Make Stonewall America's first gay rights monument

Story highlights

  • Brinkley: President Obama should make Stonewall the first gay rights national monument
  • A fitting time would be June 26, the date of the New York gay pride parade

Douglas Brinkley is Professor of History at Rice University, CNN presidential historian and author of the new book, "Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)This generation of Americans has been lashed by a revolting wave of mass shootings. It's hard to come to terms with events like Fort Hood, Sandy Hook or San Bernardino. The recent massacre of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was the worst terrorist attack on the United States since September 11, 2001. Because the gunman Omar Mateen targeted LGBT citizens, the event doubled as an anti-gay hate crime.

It's even been said that President Barack Obama has become the nation's grief counselor. On 15 different occasions he has flown Air Force One to the killing zone du jour, delivered words of faith and frustration, hugged victims' families, and then gone back to other White House work. Someday there will be historical monuments placed at all the tragic sites at which Obama was Mourner-in-Chief -- as if they were battlegrounds.
    But Obama shouldn't just fly the flag at half-staff after Orlando. Ever since he heroically equated The Stonewall Inn, the starting point of the Stonewall Uprising, with Seneca Falls (women's rights) and Selma (African-American rights) during his second inaugural address, Obama has been championing the cause of LGBT human rights.
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    The very fact that the President had the audacity to equate Stonewall to places like Valley Forge and Iwo Jima has earned him the respect of LGBT activists. "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," Obama orated that January 2013. "For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well."
    Now, as the weeping time in Orlando continues, Obama should make his human rights stand on behalf of the grief-stricken LGBT community more Day-Glo. Not only should he march in New York City's upcoming gay pride parade on June 26, but he should also sign an executive order that Sunday establishing Stonewall National Monument.
    The Stonewall Inn first became ground zero for the LGBT freedom movement in June 1969, when a weeklong uprising erupted at the tavern and the street surrounding Christopher Park in Greenwich Village. It was in response to a brutish police raid, and riots ensued. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people had had enough of being treated as less than human. As Obama implied in his second inaugural, Stonewall was where the gay liberation movement was born.
    During the two years following the riots, in fact, gay rights groups were established in every American city. And over time, Stonewall became a national shrine. When news of the Orlando killings broke, hundreds of LGBT mourners and their supporters wandered to the historic inn looking for shared comfort. The New York landmark serves almost as a place of worship.
    This August marks the centennial of the National Park Service. Two-thirds of U.S. national park sites are devoted to cultural and historic events. As Obama probably knows, Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York, tells the tale of the initial Women's Rights Convention held there in July 1848 and the ongoing struggle for gender equality.
    In 2015, Obama visited the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, a national park designation that follows the march overseen by Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight for African-American equality. Yet, out of the more than 400 national parks in America, exactly zero tell the story of LGBT history.
    The moment is ripe for Obama -- whom Newsweek dubbed the "First Gay President" because of his support of same-sex marriage -- to establish Stonewall National Monument. There is no need to wait for Congress. For decades, LGBT activists and other history-minded citizens have seen to it that Stonewall be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (the first LGBT landmark so touted).
    Now, in the wake of Orlando, with the whole world watching, the President should elevate the site to Stonewall National Monument status. It would be something akin to an East Coast counterpart to the Cesar Chavez National Monument in California, which Obama established in 2012 to memorialize the United Farm Workers (UFW) Movement.
    A museum should be established at the Stonewall site that extols such great LGBT American figures as Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Bayard Rustin, Edith Windsor and Harvey Milk. It would become a major tourist draw for Greenwich Village.
    What an ideal way it would be for Obama to cement his legacy as a stalwart ally of the LGBT community. Put on your walking shoes, Mr. President, pick up that pen and make history in the wake of tragedy.