photo by Keith Allison
The Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village seems an unlikely rallying point for a movement. Built during the 1840s as a stable and converted to a restaurant in 1930, the building was gutted by a fire in the early 1960s before three enterprising members of the city’s leading Mafia family, the Genovese, invested in the space and, in 1967, reopened the Stonewall Inn as a gay bar. They were not motivated by any wish to serve the gay community; they simply wanted to make money, and perhaps more valuably, blackmail some of the more prominent men who showed up.
At the time, the Stonewall was a dump. Dark, dank, with no running water behind the bar. There were no fire exits, the bathrooms were almost constantly backed up, and oh yeah — they never bothered with a liquor license. And yet, even at a time when men and women could still be arrested in the city for homosexuality, people came. Men mostly but occasionally some women as well. They came because the Stonewall, while eschewed by the more respectable members of the city’s gay and lesbian community, served as a de facto home for freaks, hustlers, homeless gay youth sleeping in Christopher Park across the street, transvestites, cross-dressers, and queens. It was all they had. As dismal as the Stonewall might have been, it provided a sense of community, a place to be with others like you.
Police would raid it on a regular schedule, usually just to collect their monthly pay-off. The bar was usually tipped off before the raids, and when they came it was early in the evening or the afternoon when there were few customers. For those who didn’t get out in time, the police would arrest those without proper identification. It was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals, or for gay people to dance with one another. If a man was in drag, he would be arrested. The few women who frequented the bar were arrested if they weren’t wearing at least three pieces of “feminine clothing.”
On June 28, 1969, however, something was different.
The Stonewall Inn, 1969
Just after 1am on Saturday morning, the police showed up for a raid without previously tipping off the bar’s management and at a time when the bar was likely to be packed. As for why the unexpected raid happened, there are are several theories. One claims it was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms that ordered the raid, rather than the city police, after rejecting the notion that the bar was a “private bottle club” and didn’t need a liquor license. Another claims that the Stonewall’s Mafioso owners stopped making protection payments to the police. Still another theory presents evidence that police knew about the blackmail scam being run against the wealthier patrons of the bar and were mad that the cops weren’t getting a cut. Whatever the case, the raid that came that night wasn’t just meant to hassle some homosexuals; they intended to shutter the Stonewall permanently.
From the start, the raid did not feel like business as usual. Dozens of men, many of them drag queens, were arrested, along with a few women, but no one was particularly compliant with police orders. The drag queens refused to be marched off to have their gender verified. Men refused to show their ID. Police reportedly groped lesbians as part of “searching” them. The police were poorly organized for the raid. Trucks to transport detainees and confiscated alcohol were late.
Maybe it was the heat, or the cheap booze, or the number of people. Maybe it was just, as one anonymous Stonewall customer was quoted as saying, because a tipping point had been reached and “this shit has got to stop!” The crowd began jeering the police, singing — they even formed a defiant, kicking chorus line. Police responded with shoving and batons, and the crowds responded with heightened jeers and thrown beer cans. A drag queen who was being manhandled by a cop on her march to the police van reacted by smacking him with her purse. The procession continued, with some arrestees chanting “gay power” as they were led out of the bar, until, as eye witness reports have it, police set upon one lesbian with particular viciousness. It was at that point that the crowd went berserk and the gay rights movement was launched.
By the time the raid became what are now known as the Stonewall Riots, some 500 to 600 people had assembled on the street outside the bar. For several hours throughout that night, the city’s gay and lesbian community — fed up with oppression, with exploitation, with arrest and blackmail and violence against them — fought in the streets with the disorganized, overwhelmed, and outnumbered police. The charge was led by the Stonewall’s outcast collection of drag queens and homeless youth. Police ended up barricading themselves inside the Stonewall — a telling reversal of fortune, as those who had been forced to hide themselves inside those dingy walls were now running wild in the streets.
Police eventually gained control of the situation as rioters were arrested or simply melted away into the surrounding neighborhood, but everyone was back for round two the next night. Altercations between police and the suddenly minted gay rights movement occurred across the Village. Even after the riots finally subsided, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. Very rapidly, the LGBT community mobilized into a movement. A year later, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the city of New York held its first Pride parade.
As for the bar at the center of it all, it didn’t live to see the revolution it had spawned. The Stonewall Inn closed a few months after the riots. In the early 1990s, half of the old Stonewall Inn facility was purchased, substantially renovated, and reopened as a gay bar, simply called Stonewall. The block in front of the bar was renamed by the city “Stonewall Place,” in honor of what had happened there. Thirty years after the riots, in June of 1999, the building at 51-53 Christopher Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In February of 2000, the Stonewall Inn was declared a National Historic Landmark, the first such landmark to be added for significance in the history of LGBT people in the United States. That second incarnation of the Stonewall went out of business in 2006, but it reopened under new ownership in 2007, once again as the Stonewall Inn.
photo by Keith Allison
The number of revolutions plotted in bars and taverns is staggering. Heck, many of the finer points of the American Revolution were hammered out at Fraunces Tavern, just a few quick subway stops away from the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall Riots may not have been planned. The birth of the gay rights movement and Pride Parades and the long march to equality may not have been plotted, and the Stonewall may have been a sullen sort of place to give it flight, but it happened never the less. The current incarnation pays homage to the bar’s past (though with much, much cleaner glasses and bathrooms) and has seen, if not the fruition of the movement it launched 45 years ago, then certainly a most staggering amount of progress. The bar hosts receptions for gay weddings — legal in New York, along with a growing number of states. Its trivia nights, drag shows, brunch, and happy hours are popular with locals as well as tourists, regardless of their sexual orientation or how many pieces of “feminine clothing” they are wearing. From the darkness of the original Stonewall Inn, home to rejects and weirdos, the Stonewall is now a bona fide, historical attraction.