I grew up in Tennessee. I’m from a small town there, but I spent a lot of my formative years in Nashville after college. I was there when I found the courage to come out at 30.
I’d been exposed to New York City on my travels, but I’d never lived here before. I knew about Stonewall—I was a history major in college. I knew what it was, but I didn’t have a personal connection to it as I wasn’t out.
When I did come out, everything changed. Being a history nerd I really dug in. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to own that knowledge. I thought, ‘This is who I am. I need to be informed.’
Plus, I had in my life some men who were older than me—I have friends across a wide age-range—some of whom were avid history buffs as well. So I was fortunate to have a really good education on Stonewall, the community and our collective queer history. So I had a good opportunity to learn about it before I even got here.
I came out in 1999 and moved to New York City three years later. I really wanted to be in a major city. My first boyfriend lived in Chicago, so I was spending a lot of time there, but New York was really pulling on me. I knew there’s no place like New York, and I wanted to be here professionally and personally.
‘Moving to NYC is the best thing that ever happened to me’
So I made the decision to move here in 2002, a little bit on a wing and a prayer. And it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I started working for NYC & Company in 2005; it took me three years to get in.
I’ve been in tourism and hospitality my entire life. My family runs a small hotel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee; I grew up in the business. My mom still runs it. I worked for the city of Nashville, for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. It was my dream to work for NYC & Company. It’s so strange to have been able to move here and get a job there, and after nine years with the company, to be asked to step up and take the leadership role! I feel like the luckiest kid in town. I became the CEO in 2014.
In New York City, people don’t really care who or what you are. It’s about the substance of your character and the thickness of your spine. Anything’s possible in this city. That’s what drew me here. I knew there was a creative, cultural community here I wanted to be part of.
I remember visiting the Stonewall Inn for the very first time. It wasn’t long after I moved here—I was starry eyed the first few months—and I went down to the West Village. I remember the feeling, the profoundness of the place and what it represented.
‘The Stonewall Inn is a cross-section of the community’
To this day, it’s still a cross-section of the community. Oftentimes bars get segmented by type. When you go to bars in smaller cities, at least in America, it’s like the big club when I came out in Nashville: it was one-for-all. Literally, there was an area for lesbians, there was an area for guys who liked to do country and western dancing, there was the dance floor, the drag show. There was a place for everyone. You rarely see that in big cities but Stonewall is still one of those places.
I was last there in November. We did an evening out in the West Village, drinks at Stonewall and then to Marie’s Crisis Cafe, another historic piano bar just down the street. It’s quintessentially New York: a piano bar in an open room with nothing but a piano and a bar in the back. You see Broadway stars in there.
I wish I’d been at Stonewall when Madonna performed there on New Year’s Eve 2018! I’m happy people are taking notice of this anniversary, particularly her. She’s a favourite of mine. We’ve claimed her here in New York City, although she’s from Michigan, and London can claim her as well! She means a lot to the City. And she was one of the first to step up and acknowledge this year for what it is. I hope she’s the first of many others.
I would like to see the events of Stonewall taught at schools and universities. Where I grew up in the rural south, it definitely wasn’t part of the curriculum. But I always read The New York Times and other media out of New York. I made sure I was fed a well-rounded stream of information.
I have been around some of the veterans who were there at Stonewall, although I can’t claim to know any of them personally. They’ll of course be highlighted at The March this year. I can’t imagine the strength and bravery it took to do what they did.
‘The City won WorldPride two years ago’
How is NYC & Company marking the Stonewall Riots? It’s something we’ve been planning a long time. When the City won WorldPride two years ago, we started our plan. So what we’ve done this year has two tiers to it; the 50th anniversary, which we’re elevating across all of our content and platforms, but we’re also looking beyond the last week in June. WorldPride will capture the attention of the world in many ways and for us we want to take the opportunity to feed on this moment to tell the broader story of LGBT history in New York City. There’s so much rich content here for every segment of the community; the women’s stories, the trans stories, the HIV crisis. There’s such depth and breadth.
We’re celebrating what we’re calling ‘The Year of Pride.’ We worked with all the arts and cultural organizations, and also the Stonewall Consortium, many organizations from across the five boroughs who have put together a series or programming at their various institutions throughout the year.
It began last fall with the Warhol retrospective at the Whitney. They took such a personal slant on that exhibition, his personal story. We used that as the kick-off for the Year of Pride celebrations. That will carry across all the major sets of organizations in New York City. We just met with the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday to talk about Camp: Notes on Fashion, their summer costume exhibition, which is going to be remarkable. That’s going to be the big summer blockbuster.
New York Public Library has kicked off Love & Resistance, which is their retrospective from their archive of the photographic history of the fight for equality and the struggle for LGBT rights, which goes back to 1969 and even before. But there are literally dozens of examples of programming happening throughout the year. So whether you like big events and want to be here for the excitement in June, or whether you’d rather come at another time of year, there are going to be events throughout the year that will reinforce the importance of this anniversary.
Fred Dixon is the President & CEO of NYC & Company. Visit www.nycgo.com for more information.
Interview by Jamie Tabberer
Stonewall 50 Voices
Over the next 50 days, Gay Star News will be marking this 50th anniversary year of the Stonewall Riots. Our Stonewall 50 Voices series will bring you 50 guest writers from all around the world, with a focus on the diversity of our global LGBTI community. They will be discussing the past, present and future of our struggle for love and liberation.