The Stonewall Riots, June 27, 1969

"the hairpin drop heard round the world"

(as described by the New York Mattachine Society)

"There's one life, and there's no return and no deposit; one life, so it's time to open up your closet.
Life's not worth a damn 'til you can say, hey world, I am what I am!"

lyrics by Harvey Fierstein, La Cage aux Folles

THE STONEWALL INN, an international symbol of gay liberation, has most recently been designated a national monument by President Barack Obama to honor the "broad LGBT equality movement."  Originally it was a Mafia-owned, lackluster gay bar frequented primarily by drag queens and male hustlers.  Riots on June 27, 1969 at this Greenwich Village bar -- named after a Civil War Confederate General "Stonewall" Jackson -- would spur the modern gay rights movement.  In order to understand the significance of what occurred that summer night, the events must be put into the context of that time.  It may be unbelievable to today's young LBGTQ community, but in 1969, being LBGTQ was a crime and a LBGTQ individual in New York could be arrested simply for having a drink at a bar with a friend.  At that time New York State laws, as similar laws in many states, forbid homosexuals from congregating together.  The New York State Liquor Authority was authorized to close bars and taverns serving liquor to gay and lesbian patrons.  On April 26, 1966, these laws were challenged by a group of three gay men from the Mattachine Society, the first national gay rights organization (founded in 1961), at a sip-in at Julius bar* on Christopher Street.  The men were refused service and eventually won a court case which overturned this discriminating law.  

Police did not need to have a legitimate reason to raid a gay bar.  In the Stonewall’s case the reason given for the raid was that the establishment was selling liquor without a license.  Gay bars might also be raided if the bar’s owners had not make payoffs to the police.  In GAY NEW YORK author George  Chauncey notes that laws  during this time not only criminalized behavior by gay men but their "association with one another, their cultural styles and their efforts to organize and speak on their own behalf."  These laws were not always enforced but could be at any time and police harassment of gays was not uncommon.  The most significant news that June evening was not that the bar had been raided but that the drag queens and gay patrons had fought back.  A routine police raid became five days of rioting.  Over the years some writers have attributed the riots to the death of and mourning for gay icon, Judy Garland, whose funeral was held the very same day the riots began.  The theory may be somewhat touching, but it's mostly another gay myth.  

The Stonewall riots sparked a national gay rights movement throughout America and the world.  During the years following the riots, major events and victories for equal rights of gays and lesbians occurred.  In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of "mental disorders.  Illinois became the first U.S. state to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults in 1962.  Whereas in Europe homosexuality was legal in Switzerland in the 1950s, but was illegal in England until 1967 and in France until 1981.  The state of Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basic of sexual orientation in 1982.  "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 will eventually go to the US Supreme Court.  A conservative Supreme Court would hand gay rights a major victory in June 2015 when it upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry.

The Stonewall riots are now celebrated across the nation and worldwide every June with gay pride parades and festivals.  Sheridan Square Park has both a bronze statue of General Sheridan by Joseph P. Pollia (installed 1936) and a Gay Liberation statue, depicting two same-sex couples (male and female), by George Segali (installed 1992). On or near Christopher Street numerous gay bars can be found.  They include:  the Stonewall, Julius, the Monster, Boots and Saddles, Ty's and many others.

Gay Street, a curving and quaint street in the heart of the most notoriously gay neighborhood in the City, is the shortest street in New York City.  Originally a stable alley, Gay Street runs from Christopher Street one block south to Waverly Place.  The Gay Street sign has the distinction of being the most stolen New York City street sign and must often be replaced.  Ironically, the street’s name has nothing to do with the modern gay rights movement.  Sources differ on how the street got its name in 1834.  Some say the name honors Sidney Howard Gay, an abolitionist and editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard. No matter, the street has a colorful and lively history.  By Revolutionary War times, Gay Street was a hangout for black musicians and freed slaves, some of whom worked as servants to wealthy families in Washington Square.  During Prohibition, several speakeasies operated on the street.  NYC Mayor Jimmy Walker (1926 - 1932) lived at the 12 Gay Street townhouse.   Fourteen Gay Street was the home of author, Ruth McKenney, whose novel, My Sister Eileen, became a film with Jack Lemmon, Janet Leigh and Bob Fosse in 1955 and was also turned into the Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden & Adolph Green Broadway musical Wonderful Town (1953).**   

In the late 1890’s gay men would meet at gentlemen clubs in the city.  These clubs catered to and were frequented by unmarried and married men and gays and bisexuals, men wearing make-up and female impersonators and even unmarried women and prostitutes.  Terms used to describe the clubs’ gay male patrons included “Bowery fairies,” “male degenerates,” “sex deviants,” and “inverts.”

Many of these establishments were located in the Bowery and the Tenderloin, the entertainment and red-light neighborhood and “vice district” which ran from Broadway and Sixth Avenue from 23rd to 40th Street.  They were called “saloons,” “dance halls,” “fairy resorts,” and “beer gardens,” etc.   The clubs were also described as “a place for sexual excess,” “tenement brothels,” and “male brothels.”  One of the most famous and popular clubs was Columbia Hall, later called Paresis Hall, at 5th Street and the Bowery.  (“Paresis” is a medical term for dementia and insanity resulting from untreated syphilis.)  These clubs and saloons offered alcohol, drinking water, toilet facilities, and inexpensive meals and served as social centers for straight and gay men living in small, crowded tenement apartments.  Some clubs had private back rooms and some rented rooms by the hour and presented live-sex performances.  Touring these clubs was known as “slumming” and the curious observers were “slummers.”

Other such clubs were the Black Rabbit (183 Bleecker Street), the Artistic Club (West 30th Street), the Golden Rule Pleasure Club (West 3rd Street), Little Bucks (on the same street and across from Paresis), Manilla Hall, The Palm Club (at Chrystie Street), The Slide -- a popular drag bar -- (157 Bleecker Street), the Sharon Hotel (at Third Avenue above 14th Street and commonly known as “Cock Suckers Hall”), and the Sewer Club (a favorite of architect Stanford White and his friends).  

The Sewer Club was located in the Benedick, a building of bachelor apartments -- a new concept in apartments -- developed by Lucius Tuckerman.  In those Victorian days, single men were often considered “suspicious” and “undesirable tenants” by landlords and sometimes had problems renting apartments.  Tuckerman hired the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to design the Benedick’s bachelor apartments for single men and artists.  Built in 1879 at 80 Washington Square East, its name came from a bachelor character in Much Ado About Nothing.  Architects Charles McKim, William Mead, Stanford White, sculptors Olin Levi Warner and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painters Winslow Homer, J. Alden Weir, George W. Maynard and Albert Ryder, and artist and stained glass designer John LaFarge were once residents there.  

*Julius was the oldest gay bar still operating in New York City until it was shut down by the city's Department of Health in December 2011.

**The lyrics of its song “Ohio,” lament: “Why, Oh Why, Oh, Why, Oh, Why Did I Ever Leave Ohio?”  A sentiment not likely shared with anyone living on this beautiful Village street.