LGBTQ rights are being challenged in the UK and US, but The Stonewall Inn co-owners tell Adam Bloodworth that their pioneering safe spaces initiative is already changing the lives of LGBT employees and customers. Now British companies and employees can sign up.
“We’re being attacked and moving backwards on a global level,” says Stacy Lentz, co-owner of New York’s Stonewall Inn. Sitting upright in a hotel not far from London’s own cluster of LGBTQ bars in Soho, she insists “we’ve got to recommit as an LGBT global community or we’re going to go back into the Dark Ages.”
Fifty four years on from the Stonewall Riots, widely seen as the first LGBTQ uprising against brutal, homophobic police treatment, and the actions that began the push for equality, the bar’s current owners Stacy Lentz and Kurt Kelly have crossed the pond to talk about how the bar is doing more than serving booze these days. They’re engaging in a very contemporary fight against homophobia. And it’s working.
Despite what you might think, LGBTQ rights are being eroded in the western world. A case passed by the Supreme Court in the States this summer allowing a web designer to discriminate against LGBTQ people was marked as a historic blow. In the UK the United Nations called our rise in homophobic hate crimes a “rampant surge.” Just this month two men were stabbed outside a Clapham gay bar in a crime the police are calling a homophobic attack.
At the same time, statistics show that, in general, younger generations value equality more than any other, and statistics also show LGBT employees and customers who face discrimination are more likely to leave their jobs.
It is into this mix the Stonewall’s not-for-profit organisation The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative has launched a pioneering programme, the SIGBI’s Safe Spaces Certification. It provides ten criteria for businesses to follow to protect LGBTQ employees and customers. It has already been rolled out in the States, with Brooklyn Brewery, Jägermeister and the New York City Marathon a few of the early adopters.
“It’s the right thing to do but it’s also good for business,” says Lentz. “We say this all the time. If you’re not on the side of equality, whether they’re gay, straight, doesn’t matter, Gen Z will not support you. In 20 or 30 years you will not exist as a brand if you don’t get on board with equality. Period. That’s it.”
Six LGBTQ community centres, located in the toughest parts of the US to be gay, worked with Stonewall to create the criteria and make it as diverse as possible. Lentz and Kelly, who bought the Stonewall Inn in 2006 after it had fallen into disrepair, acknowledge that they both have “geographic privilege, white privilege, cis privilege” so in order to represent the breadth of the queer experience they needed to have more conversations. “We worked with a Black trans organisation in Alabama, thought about how it affects the immigrant LGBT community with Rainbow Borderlands in Elpasa Texas and we also wanted to work out how religion works with us, so we worked with the Utah Pride Centre.”
Trans and non-binary people are targeted more, but they will come after all of us. They’re just the easier target, we have to remember thatStacy Lentz
Research from those conversations shows that 97 per cent of LGBT people believe they would benefit from having more safe spaces, and 89 per cent believe that most spaces aren’t aware that LGBT people feel unsafe. A further 86 per cent believe safe spaces should be accredited by a trusted LGBT organisation.
Lentz and Kelly were in London to promote the initiative to UK businesses. Although safe spaces have been carved out by individual companies here in London, there is no definitive criteria to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. “We could go global really quickly,” says Kelly. “That’s why we worked with a global consulting firm. It’s scalable as much as we want it to be but we’ve taken it slow ‘cause we want it to be properly in place.”
Foreign language versions of the product have been devised, although it felt “easy to roll out in London first” due to the shared language. In terms of the US rollout, Lentz says “it’s already working,” adding of the Brooklyn Brewery and New York Marathon clients: “That’s a lot of people to put through those trainings, but it happened. Most of the companies said their employees were ecstatic. The employees said ‘this is amazing. I want my friends and family to take this’. It’s helpful, not condescending.”
The ten criteria are: there must be a gender neutral bathroom somewhere on premises; you must “put your money where your mouth is” and donate to an LGBTQ non profit group – “it doesn’t have to be Stonewall but we’d like it to be!” adds Lentz – you must support the community 365 days a year, not just during Pride; have policies and procedures in place to protect and promote minorities; make sure you don’t donate to anti LGBT politicians – “which happens in the US all the time,” adds Lentz. The final code is to have a pronoun policy. “It doesn’t have to be formal, but understanding if a customer says these are my pronouns you respect them as such.”
Another element Brooklyn Brewery have worked on is creating a Stonewall exclusive beer with proceeds going to the charity. “You’re drinking that beer for two reasons, half the proceeds go to the Stonewall initiative, and you get a buzz,” says Kelly.
While in London the co-owners went round some of Soho’s gay bars, including She bar in Soho, and met with Stonewall UK. The two organisations aren’t connected despite sharing the name, although Lentz was upbeat when he said “they’re excited about it, they would love to partner with us.” There are eight companies using the initiative fully in the States with another 85 “in the queue,” says Kelly. The cost can be as low as £1,000 for small companies so that everybody has access to the training platform.
Back in New York, the reopened Stonewall Inn is a defiant sign of unity as one of the world’s first safe spaces. When Lentz and Kelly reopened the bar in 2006 they wanted it to look like gay bars would look like in its ‘60s heyday “if gay bars were legal,” says Kelly. “Downstairs it’s all wooden, with a wooden bar and pool table. Upstairs it’s Moulin Rouge, with the burgundy chandeliers and cabaret.” As you enter one of the original signs hangs on the wall from when the police would denote where riots had happened. People who attended the uprising in 1969 still go to the bar today.
It has been a large part of the life’s work of Lentz and Kelly to keep the bar open for new generations. “We are as tall as the Statue of Liberty and as wide and as big as the Grand Canyon, as the first gay national monument,” says Lentz. In 2016 Obama gave the Stonewall Inn national monument status alongside the other 132 US national monuments.
“The darkest fear is they could take away marriage,” adds Kelly of the sweeping Conservative tides in the US and the UK that the duo are fighting. “That wasn’t the be all and end all for the community, but 80 per cent of the US believe in it. Trans and non-binary people are targeted more, but they will come after all of us. They’re just the easier target, we have to remember that.”
London businesses can go to stonewallinitiative.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com to find out more and sign up to the training programme. The bar takes donations online and is visitable at 53 Christopher Street in Manhattan.