Madonna may have just written and released I Rise as a love letter of sorts for the LGBT community, but we have another legend walking among us right now. Stonewall Inn Bartender & Stonewall Rebellion & Veteran Fred E. Tree (lovingly known as “Tree”) is part of the fabric our of our community’s fight for equality. Like many of us do frequently, Tree was spending an evening at a bar with his friends dancing and socializing, but what he did not realize that on the evening of June 28, 1969 a revolution would be born and he would be a part of history. Fast forward to fifty years later, and Tree is still at The Stonewall Inn, this time as a bartender, historian and friend to all that come through the doors of this (National Landmark) establishment. I had the privilege of sitting down with Tree recently to talk about his experiences at Stonewall both then and now, his work with The Imperial Court, and what makes this absolute treasure in our community the most proud. The next time you’re in New York City I encourage you to drop in to The Stonewall Inn and pay homage to people like Tree, grab a cocktail and thank them.
Michael Cook: Tree, let’s start at the beginning; what was The Stonewall Inn like fifty years ago?
Fred Tree: The night of the Stonewall Rebellion, I was actually in their dancing with my friends Frank and Charlie. The Stonewall was a different in those days because you never really knew when a raid would be taking place.
MC: What do you remember most about the first years of The 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 Johny Marion & 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 or us. They knew that we had money long before Macy’s and Diners Club did (laughs)!
MC: 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 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, then 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.
MC: So many trailblazers came out of that event other than yourself; what do you remember about people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who are 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.
MC: Madonna kicked off the year with an appearance at the Stonewall on New Years Eve, and now she has released the single I Rise and specifically mentioned the 50th Anniversary of Pride. What was meeting her on New Years’s Eve like and 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 thirty five years ago, I saw her in her black dress with all of her crosses in a bar called Charlie’s West in East Orange NJ. She looked at me and said “neither one of us is that old (laughs)”. She was extremely warm and very friendly
MC: 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 from eight pm to four am 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 sixteen years now and I absolutely love it! I I have met some fabulous people from all over the United States, Canada and Mexico!
MC: The younger generation has changed so much in the past decade, especially with the innovation of social media. What message do you think is crucial for the younger generation to receive to help ensure that the fight for equality continues?
FT: Well we definitely try 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 Fredd E. Tree Spirit of Stonewall Award. Coincidentally, it’s for younger people under the age of thirty that fight for the cause and do a lot for their community.
MC: What would you tell the Tree that 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.
MC: What inspires you as a member of the LGBT community who has seen it go through almost all of its entire evolution?
FT: People inspire me; I have gotten the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Amazing people that 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.
MC: The anniversary of The Stonewall riots is coming up, and it’s been fifty years since that titular event. A a member of our community, what gives you the most Pride?
FT: Well I have pride that I am a part of the movements history. Pride of the 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 Landmark. I am proud that the park flies the LGBT flag so all can see. Most of all, I have pride in myself for lasting so long.