I spent this past New Year’s Eve in New York City. And no, I did not go to Times Square. Are you kidding me? There were around a million people there, and you can bet that there weren’t enough bathrooms to go around. Yikes.
Rather, a group of us had dinner in Greenwich Village (GREN-itch). For those of you not in the know, the Village has a long and storied history of countercultural and art movements, stretching back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it was known as a Bohemian enclave with an acceptance of radical and nonconformist movements and people.
I bring this up because I just recently re-read some of Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker chronicles (Odd Girl Out, Beebo Brinker, I Am a Woman). Some of you might remember that at the recent Hootenanny event here at Women and Words we had a legends and trailblazers day, and Ann Bannon graciously offered 6 signed books — 2 copies each of the Chronicles (Cleis Press editions) — to lucky winners.
Ann wrote from 1957 through 1962, before the Stonewall Inn was opened as a gay bar in 1966. Nevertheless, she wrote of New York and the Village, and captured slices of its life in the pages of her now-classic pulp novels — most importantly, she wrote of lesbian and gay culture at a time when such things were considered taboo in public discourse, though they found ample expression in the pages of pulp.
By the 1950s, the Village was known as a center of “Beat” culture. The Beat generation was marked by a group of post-WWII authors who inspired an ethos that rejected societal standards, experimented with drug use and alternative sexualities, explored various religions, and rejected materialism. So it makes sense that in the 1960s, in the ferment and foment of the art and literature and radicalism marked by the already extant history in the Village would prove fertile ground for the coalescence of an LGBT community.
The Village isn’t much like it was back in the heady, gritty, funky days of the 60s and 70s. These days, it’s gentrified and commercialized in many ways, and has become one of the most expensive places to live in the country. But it maintains traces of its past, stubbornly clinging to the elements that have defined it over the past century and more.
I’ve visited the Village many times, and I love the vibe there, the sense of its artsy, radical, literary and musical history. I always try to pay homage of some sort to the Stonewall Inn, that legend and icon of LGBTQ history, still situated on Christopher Street. The Stonewall got its start as a dive-y hole-in-the-wall bar, part of the many gay bars in the Village controlled in the mid-1960s by the Genovese crime family. This strange turn of events occurred because in the 60s, though homosexuality was legal in New York, places that served alcohol to LGBTQ people were considered by the state liquor board to be “disorderly houses,” or places where “unlawful practices are habitually carried on by the public.” I call this the “being gay is okay but acting gay is not” loophole.
Consequently, the liquor board revoked the licenses of many gay bars or refused to even issue licenses to them. The Mafia saw an opportunity, thus, to make money by serving alcohol to LGBTQ people. And they’d do it by operating so-called “private” clubs that weren’t as easily subject to police raids or liquor laws. So in 1966, Tony Lauria of the Genovese family (known as “Fat Tony”) bought the Stonewall, then a low-sales straight club (previously a restaurant that had been gutted by fire in the mid-60s). He turned it into a private “bottle club” catering to LGBTQ people. Patrons were required to sign in to maintain the illusion (though obviously most if not all people used pseudonyms) of a private club.
Fat Tony also controlled everything in the club, and paid the local police precinct some $1200 a month to ignore it. He also cut lots of corners in terms of safety and hygiene, including no running water behind the bar, so drinks were often served in dirty glasses (gay rights groups blamed that for a Hepatitis outbreak in 1969 at the bar). There was no rear exit, and the alcohol (rumored to be stolen or bootlegged) was watered down but served at top-shelf prices. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Stonewall’s owners reportedly engaged in extortion, in which employees singled out wealthy patrons who were then blackmailed — threatened with outing if they didn’t pay. These terrible schemes were reportedly the most profitable for the owners.
It was a total, utter, craphole of a bar run by often inhumane criminal elements. But what you need to understand is that it was a lifeline for LGBTQ people, many of whom had to remain deeply closeted in order to keep their jobs and families. Police raids on establishments like this often resulted in awful brutality against the patrons, as well as public outing, and that really did result in people losing everything. Homosexuality was still considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, after all (to get a sense of how scary and oppressive it was for LGBTQ people during that era, I highly recommend the movie Before Stonewall).
And in spite of Mafia pay-outs to police, the bars they ran weren’t exempt from raids. A police raid on an LGBTQ bar meant that all the lights in the place were turned on and people were lined up for ID checks. Anyone without ID or dressed in drag was arrested. Women were required to be wearing three pieces of feminine clothing. If not, they were arrested.
Well, in the late hours of June 27, 1969 and the early hours of June 28, that changed. That was when the patrons decided they’d had enough, when word spread beyond a raid at the Stonewall, and some 600 people gathered outside the bar in support of those the police were trying to arrest. The police ended up barricading themselves in the bar. Unrest continued over the next few nights until July 3, and thousands of people joined in the protests. Media reports of the riots spread across the country, and resonated across a generation. That’s why Pride is traditionally celebrated in June, friends. To commemorate the Stonewall riots. What happened that summer night in Greenwich Village was thus a flashpoint for the modern LGBTQ rights movement, but don’t think that there wasn’t a movement or battles before. There was and there were. Stonewall just happened to be the media event that helped spur even more activism.
That Stonewall bar — the original, located at 51-53 Christopher Street (built in the 1830s as horse stables) — closed a few months after the ’69 riots but was occupied by various businesses over the years, including a Chinese restaurant, a bagel shop, and a shoe store, its historical significance seemingly lost until 1989-1990 when it was turned into another gay bar called “Stonewall,” which operated out of the western part of the structure at 53 Christopher Street. But the owner faced opposition regarding noise ordinances and other issues in the late 90s. Still, the site of the bar was named to the U.S. National Register of Historical Places in 2000. But the bar itself struggled to survive and in 2006, looked as if it might be closing again, amidst complaints from others in the West Village about the changing clientele at Stonewall (which some have claimed smack of racism) and the lessee’s falling behind in rent payments.
The bar changed hands again in 2006, and it was closed for renovation in January 2007 under the supervision of local businessmen Bill Morgan and Kurt Kelly. It reopened in March as the Stonewall Inn, this time paying tribute to its historic significance and interior.
So after dinner, the group of us walked a few blocks over from the restaurant where we’d had New Year’s Eve dinner to Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn. Several people were outside smoking in the cold winter’s night, since New York law forbids smoking in public establishments. There was no cover charge, and we didn’t have to sign in. The woman checking IDs at the entrance was doing it to ensure we were of legal age to drink, not to out us to the local media. The bartender laughed and joked with us and a DJ had Tegan and Sara’s (the Canadian sister duo who both identify as lesbian) “Closer” going over the loudspeakers, followed by Madonna’s “Vogue” a few minutes after we arrived. Photos of the historic Stonewall adorn the walls in the low-ceilinged dark and kind of cozy interior. Patrons stood talking and smiling and a young man wearing a silver spangly outfit that would’ve made Boy George envious in the 1980s was offering a flirtatious grin and Jell-O shots off a tray.
Relaxed, friendly, and casual was the vibe, and as I looked around, I tried to envision what the bar looked like those years between 1966 and 1969, when no doubt it was filled with cigarette smoke, sticky floors and tables, and dirty glasses filled with half-assed watered-down drinks. But it was almost a safe space then for LGBTQ people, where they could meet and greet in shared recognition of a marginalized identity and find solidarity and the roots of revolution in dark, dingy corners.
Bunches of the people there New Year’s Eve 2014 looked under the age of 30 while still others were over 50 and a few looked to be over 60. And I thought about the collective memories of those over-sixty people, and whether they might have been in the Village the night things changed. And I thought about those younger people gathered there, sharing space with them, and whether they knew the history beneath their feet and held in the photographs on the walls around them.
I’d like to think they do, and that they were there not just because it’s a random gay bar in the Village. I’d like to think that they know the legacy, and they went there to celebrate it, too, and that they’ll hold it close and keep working for the generations behind them.
With all of this in mind, I snapped this photo of the Stonewall New Year’s Eve and sent it to Ann Bannon with a best wishes message. She emailed me back and said that “I assure you, it looks better and smells nicer than it did in 1969!” And I marveled at this coalescence of past and present, when I can drop a line and a photo to someone who herself is an icon of shared LGBTQ history. How far we’ve come. But there is always work to do, friends. Let’s celebrate the roads already built, but keep adding to them.
So Happy New Year. Here’s to you and your own legacies.
Learn things! More links about the Stonewall and Greenwich Village:
Ephemeral New York: Greenwich Village in the 1920s
NewYork.com: Greenwich Village
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
Lesbian pulp novels
Ann Bannon’s website
Ann Bannon interview at Autostraddle, 2012
Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels, 1950-1965
Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969
Wikipedia on the lesbian pulps
Stonewall and the riots
Stonewallvets.org with some cool history and ephemera of the era
Stonewall, history by Martin Duberman, 1993 (interview with Duberman here)
Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, David Carter (2010)
Nomination form of Stonewall for national landmark designation (.pdf)
Another view of Stonewall riots, Lucian Truscott IV
Mythologizing Stonewall, Bruce Brawer
Extra documentary to consider
Last Call at Maud’s (deals with San Francisco foundations of lesbian community in the 1950s and beyond — more historical context for how crappy it was back in the day)