In 1969, gays rioted in response to a then-typical police raid on a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Ever since then, Stonewall’s symbolic and mythic importance has grown. Today it looms large in gay history and American history generally. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Even Barack Obama referenced it in his Second Inaugural Address in 2013. “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” he said.
More recently, on June 23, 2015, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Stonewall an official landmark. It did not do so because of its architecture (which is clearly unremarkable) but because of its historic importance. In its news story about the Stonewall Inn’s new landmark status The New York Times reported that this bar was “where resistance to a police raid touched off the modern gay rights movement”. It also reported that the Real Estate Board of New York said that Stonewall “is clearly recognized in New York City and around the world as the birthplace of the L.G.B.T. rights movement.” But are these views historically accurate?
In this article, I will explore some of the many gay historical sites in Greenwich Village (where the Stonewall is located) and nearby neighborhoods (see map below). I will do so in pictures and words, briefly describing gay life, culture, and politics in the decades leading up to the Stonewall riots, the riots themselves, and their aftermath in the following decades. Finally, I will offer thoughts on the relationship of the riots to the gay rights movement.
This map is interactive. To identify a site, click its red marker. All sites marked here are discussed in this article.
Since the early twentieth century, Greenwich Village (often referred to as “the Village”) was a magnet for bohemians, nonconformists, leftists, and artists. In 1917, reflecting the rebellious spirit of Villagers, a small group, including artists John Sloan and Marcel Duchamp, in an unauthorized demonstration/prank, briefly occupied the top of the Washington Memorial Arch (seen here) in Washington Square Park. From this imposing monument (designed by Stanford White and built in 1892), they declared Greenwich Village a “free and independent republic” as they fired cap guns. Because the Village welcomed nonconformists, many gays were comfortable there early on. Later, during the post-World War II years, they naturally flocked to this neighborhood in large numbers—to live, visit, and/or enjoy the nightlife.
Beginning about five years prior to the declaration of Greenwich Village as a “free and independent republic”, Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962) was instrumental in establishing the neighborhood as a center for nonconformists, leftists, and artists. She hosted provocative, weekly gatherings/discussions in her home (now demolished) just three blocks north of Washington Square Park. Participants included Carl Van Vechten, photographer and literary executor of lesbian author Gertrude Stein, gay artist Charles Demuth, birth control activist and sex educator Margaret Sanger, psychoanalyst and Freud’s English translator Abraham Brill, anarchist Emma Goldman, journalist and socialist activist John Reed, and other luminaries. In 1919, Luhan relocated to Taos, New Mexico, where she was instrumental in establishing the town as an artists colony.
Nonconformists, artists, and gays frequented the Village’s many cafés, bars, and restaurants to drink, eat, and, most importantly, socialize. One such establishment, the San Remo Café, which operated in the storefront seen here from 1925 to 1967, attracted such renowned writers and artists as Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara, Gore Vidal, W.H. Auden, William Burroughs, and Andy Warhol. And those are only the gay ones! Originally, the San Remo extended to the corner and included what is now no. 91.
Lesbian writer and visual artist Djuna Barnes (1892-1982), like many nonconformists, artists, and gays, made the Village her home. She lived in the apartment seen here from 1940 until her death in it. She worked as a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle and McCall’s Magazine. Her major works include Ladies Almanack (1928), A Night Among the Horses (1929), and Ryder (1929).
Writer Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) began living in the building pictured here in 1953. Six years later, she made literary history with her groundbreaking Broadway play Raisin in the Sun (later made into a movie) for which she became the first black playwright to win the prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. To boot, she did so at age 29, becoming the youngest American to ever be so honored. Although she was married to Robert Nemiroff and never came out publicly, in private papers and anonymous letters to the editor of The Ladder, a small-circulation newsletter/magazine published by the lesbian organization Daughters of Belitis, she made it clear that she was a heterosexually married lesbian. Tragically, she died at age 34 of pancreatic cancer.
Yet another gay writer to make the Village his home was James Baldwin (1924-1987), who lived in the building pictured here from 1958 to 1963. Two years before moving into it, he attracted controversy with the publication of his novel Giovanni’s Room, in which he daringly included explicit homoerotic content. His other major works include Notes of a Native Son (1955), Another Country (1962), and Go Tell It on the Mountain (1963).
For many decades, many bars in the Village, including the former Keller’s, which was in the building pictured here, catered to gay men. Formerly one of New York’s oldest gay bars, it began to attract a large gay clientele in the mid-1950s. But in a sign of changing times, it closed in 1998, as AIDS took its toll upon its customer base and a significant portion of gay life moved to the nearby Chelsea neighborhood. Other venerable gay bars in the Village likewise closed in the 1990s and early 2000s. The landmark building, built 1897-1898, was originally known as the Keller Hotel and catered to sailors from the nearby waterfront. Today it is unoccupied and in a sad state of decay. Yet, in their day, Keller’s and similar bars played a vital role in the social lives of many gay men.
Numerous Village bars catered to gay men; of equal importance, some catered to lesbians, including the popular Sea Colony, which operated in the storefront shown here during the 1950s and 1960s. Like virtually all gay bars of the time, it was Mafia-owned. During this period, police routinely raided gay bars and patrons passively submitted. Patrons could be and were arrested. Lives could be and were ruined.
Historically, the vast majority of Americans believed that homosexuals were perverts, a major threat to the social order, and/or mentally ill. Homosexual acts were illegal. Men and women whose homosexuality became known or were even suspected of homosexuality, faced beatings by police and thugs, police entrapment, imprisonment, loss of employment, rejection by families and friends, and more. But a certain brave, forward-thinking homosexual, with support from like-minded others, took decisive action in Los Angeles to change this and promote a positive view of homosexuality. In 1950, almost two decades before the Stonewall riots, Henry (“Harry”) Hay, Jr. (1912-2002) founded a seminal national homophile organization for men called the Mattachine Society. (Gay organizations of the time were frequently styled homophile.) Its mission called for unifying homosexuals as a community, educating the pubic about homosexuality, eliminating discrimination against homosexuals, and helping individuals to cope with the challenges of their homosexuality. Within a few years, chapters were founded in New York and other cities. When the national organization disbanded in 1961, local chapters, including the New York Mattachine Society, which had been founded in 1955 and had an office in the building seen here from 1965 to 1968, continued their pioneering work. The New York chapter disbanded in 1987.
In 1955, only five years after the founding of the Mattachine Society by and for homosexual men, the Daughters of Belitis (DOB) was founded in San Francisco by and for lesbians. Its founders included the lesbian couple Dorothy Louise Taliaferro (“Del”) Martin (1921-2008) and Phyllis Ann Lyon (1924- ). In fact, it was the first American lesbian civil rights organization. Paralleling the Mattachine Society, its mission called for educating the public about lesbianism, eliminating discrimination against lesbians, helping individuals to cope with the challenges of their lesbianism, and providing opportunities for lesbians to socialize. It also published a newsletter/magazine titled The Ladder, the first nationally distributed lesbian publication. In its literature, it sometimes used the word variant in lieu of lesbian because the latter had a very negative connotation at the time. By the late 1950s there were chapters in New York and other cities. The New York Daughters of Belitis, which was first organized by lesbian activist Barbara Gittings (1932-2007) in 1958, had an office in the building seen here beginning in 1963. Occasionally, DOB members would join their Mattachine counterparts to demonstrate for gay rights, such as the picket of the White House in 1965, which was the first gay rights demonstration in American history. The national DOB ceased operations in 1970. I am uncertain when the New York chapter ceased operations.
During the post-World War II years, the Village increasingly became a center for gay cultural offerings. Caffe Cino, which was founded and managed by Joe Cino (1931-1967), a gay man and former professional dancer, was located in the storefront pictured here. It was not only a café but also a scrappy, groundbreaking theater from 1958 to 1968. Here, Cino was instrumental in nurturing early gay-positive drama and small-scale, experimental theater that would eventually be dubbed “Off-Off-Broadway”. He was an early producer of plays by gay playwright Lanford Wilson (1937-2011), whose The Madness of Lady Bright premiered at Caffe Cino in 1964 and who is probably best known for The Fifth of July (1978) for which he won the Pulitzer prize. Although Cino did not confine himself exclusively to gay theater, he went on to produce plays by such other gay or gay-friendly writers as Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick, William Hoffman, John Guare, Jean-Claude van Itallie, and Tom Eyen. Late in life, he became addicted to drugs and, when his lover was accidentally killed, he committed suicide. Tragically, he was only 36 years old. Read more about Caffe Cino at cafecino.wordpress.com.