I struggle for a first sentence because who needs another middle class, straight, white guy to lecture about someone else’s culture? I might as well begin writing Wu-Tang Clan fanzine— because the world needs another white guy’s opinion on 90’s hip-hop. However, we are overdue to to fold the Stonewall Inn and subsequent Stonewall riots into bar history. The Stonewall Inn and its eponymous riots are touchstones in civil rights. As a physical location, it is on the National Register of Historic Places, a National Historic Landmark, a NYC Landmark, and is a place where you can drink beer. That distinction makes it more impressive that many of the National Parks I visited with my family when I was young where I would say “Mom, when are we going to see something that isn’t ruined?” Because Pueblo Grande is so boring.
“Did you know it’s still illegal to be black in Arizona?”
Tracy Morgan from 30 Rock
Tracy exaggerates a little, but this could be said of homosexuality for most of America’s history. In 1779, the liberal for his time Thomas Jefferson, penned a law in Virginia for sodomites to be punished by castration. Most American colonies had adopted the 1533 death sentence that Henry VIII had made law. The big ol’ softie and revolutionary Jefferson sure was calming things down. The government’s interest in legislating in blowjobs and buggery would continue for over 200 years. With a foundation in hate or at the least “otherness” it’s easy to understand why the LGBT community would be the subject of public scorn and just a dash of extra hate from public officials. This is a community that would need a sanctuary.
Though built in 1798, The Atlantic House wasn’t really a gay bar until a bunch of artists and actors started moving to Provincetown MA in the 1920’s. Note for hate groups, removing artists and actors from the world will still leave you with gay accountants, gay lawyer, et al. Cafe Lafitte in Exile, opened in 1933 claims the title as oldest continually operated gay bar in America. Its name comes from its original location at Lafitte’s Blacksmith shop, owned by War of 1812 hero/pirate Jean Lafitte. There is an entire college level American history class in those last 2 sentences. San Fransisco’s Black Cat Bar started back when there were only 45 stars on the flag in 1906, closed during prohibition and reopened 13 years later. In 1951, it would become the subject of a California Surpreme Court decision allowing homosexuals to assemble, legally. However, such assemblies, home rental leases and cohabitation would continue to be illegal for years in other parts of America.
These are just 3 bars, of dozens around the world, that are intrinsic to gay history, bar history and thusly— history. Here is of list of historic bars to add to your travel schedule. The Stonewall Inn however, has much more humble beginnings than the afore mentioned bars. In 1966, 3 mafia guys took the old burned out Stonewall Inn Restaurant on 51 & 53 Christopher Street, covered everything with cheap black paint, removed the word “restaurant” and opened up a gay bar under the front of being a “bottle club.” A bottle club being the term for a private club, in which members own the bottles on the bar (labeled with members’ names) rather than the establishment selling the booze. The mob would pay off the cops weekly to pretend this was a real business and the owner, Fat Tony, would kick up a share of profits to Matty the Horse who controlled the West Village for the Genovese family. If you’ve read a Mario Puzo book, this is probably pretty simple economics to you.
Though the Stonewall Inn was a gay bar mob front, without a liquor license and no running water, it was made legitimate through bribes. Many historians believe that homophobia is the only reason that it became illegitimate.
In 1960’s America, when the FBI kept records on suspected homosexuals, every gay bar was a speakeasy.
Police raids on bars where “homosexuals illegally congregated” were very common. Liquor licenses were seized (apparently some gay bars gave up fake licenses, hiding the real one so that they could resume operations quickly), employees were arrested and patrons were arrested and or brutalized. It’s a fun ironic twist that raids on legal gay bars, protected by the right to assembly in the first amendment, would eventually come to an end because of a legal police raid on a mafia front.
In the early morning of June 28th, 1969, six police officers rushed into the Stonewall to arrest employees for the lack of tax stamps on alcohol (young people, ask Texas about these) and arrest patrons for gayness and crossdressing, you know, standard ATF/ bigot stuff. While guests and employees were being shoved into squad cars, some, perhaps upset at the accusations of sexual assault against the lesbian patrons, some upset about going to jail for being themselves, and perhaps others, reacting to a lifetime of oppression, the tension broke. It broke by yelling, then fighting, and lighting cop cars on fire, you know, standard riot stuff. A crowd gathered, a mob grew and cops barricaded themselves inside the Stonewall with protesters using parking meters as battering rams. Violence continued sporadically for a few days with protesters and rioters on one side and the New York Tactical Police Squad on the other.
There isn’t really anything romantic about this. A dirty mafia front bar got violently raided and that violence begat violence. And though the Stonewall Inn is a remodeled icon now, it closed a couple weeks after those riots in 1969. What really became important about the Stonewall riots is what would happen on their one-year anniversary. June 28th, 1970 would become Christopher Street Liberation Day, activist Craig Schoonmaker would put forth the word “Pride” saying, “The poison is shame. The antidote is pride.” This would start the first a gay pride march beginning at the Stonewall and simultaneous gay pride marches in Chicago and Los Angles. ” And that boys and girls, is why we celebrate gay pride during the last week in June. But seriously, it's not like some rowdiness in 1969 flipped a switch that killed bigotry, the Stonewall riots are just a another point on the timeline of civil rights— but a point that started in a bar, winky emoji.
The bar adage “no religion, no politics” is equal parts avoiding fights & creating an inclusive place. That is every bar’s job.
It’s good the the LGBT community doesn’t have to be tied to bars the way that it once was. Gay folks, are now offered more options for community building outside of the alcohol community. That said, bars provided the sole, semi-public sanctuary for a culture for decades if not centuries. The spirit of accepting others and concept of sanctuary is essential for bars and well explained as part of this civil rights movement. Belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person is something that is tied directly to hospitality. Today’s Stonewall Inn is just another bar, a bit touristy, but it’s also a tangible part of bar history, the gay rights moment and American history. I might put forth that all of that makes the Stonewall Inn more important than the $30 Singapore Sling at Raffles that everyone is always complaining about. Or, perhaps, if you’ve had a Seelbach cocktail at the Seelbach Hotel, a Cosmopolitan from Toby’s Long Island Bar or a White Lady from Bar High Five, you should make the pilgrimage to the Stonewall Inn for another glass of history. But not during the last week of June, that’s amateur. You want people visiting you for car bombs on St Patty’s day?
Normally I wouldn’t bother to cite sources because I’m part of the bar and cocktail community. However, the gay community, the gay history community and even cooler, the gay bar history community has already contributed so much information on the Stonewall Riots, the history of gay bars and American law. Some sources I used for fact checking and that I’d recommend are:
The Pop Up Museum of Queer History -click this link for the best hipster photo ever