What President Joe Biden told me

Photo: Biden Campaign Instagram

Last week, it was my honor to speak at the opening of the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center. It was, to say the least, a star-studded event with Katy Perry, Cynthia Erivo, Adam Lambert, Elton John and President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden. There were senators and governors roaming backstage. My remarks were just before Dr. Jill Biden’s. When I was an 18-year-old boy standing outside Stonewall on the night of the riot in 1969, I would have never expected to begin a speech 55 years later with “Mr. President, Dr. Biden.”

After our stage duties were complete, my husband, Jason, and I were ushered to have a few words and take pictures with President Biden. When he heard that I was one of the few remaining Stonewall pioneers, he said and did something that surprised me. He hugged me, then took my hand in his and said, “You could have been killed.”

We moved on to other discussions, but that one line has haunted me. Never did I think in the last 55 years that I could have been killed. I know that might sound strange coming from someone who has made it part of his life’s work to be a disrupter and who has been wrestled to the ground on numerous occasions, but that thought has never entered my mind. And like everything else this past week, I need time to process it all.

Here’s what I told the crowd:

Mr. President, Dr. Biden, and Diana Rodriguez and Ann Marie Gothard for envisioning a place where generations of LGBTQIA people will come to learn our history and take pride in our community.

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to the birthplace of Pride.

For 55 years now, since I was 18 years old, this building has been a part of my life. I left Philadelphia at 18, because we as a community were invisible.

We were so invisible that for me, growing up in a city of 1.6 million people, I thought I was the only gay person. We had to find each other through word of mouth. That word of mouth led me from Philadelphia to Christopher Street. It led me to Stonewall and led me to that infamous night 55 years ago today.

On this street, police might harass you. You could be a victim of a hate crime. But inside Stonewall, an illegal dirty bar that sold watered-down drinks, we were safe to be ourselves. This was the only place we could hold hands and dance.

Then on June 28, 1969, police barged in. They threw people around and dehumanized us in a way I’d never seen. When they allowed us to leave, many of us started to gather, and we taunted the police. 

Drag queens, street kids and young activists threw everything they could find at those doors, so much so that the police had no choice but to take refuge inside.

For years, the police had incarcerated us.

For the first time, that night, we incarcerated them.

The spirit of Stonewall united us and allowed us to build a community where there was none before. We asked our community to be out, loud and proud. 

Over the past 55 years, our community has fought for rights that seemed inconceivable in 1969. I’m proud to have been a part of that movement.

Today, I ask you to follow in our footsteps by becoming a member of the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center. This iconic place will help us award fellowships, commission researchers and record stories that need to be told. It’s a project I’m proud of, just as I’m proud of what happened here 55 years ago and all the work that followed, building community and visibility.

Just as Americans visit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell or the Statue of Liberty to embrace the history of our country, now we can pay homage to the place where we began to fight for our freedom, our rights and our equality.

Thank you for being a part of this historic moment.

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