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Cocktails with Tree Sequoia, the Last Surviving Bartender of the Stonewall Riots

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This week, Stoli kicked off their fourth annual Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic in New York. The nationwide competition scouts the best LGBTQ bartenders from 18 cities in North America to compete in Key West. Queer New Yorkers came out en masse to Boxers in Chelsea where they sampled some original concoctions and voted on their favorite. Kayla Hasbrook of ABC Cocina won with her creation, Cat’s Meow, and will represent New York at the finals in Key West.

The event was a celebration of queer bars as safe spaces and the sense of community they provide. Members of the queer nightlife community were present to share in the festivities. One such member was Tree Sequoia, a bartender at Stonewall Inn. Having worked there on and off for 48 years, he’s one of the few surviving participants in the riots that shaped our community’s history.

Related | First Look at the 4th Annual Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic

“We were having fun, and the cops were deathly afraid,” he said. “We were outside with about 30 people, and before you know it, it was hundreds of people. We broke the windows with rocks in the park. They pulled the parking meter out of the ground and batted the doors down to get to the police. After we broke the windows and the walls, we had nothing to throw. We threw lit garbage cans through the windows, not like that stupid movie Stonewall that had nothing to do with it where they’re squirting lighter fluid. Who carries lighter fluid?”

He’s told the story more times than he can count. But it’s something he never gets tired of, lecturing at high schools and colleges.

The time was different—one that young queer kids today couldn’t even begin to imagine, he said. Whereas now, gay bars and nightclubs are illuminated with neon signs and promoted with social media invites, finding these establishments were half the struggle during his time.

“We had more fun in the old days,” he said. “We had to sneak around, knock on doors, wiggle our way in bars.”

The other half of that struggle has been immortalized countless times in literature and media. What’s now a common weekend activity was once a risk of incarceration or worse.

Related | Stonewall Inn Declared NYC Landmark

“I went to jail 12 or 13 times just for being in gay bars,” he said. “We didn’t get finger printed or anything. We spent the night. We went before a judge. They would say, ‘You’re wasting my time. Go home,’ or ‘You’re a bunch of perverts,’ and he’d set a $20 fine. And the boys would send Enid Girling down to pay the fine. We couldn’t figure out how an $800 fine became $100 until she died and we read her life story. She was having sex with everybody in the courthouse to get her clients off.”

A year after he participated in the riots, he was there for the first march. The event has evolved into one of the largest annual celebrations of queer people, last year’s New York Pride Parade lasting for nine hours. And in two years, it will be half a century since he stood outside that bar on Christopher Street, joining the revolution.

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