Lynn Zelvin, 58, is blind and queer, and despite a desire for community, rarely frequents LGBTQ bars or spaces. Zelvin, who uses the pronouns they and them, has lived in New York for nearly 40 years and prefers the local dive bar down the block from their apartment in upper Manhattan. Zelvin uses a guide dog — a short, stocky, 55-pound black lab named Shadow — to get around.
On June 1, Zelvin approached the double-door entrance of the historic Stonewall Inn with friends Isabella Kalish, Elena Gibbs and, of course, Shadow. Zelvin had been to the historic bar on Christopher Street once before and hadn’t encountered any issues.
After providing identification to a bouncer, Zelvin was asked to provide a “card” for their guide dog — a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states no paperwork is needed for the entrance of a service animal — and was consequently refused entrance.
“I just felt numb,” Zelvin said. “I’ve been through this sort of thing so much and I just felt bad for my friends.”
Kalish recorded Zelvin’s experience in a 10-minute video that was later posted on YouTube and Twitter. In the recording, Zelvin requests to speak to the Stonewall Inn’s manager, waiting outside as a line of curious but silent people filed into the bar behind them. “Any person there could have said, ‘We’re not going in if this is what’s happening,’” Zelvin said.
At one point, the video briefly cuts to the bar’s interior, where Zelvin’s friends have asked to speak to a manager. They exit and inform Zelvin, “He doesn’t care that it’s illegal — he doesn’t want a dog in here.”
Stonewall’s refusal to allow Zelvin inside with a guide dog speaks to an increasingly marginalized community of people with disabilities and several factors that contribute to their ostracism.
“People have a right to go into public places, including the Stonewall Inn, with their service animal,” Christina Asbee, director of assistive technology and voting access programs at Disability Rights New York, said in an email. “Under federal, New York state and New York City laws and regulations, a business discriminates against people with a service animal when it asks for service dog paperwork, medical records and other invasive documentation and information.”
The Stonewall Inn has played a prominent role in LGBTQ civil rights in New York City. It was the site of the Stonewall riots of 1969, in which several LGBTQ individuals fought against police suppression, and was later declared a National Historic Landmark in 2000. In 2016, former President Barack Obama named the bar, the neighboring Christopher Park and several surrounding streets a national monument, recognizing its importance in LGBTQ history.
“I was out pretty young and I knew what the old Stonewall represented,” Zelvin said. “It was meaningful and symbolic then.”
Little enforcement means little consequences
Established in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act sought to prohibit discrimination of people with disabilities. The system, however, is largely self-enforced, Zelvin said, which consequently leads to unlawful discrimination when those unfamiliar with the act are in power.
“It’s up to us to do the enforcement, which puts us in an adversarial relationship with any place we choose to do business with,” Zelvin said.
In some cases, fraudulent documentation that misrepresents family pets as service animals makes it difficult for those with authentic service animals to maintain their rights. In fact, several states have made efforts to curb pet owners from such false representation, with penalties that range from $500 fines to jail time.
“There is no government-sponsored or endorsed certification process that recognizes a dog as a service animal,” Asbee said. “Rather, a dog is a service animal if it is trained to perform tasks for the person with a disability, is under control of their handler and is housebroken.”
The system is largely self-enforced, which consequently leads to unlawful discrimination when those unfamiliar with the act are in power.
Visibility is needed for change
The disabled community’s lack of visibility also plays a role in issues regarding service animals, Zelvin said.
“If we were really an integral part of this community, people would know about guide dogs,” they added. “It only happens because they are not aware of our struggle. We’re not their friends, we’re not at their party, but they would know if they were around us.”
The Stonewall Inn responded to the video in a statement to Them, saying the bar employs a third-party security contractor and insisting that “everyone affiliated with Stonewall understands the laws regarding service dogs.”
“The manager on duty who works the floor to handle situations that escalate was never notified,” Stacy Lentz, a co-owner of the Stonewall Inn, told Mic in an email. “While this incident involved our staff and our contracted security, the ultimate responsibility lies with us, the owners. We conveyed our apologies and have also worked with this individual and others to offer an upcoming event on July 18 that will be open not just to our staff, but also to the staff of other LGBTQ establishments in the area to offer education on [the] ADA and sensitivity to and support for those with disabilities.”
Zelvin said they hope queer people with a disability can become more equal participants in the LGBTQ communities — and that establishments can become more accessible to their needs.
How businesses can increase accessibility
Seats and countertops of varying heights, sufficient space for people to walk and community funds devoted to creating accessible spaces are some of the changes Zelvin would like to see in bars and other facilities. They said nights devoted to entertainers with a disability and open discussions with the disabled community would also make a difference.
Zelvin has since received an apology from Stonewall’s owners and has met with them to discuss how to better serve people with a disability. They hope to have an ongoing conversation with the bar.
“People have to start noticing, start caring and speak up,” Zelvin said.