Skip to main content

Home Culture Culture Sexuality

80-year-old Stonewall Inn barman Tree Sequoia recalls the night of the Stonewall riots

"I was a goody-two-shoes all my life, and here I was being a bad boy — and loving every minute of it."

By Will Stroude

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, widely hailed as the start of the LGBTQ rights movement, the Activism Award was collected at the Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards 2019, powered by Jaguar by Stonewall Inn bartender Tree Sequoia, on behalf of all those who stood up to police in New York in June 1969.

Tree, aged 80, was born and grew up in New York, and was dancing in the mafia-run Stonewall Inn when it was raided by police. In the Attitude Awards issue – out now to download and to order globally – he recalls the events of the night and the part he played in this monumental chapter of LGBTQ history.

“On the night the Stonewall uprising started — 28 June 1969 — I was working at a bar called the Ninth Circle in the West Village. After work, my friends and I used to walk over to the Stonewall to dance.

Tree in his younger years

“My pal Johnny was a bartender there, and he told us not to drink the liquor because it was watered-down junk, but we’d pay the cover charge to get in and just dance.

“The Stonewall Inn was a burnt-out bar that the mafia had painted black — the walls, floors and ceiling, everything. It was a dump, the toilets always overflowed [but] it was a place for us to relax and be ourselves, with lesbians and fag hags as well.”

Tree, who got a job working at the Stonewall Inn in the years after the uprising and has served patrons of the famous venue for more than 40 yearsm says that the much-discussed identity of the person who threw the first brick is a mystery.

“According to legend, it was a high heel, but a high heel could never break a window,” he says. “Then it was supposed to be Marsha P. Johnson who threw a brick.

“That was the story for years until she admitted she didn’t get there until after the riot was half over.

“So, we never found out who threw the rock but it didn’t matter because we were so busy having fun — shaking police cars, setting fires… I was a goody-two-shoes all my life, and here I was being a bad boy — and loving every minute of it.”

He adds: “At the time, we thought it was just fun, that it wasn’t anything significant. The next year, the first gay Pride parade took place, and we figured that after that, nothing else would happen.

“Who knew that 50 years later we’d be here talking about it? Or that I’d make a speech at the UN for the 25th anniversary of the rebellion, and that I’d be accepting this award on behalf of everyone who was there?”

Despite being 80, Tree works part-time at the Stonewall Inn, and barely a day goes by where he doesn’t share his story with someone – including Madonna when she performed there earlier this year.

“It’s never going to stop and I intend to be working behind the bar until I have a heart attack and die there,” he says morbidly.

“I always say that I was in the right place at the wrong time, or the wrong place at the right time.”

Read Tree’s full interview in the Attitude Awards issue, out now.

Buy now and take advantage of our best-ever subscription offers: three issues for £3 in print, 13 issues for £19.99 to download to any device.