A Stonewall legend looks back
Madonna may have just written and released “I Rise” as a love letter of sorts to LGBTs, but we have another legend walking among us right now. Stonewall Inn bartender and Stonewall Rebellion veteran Fred E. Tree (lovingly known as “Tree”). Tree is part of the fabric our of our community’s fight for equality.
Fifty years ago, he was spending an evening at The Stonewall with his friends, dancing and socializing. What he did not realize was that on June 28, 1969, a revolution would be born and he would become part of history. Fast forward 50 years, and Tree is still at The Stonewall Inn. He is a bartender, historian, and friend to all who come through the doors of this U.S. National Historic Landmark.
Tree recently discussed his experiences at Stonewall, both then and now, his work with The Imperial Court, and what makes him the most proud. The next time you’re in New York City, I encourage you to drop in to The Stonewall Inn. Take a moment and pay homage to people like Tree, grab a cocktail, and thank them.
Tree, let’s start at the beginning: what was The Stonewall Inn like 50 years ago?
Free E. Tree Sequoia: The night of the Stonewall Rebellion, I was actually in there, dancing with my friends Frank and Charlie. The Stonewall was different in those days, because you never really knew when a raid would be taking place.
What do you remember most about the first years of Stonewall, right up until the riots? Were you working that fateful evening?
FT: I was actually working at a restaurant at the time called Mama’s Chic N Ribs. We ended up going to The Stonewall to dance that night. Our friends, Johnny, Marion, and Mario were the bartenders and we knew that the booze was watered down. Remember, it was against the law to serve a known homosexual alcohol at that time. So, the Mafia ended up opening bars for us. They knew that we had money long before Macy’s and Diners Club did (laughs)!
Stonewall is a landmark event for our community. From the inside looking out, what do you remember most about that time for the community and for New York City?
FT: The Village has changed so many times over the years that I’ve worked there. It’s actually going a little straight now. The millions of people that come here every year make it still an incredibly fabulous place to visit. Remember, in the past, there were only one or two organizations for the community. We were too busy being gay to join any of them (laughs). Now it’s a totally different story.
So many trailblazers came out of that event. What do you remember about people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera? They were so closely tied to the original gay rights movement. People like them and so many others like them were truly ahead of their time.
FT: We actually knew Sylvia back in those days. She was a drag queen, then became a transgender woman. Marsha was a street kid, really. We didn’t know them that much because really we did not understand them. We always got to speak with them briefly and not much more. Back then, we had our own group of friends.
Madonna kicked off the year with an appearance at Stonewall on New Year’s Eve, and now she has released the single “I Rise” and specifically mentioned the 50th Anniversary of Pride. What was meeting her on New Year’s Eve like? Did she say anything profound to you? Who have been some of your favorite celebrities to come rolling through the doors of The Stonewall?
FT: Madonna was absolutely amazing. I actually did not know that she wanted a photo with me and (Stonewall manager/bartender) Mike Salinari. She said to me “stand closer, I don’t bite.” And I responded with “but I do.” Then I reminded her that about 35 years ago, I saw her in her black dress with all of her crosses in a bar called Charlie’s West in East Orange, New Jersey. And she looked at me and said, “Neither one of us is that old.” (Laughs). She was extremely warm and very friendly.
The Imperial Court System is one of the oldest LGBT organizations in our community and an amazing and important part of your own life. Tell me about it.
FT: Originally, I could not join The Imperial Court for years because I worked until 4a.m., five days a week! Now, I work Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from two to nine. So, I have a little more time. My friends, China and Gary, originally took me to a meeting, and I joined. It’s been almost 16 years now and I absolutely love it! I have met some fabulous people from all over the United States, Canada, and Mexico!
The younger generation has changed so much, especially with the innovation of social media. What message do you think is crucial for the younger generation to help ensure that the fight for equality continues?
FT: Well, we need to help the younger generation as much as we can. [But] we actually learned on our own. Some of them are great fighters and some could not care less. In fact, the Imperial Court System recently honored me by naming an award after me with The Fred E. Tree Spirit of Stonewall Award. Coincidentally, it’s for younger people under the age of 30 who fight for the cause and do a lot for their community.
What would you tell the Tree who was a young man bartending at The Stonewall Inn back then?
FT: Well, me as a youngster, you couldn’t tell me anything (laughs). I was a know-it-all back then, and very stubborn; but I have definitely learned.
What inspires you?
FT: People inspire me. I have gotten the opportunity to meet people from all over the world—amazing people who I try to keep in touch with. Some even come back to see me and we go out after work. Politicians don’t inspire me because, over the years, they have used the LGBTQ community for their own advancement.
The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is coming up. As a member of our community, what gives you the most Pride?
FT: Well, I have pride that I am a part of the movement’s history. Pride for the owners, Kurt Kelly, Tony DeCicco, and Bill Morgan, for making the bar a place for all to come and be part of the history. I am proud of President Obama for making it a National Historic Landmark. I am proud that the park flies the LGBT flag so all can see it. And most of all, I have pride in myself for lasting so long.