Gay Pride Week: In Case You Need Reminding…
…Of why the Stonewall Rebellion was so important:
Homosexuality was not illegal in New York City in the 1960s; it just seemed that way. The New York State Liquor Authority had long insisted that merely by serving drinks to homosexuals a bar was maintaining a “disorderly house,” which the SLA could (and would) then close; it embarked upon a particularly aggressive series of such license revocations from 1959 through the mid-1960s. Only in 1967, after constant agitation by a handful of openly gay campaigners, were New York bars allowed to knowingly serve homosexuals without prosecution. When, the next year, a State judge decreed that same-sex couples dancing together were not breaking the law, it may have seemed as if the tide was finally turning. Yet the New York Police Department continued to enforce an arcane and degrading law that required people to wear at least three items of gender-specific clothing in public. In addition, the police policy of entrapment extended beyond the solicitation of gay prostitutes on the street and frequently involved the arrest of young men on the dancefloor.
This discrimination and victimization did not deter gay nightlife. Rather, it sent its potentially lucrative custom into the clutches of the people who knew how best to profit from it: the Mafia. In Greenwich Village, always Manhattan’s prime gay neighborhood, the scene’s clubs and bars were divided almost equally between the Gambino family (the Washington Square, Purple Onion, and Tony Pastor’s), and the Genovese family (the Tenth of Always, the Bon Soir, and the Stonewall Inn). Few of these venues ever had all the correct licenses, but the police were known to turn a blind eye in exchange for regular payoffs. To keep up appearances, the Sixth Precinct would launch token raids, typically tipping off the club owners in advance. After the routine demanding of ID (partially to degrade and arrest patrons who had dressed as members of the opposite sex), and a bout of homophobic name-calling, the police would leave, and the bar-club would resume its activities. Neither the police nor the club owners ever expected the patrons to protest: where else, after all, were “queers,” “faggots,” or “faeries” – as they were most commonly referred to in public – permitted to flaunt their lifestyle?
From All Hopped Up and Ready To Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77 (Chapter 13: The Apple Stretching), to be published by W.W. Norton on October 26.