Once a Horse Stable, Now a Gay Rights Monument
Shouts of "Gay Power," "Queer Power," "Gay Is Good," "We Are the Pink Panthers," and the sound of shattering glass echoed down the gayest street in America when New York City police officers raided the gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, on June 28, 1969. The Stonewall riots at a Greenwich Village bar, once a horse stable, were set in motion by a group of flaming drag queens, gay men, young gay kids (some homeless), lesbians, and transgenders. The riots would launch a 20th Century gay rights movement throughout America and the entire world.
Ten plainclothes policemen raided the bar and arrested drag queens, crossdressers, and gay patrons who resisted. Bricks and bottles were thrown and the policemen were forced back into the bar. The NYC Tactical Police Force were summoned and a gay riot of over five days ensued. The most significant news that June evening was not that the bar had been raided but that the gay patrons had fought back. Fairies and pansies weren't supposed to fight back. Police barricades were erected and those who were arrested were taken to jail in a paddy wagon. Both bar patrons and policemen were injured. News of the riots shocked New Yorkers and brought the gay rights movement to national and international attention.
In the New York City of 1969 -- and other cities alike -- policemen did not need a legitimate reason to raid any gay bar. Gay bars could be raided at any time and often were especially if the bars' owners had not make payoffs to the police. New York State laws even required the New York State Liquor Authority to close bars and taverns if they served liquor to gay and lesbian customers. In the Stonewall's case, the reason given was that the bar was selling liquor without a license.
Two Village Voice's reporters witnessed the riots from the Voice's office a few doors down the street. Newspaper stories featured homophobic headlines such as the Daily News' "Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad." A never-gay-friendly New York Times focused their story on the police with the headline "4 Policemen Hurt in Village Raid." Some newspaper attributed the riots to the mourning for gay icon, Judy Garland, whose funeral was held that very same day. The Judy Garland myth is very touching, BUT, it's nothing but a gay myth and one that refuses to die.
In the late 1960s even in the most liberal city in America, most homosexuals were not out of the closet but were quietly and secretly gay. Being gay was triple whammy: a crime, a sin, and a mental illness. A "gay" or "lesbian" person could be arrested simply for having a drink at a bar with a friend. An arrest could result in the lost of a job, an eviction from your apartment, public humiliation, the loss of friends, and even shock therapy. New York State laws, and similar laws in other states, forbid homosexuals from congregating together. George Chauncey, author of Gay New York Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, makes a critical observation that the laws at this time not only criminalized behavior by gay men but also their "association with one another, their cultural styles and their efforts to organize and speak on their own behalf." Laws were not always enforced but the threat of possible enforcement and police harassment were always present.
On April 26, 1966, the law against serving liquor to gay individuals were challenged by three gay men at "a sip-in" at Julius' bar on Christopher Street. These brave men identified themselves as homosexual, ordered drinks, and were refused service even though they were at a gay bar. The organizers of the "sip-in," members of the Mattachine Society including its founder and gay activist Frank Kameny, eventually won a court case which overturned this discriminating law.
Homosexuals were largely invisible in American culture. They were rarely seen in motion pictures, on Broadway stages, or television. In New York State, a ban was passed forbidding the depiction of gay people and any discussion of homosexuality on stage. "Gay theatre was invented," according to playwright Robert Patrick, at Joe Cino's Caffe Cino in the West Village in the late 50s. Gay playwrights wrote plays with gay characters that were produced Off-Off and Off-Off-Off Broadway. Some of them were: Robert Patrick (Blue for Boys, The Haunted Host, Kennedy's Children), William Hoffman (As Is -- the first Broadway play about AIDS), Lanford Wilson (The Madness of Lady Bright, Fifth of July), and a young Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy).
Not until 1968 would a cast of gay characters come to the Off Broadway stage in the then shocking play, Boys in the Band. The play was not expected to be a success and the excitement it created was surprising. Celebrities, such as former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onasis, attended. It would be years later (in 1982), when Harvey Fierstein would win a Tony Award for his play, Torch Song Trilogy about a drag queen's struggle for love and acceptance. Harvey would later write the lyrics for I Am What I Am, now the gay national anthem, for the 1983 musical La Cage aux Folles.
"Don't ask, don't tell" became the policy of the US military in 1993. In 2000 Vermont recognized gay and lesbian civil unions and in 2004 Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriages. Sodomy laws were ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2003. In 2010 California's ban on gay marriages was overturned by a federal court and eventually went to the US Supreme Court. A conservative Supreme Court would hand gay rights a major victory in June 2015 when it upheld the right for same-sex couples to marry.
Before Stonewall, there were a few gay rights organization such as the Mattachine Society. There were many very brave and courageous individuals who fought for gay rights and suffered because of it. The Stonewall Riots triggered what other LGBT organizations had failed to do: the emergence of a national gay rights movement. During the years following the riots, major victories for equal rights of gays and lesbians occurred. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of "mental disorders." After Stonewall, many important gay organizations, such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), emerged.
Gay history in the Village goes back to the late 1890’s. According to George Chauncey in his study of Gay New York from the years 1890 to 1940, there were numerous clubs where gay men met and socialized with both gay and working class straight men. These clubs were known as "gentlemen clubs," “saloons,” “dance halls,” “fairy resorts,” and “beer gardens.” Some had humorous or suggestive names such as "Cock Suckers Hall" or "Paresis Hall" ("paresis is a medical term which outsiders thought men might acquire . . . from syphilis or simply from associating with fairies." The clubs were described as “a place for sexual excess,” “tenement brothels,” and “male brothels.” Their gay clientele were often referred to with the derogatory slurs of that time: “male degenerates,” “sex deviants,” “inverts," and “Bowery fairies.” Some clubs presented live-sex performances and had private back rooms, which were rented by the hour. Touring these clubs was known as “slumming” and curious observers were “slummers.”
Many of these clubs were in the Bowery or the Tenderloin neighborhood, a red-light and “vice district” which ran from Broadway and Sixth Avenue from 23rd to 40th Street. The Slide was a popular drag bar at 157 Bleecker Street. The Sewer Club was at the Benedick, a new concept of bachelor apartments at 79-80 Washington Square East. In the Victorian days, single men were considered “suspicious” and “undesirable tenants” by landlords and had trouble renting apartments. In the late 1870s, apartments known as bachelor flats became available for single men. These flats resembled what we know today as studio apartments. Some were single rooms without kitchens or bathrooms; others were suites where single men shared a living space. The Benedick was humorously named after the bachelor, Benedick in Shakespeare's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. The building is now a part of New York University.
Since the first Gay Pride Parade on June 28, 1970, the Stonewall riots and gay pride have been celebrated every June across America and throughout many countries around the world. The Stonewall Inn was designated as a National Monument by President Barack Obama in June 2016 in honor of the "broad LGBT equality movement" and to "ensure that future generations would learn about this turning point that sparked changes in cultural attitudes and national policy towards LGBT people over the ensuing decades."
For more information on LGBT locations in New York City, see NYC LGBT historic sites: www.nyclgbtsites.org.