ABOVE: Stonewall Bar Orlando hosting the “Win With Love Rally” on June 18. (Photo by Jeremy Williams)
ORLANDO | The history of The Stonewall Inn in New York City is easy to find these days. A quick Google search of the legendary gay bar turns up more than 31 million search results.
For Steven Watkins, who grew up in a small town, learning the history of LGBTQ people in general—let alone that of The Stonewall Inn—was nonexistent in his early years.
“For someone like myself, growing up where I didn’t even know gay people existed and I thought I was the only one, knowing our history would have been so helpful,” he says. “Because of where I lived and who I was, I was a recluse growing up. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized there were other people like me.”
Watkins is owner of the Stonewall Bar in Orlando, a popular LGBTQ club in Central Florida. It serves as home to Come Out With Pride’s annual block party, opened its doors to Neema Bahrami’s Latin Night after the Pulse tragedy and even hosted the “Win With Love Rally,” the counter-event held during President Donald Trump’s re-election announcement on June 18.
In opening its doors to the community and standing against oppression, it isn’t just the name that Stonewall Bar shares with its NYC namesake.
“Because of what we wanted the bar to represent, Stonewall just seemed like the only name choice,” Watkins says. “The history and power of the name, of those people fighting back, what it represents, that’s why we did it.”
Watkins—who also conveniently shares the same initials as both bars—opened Stonewall Bar on Oct. 23, 2007, fulfilling a dream he’d had ever since he found out that LGBTQ establishments like this existed.
“Since the first time I went to one I have always wanted a gay bar,” Watkins says. “Even with changing times, gay bars are still safe havens for our community. I think it’s great that ‘regular’ bars and clubs are now more accepting and we can feel comfortable in them, but I think it’s necessary to have a gay bar. A place where you can come in, let your hair down and relax.”
One thing that came with naming his bar Stonewall, which Watkins didn’t realize he would have to do, was explaining what the name means.
“When we decided to go with the name Stonewall, I thought that everyone would just know that this Stonewall was named to carry on that legacy,” Watkins says. “But a lot of people I told the name to, not just young people, even older people in the community, didn’t know what Stonewall was.”
Now Stonewall Bar not only is a place for the community but it is also a place to learn about the community’s history. Watkins says that when he opened the bar in 2007 he even had a regular who was at the original Stonewall riot.
“Michael was there during the riot. He doesn’t come in as often anymore since he retired but he knew what it meant to name this place Stonewall and he would tell people. He understood the history because he was there,” Watkins says. “They fought back for all of us, so that we could continue to have these places. Gay bars are these safe havens in the community today because of what happened at Stonewall in 1969.”
As New York celebrates the 50-year mark of The Stonewall Inn riots and World Pride, Watkins will be back here in Orlando, but he hopes that no matter where people celebrate that they keep the history of the event in mind.
“With the way things are today,” Watkins says, “knowing what Stonewall was and knowing what they did helps to reminds us why we still need to keep fighting.”