Gay activist and business owner Craig Rodwell (1940-1993) opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in the storefront shown here just two blocks east of Washington Square Park in 1965. Named after the famous/infamous gay Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), it was the first American bookshop devoted to gay authors. For the gay community, it was an invaluable resource; obtaining gay-positive reading materials was nearly impossible during this period.
By the mid-1960s, prior to the Stonewall riots, some gay New Yorkers became increasingly political and the bar Julius’s (seen here) would have a role to play in their activities. This tavern, one of New York’s oldest gay bars, began to attract a large gay clientele in the 1950s. Its vintage décor has changed little over the decades. And today it continues to attract a loyal and diverse gay clientele. Although probably unknown to most of its customers, it was where a confrontation between the gay community and the New York Liquor Authority began in 1966. The event goes by the deceptively innocuous name of the sip-in. Historically, Liquor Authority regulations were invoked to raid gay bars, arrest their patrons, refuse bar service to gays, and prohibit gays from owning bars—all of which had caused long-simmering anger and resentment amongst gays. But three brave gay men, who were members of the New York Mattachine Society, did something about it. They were the organization’s president Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, and John Timmons. The three entered Julius’s, asked to be served, and identified themselves as gay. The bartender then refused to serve them. Now, they had a test case. Ultimately, the sip-in led the New York City Commission on Human Rights to rule that gays have the right to be served in bars.
No one realized it in the summer of 1969, but things were about to change for American gays following dramatic events at the Stonewall Inn, pictured here and located in the heart of the Village. It had been in business as a mainstream restaurant since 1935. It was even listed as such in The WPA Guidebook to New York City in 1939. But in 1966, it became a mafia-run, unlicensed gay bar and originally extended extended to no. 51, the adjacent storefront to the east. Think of the worst dive bar you have ever been in. The Stonewall was probably worse. There wasn’t even running water to wash patrons’ glasses after they emptied them of their watered-down contents. Still, it was a place where gays could socialize and be themselves. Moreover, for a gay bar of the period, it was fairly large and included features that regularly attracted numerous loyal customers. Best of all for many patrons, it had excellent jukeboxes and multiple relatively spacious dance floors where same-sex couples could freely dance. In addition, many homeless gay youths considered it a home and hung out in and around it. But like virtually all gay bars of the period, it was repeatedly raided.
On Saturday, June 28, 1969, at approximately 1:20 a.m., New York City Police Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine (1919-2010) led seven other members of the police force in a raid on the crowded bar where they joined two undercover female officers who were already inside. To say that things did not go as planned is a grand understatement. Contrary to custom, some patrons began to resist arrest. Hearing news of the raid, gays began to congregate outside the bar and in adjacent Christopher Park, soon swelling into a large crowd. Police became aggressive. They began to beat a lesbian patron as she mightily resisted arrest on the sidewalk in front of the bar. She turned to the crowd and cried out, “Why don’t you guys do something!” And that’s when all hell broke loose. Decades of resentment boiled over. Fueled by righteous anger, gays hurled coins, cans, bottles, and rocks at the police, who were soon forced to retreat into the bar where they feared for their very lives and awaited backup. Some gays uprooted a parking meter and used it as a battering ram in an attempt to force their way into the bar. Others attempted to set fire to the bar. The crowd loudly chanted: “Gay Power!” “We want freedom!”
Eventually members of the Tactical Police Force (TPF) (riot police) arrived, but the rioting continued and spread to nearby blocks. Fires were set. Windows were shattered. Drag queens taunted the police. The homeless gay youths, who had nothing to lose, were particularly aggressive. The TPF had great difficulty restoring order to the many, narrow, crooked streets of the Village. The riot, which was reported on by both broadcast and print media, raged for about two hours. As the TPF asserted control and the rioters fatigued, peace returned. But it was a fragile one. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of gays again rioted in the area on the following Sunday and Wednesday. Nothing like it had ever been witnessed.
When the riots ended, one thing was certain: the gay community had changed. Gays had discovered a new power. Rather than asking for freedom, they demanded it. And they felt good—very good—doing so.
Shortly afterwards, the Stonewall closed to be replaced by other businesses. I recall patronizing a store that sold wooden home furnishings and a bagel shop named Bagel Land in nos. 51 and 53 respectively in the mid-1970s. In 1993, no. 53 reverted to being a gay bar named the Stonewall Inn.
But in 1969, in the wake of the riots, an increasingly large number of gays, continuing to be fueled by righteous anger, took steps to begin to win their freedom. Galvanized by the riots and their newly discovered raw power, they started new, militant organizations. Amongst them was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which was founded in 1969, very shortly after the riots. This group, which was the first to use the word gay in its title, met at Alternate U., where it organized, planned demonstrations, held popular dances, and more. It espoused the sexual liberation of all people and a radical leftist reordering of American society that included rejection of capitalism and the nuclear family and sought alliances with other like-minded groups. The GLF disbanded in 1972. According to Daniel Hurewitz in his guide to gay New York Stepping Out, Alternate U. was located on the northeast corner of West 14th Street and Sixth Avenue (seen here).
Though gays frequently confronted tough opposition or were condescendingly dismissed, some members of the greater community were supportive early on. The Church of the Holy Apostles (seen here) is a landmark church designed by Minard Lafever and built 1845-1848 (with later extensions). Amazingly, the Episcopal congregation that worships in it has provided support and meeting space to at least five post-Stonewall gay groups—four religious and one political—often during their infancy in 1969 and the early 1970s. Before finding permanent homes, both the Church of the Beloved Disciple, which ministered principally to gays, and Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (also known as the “gay synagogue”) met here. When the Gay Activists Alliance was formed, it met here until it found its own space. When pastor Howard Wells (1944-1989) and his followers worshiped, they met here. Later, they would found the Metropolitan Community Church New York, which would minister principally to gays. Finally, today the church is home to Integrity Metro New York City, which ministers principally to Episcopalian gays. Is it any wonder that I affectionately refer to Holy Apostles as “the mother church”?
The gay rights organization Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) was founded by disaffected members of the Gay Liberation Front in 1969 shortly after the Stonewall riots. From 1971 to 1974, it had its headquarters in the former firehouse dating to 1897 seen here. Because of its location, the headquarters was commonly referred to as “the Firehouse”. A large round shield bearing the Greek letter lambda, which the GAA adopted as a symbol of gay liberation, hung over the door. Jim Owles (1946 or 1947-1993) served as its president. Its activities included popular dances at this site and demonstrations for gay rights throughout New York City. The latter often took the form of zaps (loud public protests that included theatrical elements and were designed to discomfort and embarrass politicians or public personalities and demanded an end to discrimination against gays). To better understand this tactic and the importance of the GAA, watch this video documentary of the Gay Activist Alliance’s zap at the New York City Marriage Bureau in 1971. The organization disbanded in 1981.
Things did not change overnight for gays after the Stonewall riots. In fact, gay bars continued to be raided. Patrons continued to be arrested. Lives continues to be ruined. On March 7, 1970, police, again led by Deputy Inspector Payne, who had supervised the raid of the Stonewall, raided the Snake Pit in the building pictured here, where police arrested 162 people. But unlike the raid on the Stonewall, this one would soon turn fatal.
To process the arrested, the police transported them to the building seen here, the former Sixth Precinct station house (built 1895-1897). Amongst the arrested was the 23 year-old Argentinean national Alfredo Diego Vinales from East Orange, New Jersey. It is said that he greatly feared deportation on account of his arrest. As he climbed a stair inside this building, he suddenly jumped from a second-floor window in a desperate bid for freedom. His screams pierced the air. He had accidentally impaled himself on the sharp pikes of an iron fence below. Vinales could not be removed from the fence, so it was cut. With a portion of it still in him, he was rushed to nearby Saint Vincent Hospital. The next evening hundreds of gays, including members of the GLF and GAA, protested by marching on this station house, after which they held a candle-light vigil at the hospital where Vinales lie in a coma. Shortly thereafter the young man died. Though things would soon improve, such was gay life and death in this period—nine months after the Stonewall riots.
“It serves notice on every politician in the state and nation that homosexuals are not going to hide anymore. We’re becoming militant, and won’t be harassed and degraded anymore.” These are the words of the brave, defiant, and articulate 27 year-old Martin Robinson (1940 or 1941-1992), a leading member of the Gay Activists Alliance (as reported by The New York Times), at the rally in Central Park that culminated the First New York Gay Liberation March on June 28, 1970. Prominent organizers included Craig Rodwell. The historic event, officially called Christopher Street Liberation Day, marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The march, according to the The New York Times, stretched for 15 city blocks—a major achievement. With this high-profile commemoration and similar ones in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago on or around the same day, the Stonewall riots began to take on mythic and symbolic qualities. Annually, since 1970, gays in ever increasing numbers have marched and rallied in New York, numerous other American cities, and around the world to demand an end to discrimination against gays and celebrate the gift of being gay. Today such events frequently use “Gay Pride” or “Pride” as part off their names.