match and I was able to reach out to the Yankees and get them involved, I was able to do all these things and they were like “Oh my god! You packed a room and can really help drive people in especially the Lesbian clientele. At that time the Stonewall was going to close. They had heard about it being available form one of their liquor reps and they really wanted to buy it and clean up the block. Back then the Stonewall was a place where a woman would have never walked into – I did.
GS: This was 2006?
SL: Yeah! It was all older men! It had a reputation for drugs, it had been run into the ground – this was common knowledge. The guy who ran it was a straight guy and he didn’t really care about the community and the only people who were in there were guys. He threw a party called detention for guys between the ages of 19 and 21 and had a lot of fines on his liquor license. So, we had a group of investors and the three of them Kurt, Bill and Tony were the managing partners running the bar because they have 30 years of bar business. We went before the community board, pitched it and got it! The entire second floor of the bar was almost collapsed when we bought it so we couldn’t even open the upstairs for the first year. We were like “Oh my god we could lose this!” I think my partners would agree that the lesbians saved it! There weren’t a lot of places for lesbians to go in 2007 aside from Henrietta’s and Cattyshack and Cubby Hole. Hot Rabbit was not yet in existence. So, there weren’t a ton of places for women but as we all know there were a ton of gay male bars. We really got the lesbians involved and my job was reaching out. I bought a few more shares from my partners and I said if you want my money then we’re going to do lesbian outreach.
GS: Did you experience push-back from your partners?
SL: No! They were totally down. They’ve been super supportive of everything I’ve wanted to do. They’ve been amazing as allies, as business partners – they’re incredibly supportive and Kurt really runs the inside and is the operating owner who has to deal with all the headaches. We started doing a girl night on Thursday that I had packed for a long time and then we started doing Lesbo-a-GO-GO on Friday nights but really it was the lesbians who were there all the time, consistently. It was the lesbians who got us through those lean times because the gay boys weren’t going in there! They thought it was an old man bar, they were in Chelsea – not even in Hell’s Kitchen yet or the West Village anymore and Stonewall had a bad rep. So, we worked really hard to change things up and to clean it up and get involved in the community and then we started working with all of the non-profits. In 2009 we did one of our big fundraisers for the 40th Anniversary of Stonewall. We worked with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, got celebrities and it was all lesbian and we packed the place up and down and got some press – Bridget McManus and all these people – and the three boys, my business partners, were incredibly supportive and down for whatever we wanted to do in terms of charity and non-profit. Then around 2009 was the first attempt for gay marriage in New York. I got kind of involved with that and leading up to 2011 when it passed I worked with different groups to raise money to send people to Albany to fight. At that point we kind of knew that Stonewall still wasn’t quite back on the map but we wanted to make it a place for activism and all that kind of stuff because that’s what Stonewall originally was. I’ll never forget the night marriage equality passed and I looked out the window to see 5,000 people celebrating in the streets in front of Stonewall – it was an insane moment to see all of those people and to know it passed by such a narrow margin. The cover of the New York Post the next day said “History at Stonewall Again.” CNN was there live and I think that was a huge turning point for us. Then comes 2012 when President Obama was re-elected and he mentioned Stonewall in his inaugural speech: “From Selma, to Seneca, to Stonewall...” and that was another big point where we had press, press, press. I was in pajamas watching it and my partners called and said “He said Stonewall! Get dressed! You’re going on now!” It was all a little bit of luck and good timing and being involved in the political realm. The last 11 years we’ve really been able to be at the forefront of history and the entire Stonewall team has tried to make sure we’re a part of that activism on every level that we can. It’s almost like a community center not just a bar – I think everyone realizes now the importance of what it means. We know it’s not just a bar.
GS: A big part of what interests me is thinking about the relationship between nightlife and bars and political activism. I’ve done so much reading about the ‘60s, ’70s and ‘80s but it seems like it’s still happening on a similar level.
SL: It’s definitely happening on a similar level. In 2013 when DOMA was going down we got together with different non-profits and we did this huge rally that was from Stonewall to Washington Square Park calling on the Supreme Court with our signs. We were part of the coalition that took the lead on that. The same thing happened when it was defeated – here comes CNN, here comes everybody live and I think every time we’ve gotten media and press we’re helping to teach a younger generation about the legacy of Stonewall but we’re also teaching them that this fight is not done. Nothing has been more relevant than the Trump administration to keep us fighting. Everything could have died down after working with the Obama administration to make it a national monument. It’s been an incredible journey and our main goal is to keep the legacy alive of what those people did in 1969 and to make a younger generation understand that this fight is not done. This fight will continue. We want people to come in, have a drink, have a blast, dance, deejays, drag queens – whatever it is we want people to come to celebrate our victories, get involved with activism – have your night life space and have a blast doing it but come out and drink and party for a cause. When you walk in you can see the “Raided Premises” sign, we’ve got pictures of Sylvia Rivera, pictures of Marsha P. Johnson, pictures from the original pride parades and everything like that. We really wanted to say this is a space where the community should gather to celebrate everything. But we didn’t want to make it a museum because then the 22-year-olds wouldn’t come – you have to keep it fun (laughing).
GS: So now with all the dating apps and online meetups do you find that younger people are coming to Stonewall?
SL: I think they are! We get a lot of tourists from around the globe. We used to have a wall of money from every country. I think younger Europeans know more about Stonewall than many Americans. We also get a lot of people who come in because it’s just a fun place to dance and they don’t know where the hell they are. We try to keep telling the stories of people who have been there for years. Tree who is one of our bartenders has been there for 30 years was across the street during the riot and travels around the globe talking at pride celebrations about his experience. You can go talk to him on any given Thursday and the stories he can tell about the politics at that time are just incredible. I think because we are so iconic and a historical institution we aren’t necessarily threatened by app culture. Someone pointed out to me, which is a testament to my staff and business partners, that an institution is only as good as the people that work there. I’m very blessed to get to do the media and the press and marketing and non-profit activism side of things. Our entire staff is incredible and it’s because of them that we are able to stay an institution.
GS: It seems like your own coming out process was super intertwined with bar life and night life here. Did you come out when you moved to the city?
SL: I came out when I moved to New York and the first gay bar I went to was Henrietta Hudson and I was probably 25 years old. And I walked in like “Oh my god! What is this!” and I met Lisa Cannistraci, the owner, and we’re friends to this day. I spent a lot of time there and met some of my best friends there. During that time period from 25-30 when I was always at Henrietta’s, every single one of my lesbian friends went on to do amazing things. I met Sara Kate Ellis there who is now the CEO and director of GLAD. I met my other best friend who I lived with for 7 years who is an Emmy winning director of the Ellen Degeneras show and another who wrote for the L Word... it’s been crazy! Tammy Michael’s who married Mellissa Ethridge. These were my drinking buddies. The late ‘90s spurred so many relationships and friendships that I’ve tried to keep alive and use for good now and its crazy that we all met at a gay bar.
GS: Part of my desire to do this project and to record these stories stems from this fear that all of our 7-day-a-week places will close. Do you think there is a chance that could happen or do you think this is just a phase?
SL: I think it’s kind of a phase. I do worry about it. And if it does happen I would feel sad for the younger generations because that sense of community has made all of my connections and we all lifted each other up. We helped each other in our careers – it was kind of a good old dyke network. We’re all going to help each other and I think you need that sense of community. I think a lot of people can find that online now but connections in person could never replace that. Messages and posts on walls are not the same as interactions over a beer. I feel sad for this upcoming generation that if they don’t help keep these 24/7 bars alive they’re going to lose out on an entire way of life. Be careful what you wish for because as we become more accepting we are starting to see younger generations say being gay is just part of who I am, I’m not going to get kicked out of my house but we were literally kicked out of our homes and many of us weren’t out at work despite having amazing jobs and if our bosses found out we’d be fired and this was even in the ‘90s.
GS: Was your coming out process hard for you?
SL: It was very difficult. I was very Christian conservative and I grew up in such a small town – I didn’t know a single other gay person. I didn’t know what a gay person really was until I came to New York. My mom and I were very close but she’s so Christian that her first reaction was “You’re going to hell I wish you were never born.” We didn’t talk for a month and she was like “Love the sinner hate the sin!” It’s really cool because last year I was doing something live on CNN and she was like “You know, I’m really proud of you and what you’ve done for the community but next time just make your lipstick better and your hair better!” But that’s a mom right? (laughing). I’m excited because those are the conversations we have now, 20 years later. I have a lot of younger kids who I call my little mentees who I talk with about coming out and I always say it takes you a long time to figure out you’re gay so when you tell your parents give them a minute – it may take six months, it may take a year but you have to understand that it took you a huge part of your life to come to terms with who you are, to be out so you can’t expect your mom and dad to be like “Ok! That’s amazing!” I’ve heard stories now where they do certainly, but not during that time period. But for those struggling with their parents I’d say just give them the same amount of time that it took you to get adjusted to it.
GS: That’s really good advice. Last question and this might seem kind of random but... there are so many other types of gathering spaces like community centers, bookstores, etc. what role do you think alcohol plays in community forming?
SL: Well here’s the reality. There are definitely studies out there that show that the LGBTQ community experiences higher rates of alcoholism, more drug problems and smokes more because of the stigmas we face. Maybe not so much now and I see that changing. When you look back at the places where we had the activism though it was the bars. Bars are our churches and to me Stonewall is the mega church. Bars have functioned as a place where we gather, where we felt safe – they were the one places where we felt welcome to come inside. So, I don’t know if it’s about alcohol per se. I think it’s that bars and nightlife were the only safe spaces we had. Stonewall in 1969 was the only place the community could go and feel comfortable thinking they were protected by the mafia but obviously they weren’t. I think that bar culture just like drag culture and so many other things is just built into our DNA as a LGBTQ community because of the importance it’s played in our history.