In the 1970s, following the Stonewall riots, New York gay life centered on Christopher Street in the West Village. Increasingly, gays lived in or visited this part of the Village. Businesses catering to them were numerous on Christopher and nearby streets. Gay couples held hands as they strolled—something they did not dare do elsewhere. In a sign of the times, in 1973, Craig Rodwell, owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, relocated this store from Mercer Street to this storefront on Christopher Street, where it continued its important mission of bringing gay-positive literature to the gay community. Regrettably, this historic bookshop closed in 2009.
In the 1960s, the Ninth Circle Steakhouse, which was a mainstream restaurant, operated in the storefront shown here just one block north of Christopher Street. Its kitchen turned out such fare as steak and Beef Stroganoff, according to Vivian Kramer in her Greenwich Village Cookbook (1969). But in the early 1970s, in another sign of changing times, as this part of the Village became increasingly gay, its kitchen was closed and the restaurant became a gay bar that commonly went by the shortened name “Ninth Circle”. For years, it was wildly successful. During the mid-1970s, I recall it drawing crowds of young gay men so large on weekends that they often spilled out onto the street. The bar closed in 2001. Today, things have come full circle. This storefront is again home to a mainstream restaurant.
After the Stonewall riots, gays increasingly organized. In 1973, only four years after them, two major gay rights organizations were founded: Lambda Legal and the National LGBTQ Task Force (originally named the National Gay Task Force). William J. Thom (1941- ) founded Lambda Legal and served as its first president. Bruce Voeller (1934-1994) served as as the first executive director of the Task Force. Unlike earlier gay rights organizations, both were led by paid professional staffs, though they made extensive use of volunteers. In fact, I recall briefly doing volunteer work for the Task Force in the building shown here, where it had offices in the mid-1970s. Both organizations have advanced gay rights significantly over the years and continue their important work to this day.
The mid-to-late-1970s was a heady period for American gays; gay life improved significantly, especially in certain major cities such as New York. Police entrapment, mafia ownership of gay bars, and raids on gay bars increasingly became things of the past in New York and elsewhere. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973. Though still frequently stigmatized and lacking basic civil rights, increasingly gays were proud of who they were, came out publicly, and continued to fight for their rights. But things took a terrible turn beginning in 1981 when the specter of AIDS first reared its terrifying head. Though the then-uniformally-fatal disease soon spread to other segments of the population, the gay male population was hit early on and disproportionately hard. I lost two close friends and many acquaintances during the early days of the epidemic. This was not unusual. Meanwhile, government, including the Federal government, did little. Many gay men were justifiably scared.
But one gay man, with the help of like-minded others, would sound the alarm and change things. In 1982, only one year after the disease first drew attention, gay activist and writer Larry Kramer (1935- ), who lives in one of the condos in the building shown here, founded the Gay Mens Health Crisis (GMHC) in his apartment. Later, in 1987 when this organization was not as militant and political as Kramer wanted, he went on, again with the help of like-minded others, to found the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (better known as ACT UP). Recalling the fire and militancy of such earlier gay groups as the Gay Activists Alliance, the organization mounted numerous high-profile demonstrations, including one in 1987, when it took over the VIP balcony of the New York Stock Exchange to protest the high-cost of AZT, a drug then used to treat AIDS. Later, ACT UP spread to other cities. As a writer, Kramer’s major works include the screenplay for Women in Love (1969), the novel Faggots (1978), and a play about the early days of the AIDS epidemic titled The Normal Heart (1985).
The first permanent home of the Gay Mens Health Crisis (GMHC) was in the basement of the building pictured here from 1982 to 1984. Its mission included the elimination of AIDS, improving the lives of those with the disease, and public education about AIDS. It provided critical services to people with AIDS (including but not limited to gay men) during a period when government did little. When it eventually acquired paid, professional staff, it continued to rely heavily on volunteers. Roger McFarland (1955-2009) served as its first paid executive director. I recall briefly doing volunteer work for it in the mid-1980s by which time it had moved to a better space. To this day, GMHC continues its important work.
Though AIDS took a tragic and painful toll on the gay community, its extraordinary response to the deadly epidemic in the 1980s and beyond, energized the broader gay rights movement. Regardless numerous daunting challenges, gays mourned, organized, built alliances, developed political clout, and commanded growing respect and support.
In 1983, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center (often referred to as “the Center” and originally known as the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center) was established in the building pictured here, the former Food and Maritime Trade Vocational High School (built 1844 with later extensions). For decades, gay social life revolved around bars. Few alternatives existed. This changed in the 1980s when numerous new gay groups catering to an enormous variety of interests came on the scene. The Center helped make this possible by providing a convenient place for groups to meet at modest cost. Here, in 1989, I recall helping to found Dignity/Big Apple, a former chapter of Dignity/USA, the national organization for gay Catholics and their friends. Today, the Center continues to fulfill its vital mission of empowering the LGBT community. It welcomes thousands of visitors and provides space to hundreds of groups annually.
The white bronze sculpture Gay Liberation, which is shown here and depicts two same-sex couples—one male and one female—was designed by renowned artist George Segal (1924-2000). Dedicated in 1992, it stands very near the Stonewall in Christopher Park, the area from which gays pelted police with coins, cans, rocks, and bottles during the riots of 1969. Frankly, the sculpture would be far more compelling and informative if—rather than depicting the boring, sedate couples seen here—it depicted homeless gay youths hurling projectiles towards the Stonewall, which is literally a few feet away. It was this kind of raw energy that characterized the riots and galvanized an increasingly large number of gays in their aftermath.
Clearly, the Stonewall riots were important and quickly began to take on symbolic and mythic qualities beginning with the first annual commemoration of them in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. But did they touch off the gay liberation movement, as some claim? Was Stonewall the movement’s birthplace? Absolutely not. Gays had begun a movement well before Stonewall. Harry Hay and other homosexuals had founded the Mattachine Society in 1950. A group of lesbian couples had founded the Daughters of Belitis in 1955. Despite the oppressive and conservative climate of the times the courageous activists of the 1950s and 1960s did much impressive work, even mounting the first gay demonstration in American history when they picketed the White House in 1965. To claim, then, that the riots touched off the movement or Stonewall was its birthplace is not only wrong, but denigrates these activists and their accomplishments.
But this is not to say that the Stonewall riots were unimportant. Far from it. The riots galvanized gays in ways never before known. For the first time, they united in unprecedented numbers and fought back with righteous anger. They no longer politely asked for freedom or awaited slow, incremental change—they unashamedly demanded freedom and they wanted it immediately. Despite stinging but passing defeats, AIDS, and other daunting challenges, they persisted. And today, 46 years after the riots, marriage equality is the law of the land. Never in my wildest dreams when I was a young gay man living in New York in the 1970s and the 1980s, did I think I would live to see this day. Much work still remains to be done. But much has been done thanks to the pioneering work of activists of the 1950s and 1960s, the galvanizing affect of the Stonewall riots, and the continued work of activists of recent decades. To be gay and living in these times is a gift.
How to get there. All sites in this article are served by public transportation. To travel by subway to the Stonewall Inn, take the 1 train to Christopher Street or the A, B, C, D, F, or M trains to West 4th Street.
Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution.
Hurewitz, Daniel. Stepping Out: Nine Walks Through New York City’s Gay and Lesbian Past.