This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a series of demonstrations sprung from the Gay Rights Movement in the United States in the 1960s. Many say that Stonewall launched the movement, but really it represents the culmination of decades of oppression, violence, and discrimination, bursting out in unprecedented action. “Stonewall” now represents a queer haven, both physically as a bar, and conceptually as a word and moment in queer history.
The High Line itself has a long queer history, so we’ll be celebrating this Pride month with several programs and events. To kick it off, this year’s first Out of Line artist, Antonio Ramos, performs No Agenda Genda, “a sci-fi piece of interactive dance theater,” a tribute to queerness and the Stonewall Riots.
Located at 51/53 Christopher Street, the oldest street in the West Village, Stonewall gets its name from a 1930s memoir The Stone Wall by the pseudonymous “Mary Casal,” in which the author depicts frank and illicit descriptions of then-illegal lesbian life. Thus, dubbing a bar “Stonewall” was a coded way to draw in gay crowds.
The bar’s location is the apex of the queer geography that is the West Village. Barring the neighborhood’s long queer history, in the early 1800s the community members vetoed the city’s plan to place all of Manhattan on a grid, and remains the only neighborhood north of Wall Street that doesn’t comply. The building faces the site from which Thomas Paine distributed his radical pamphlets during the Revolutionary War, a prophetic fact that would be mimicked hundreds of years later after the riots when two gay men distributed pamphlets from Stonewall calling for more gay-owned bars.
The 1960s in the United States ushered in free love, drugs, war, and violent and peaceful civil rights and anti-war protests. For some people. Discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transvestites (note, the term transgender was not yet in use at the time), was at an all-time high. And while homosexuality was legal in New York, anti-sodomy and laws targeted at benign acts by queer people (loitering in restrooms, for example) underline a country still caught in a McCarthy era panic. It was illegal in New York City to wear anything more than three pieces of “gender inappropriate” clothes, and folks found to be wearing more were fined and jailed. The police targeted gay clubs, bars, and bathhouses, and by the end of the decade an average of 100 gay men were arrested every week in police stings for “homosexual solicitation.” Cuba, Russia, and East Germany had looser homosexuality laws.
Recognizing an opportunity for strong-armed revenue, the Genovese crime family stepped in to take over ownership of Stonewall. The State Liquor Authority considered gay bars “disorderly houses” and rarely issued these businesses liquor licenses. When Tony Lauria (“Fat Tony”) purchased the Stonewall in 1966, he rebranded it as a gay bar to cater to an untapped and thirsty audience, and skirted the law by registering it as a bottle club, which didn’t require a liquor license to serve. Lauria bribed New York’s Sixth Police Precinct with $1200 per month, thus avoiding regulations. With this freedom, he also ran a dirty business—without running water or clean glasses, outbreaks of hepatitis, and not-up-to code fire exits.
On the night of June 28, 1969, the police didn’t warn Lauria ahead of time about one of their routine raids. Perhaps Fat Tony had forgotten his payments for some time. Two hundred and five people partied in the club that night when the police arrived to drive them out—but not before suspected gender outlaws were forced to reveal their genitals to female police in the bathroom. In many ways, it was a raid similar to most of those that patrons had surely lived through before. But this night, instead of dispersing, a crowd formed outside the bar, growing in size as passersby and neighbors came to see about the hubbub.
The night is riddled with rumors as to the chain of events. One rumor goes: the night also happened to be the memorial for Judy Garland, so a crowd was already gathered outside to pay her homage. And, the death of this gay icon further exacerbated their desperation and rage. Most people agree, however, that when a police officer knocked the head of a woman as he shoved her into the back of a paddy wagon, she screamed out, “do something!” And the crowd listened.
A riot burst out with bricks thrown at cop cars and the bar set on fire. A can-can line of gay men approached a police riot line; at first this was a humorous, and ironic, face-off, until the police countered with swift blows of batons to their opponents’ backs. Forty-five minutes later, everything in the bar was broken.
The riots continued the following night with 1000 protestors in the street. Stonewall regulars Craig Rodwell and Fred Sargeant spent the day distributing the aforementioned pamphlets. On Wednesday, a crowd of 500 – 1000 people stormed the doors of the Village Voice, threatening to burn the offices down for disparaging and homophobic remarks in their morning paper. Queer heroes like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy joined the protests, using them as inspiration for the cofounding of subsequent gay groups the Gay Liberation Front, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), and the Gay Activists Alliance.
Prior to Stonewall there were approximately 50 – 60 gay groups across North America. A year later, there were 1500. To commemorate the riots, the first ever gay pride parade ran along Christopher Street in 1970, with sister marches in Chicago and Los Angeles. While the fight for LGBT equality continues to this day, and varies by state legislature, the 90s and early 2000s saw a burst of gay legal wins. In June 26, 2003, sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex as well as same-sex adolescents of a close age became legal nationwide in Lawrence v. Texas. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court deemed marriage between same-sex couples legal in Obergefell v. Hodges. That same year, the Stonewall Inn became the first location to be honored as a landmark for its role in fighting for LGBT rights.
With No Agenda Genda, Ramos honors Stonewall, as well as Act Up!, the direct action advocacy established in 1987 that fought for legislation, medical research, and treatment and policies to bring an end to the AIDS crisis. The history of the AIDS crisis, and its continuation, demonstrates the ongoing need for marches and movements, such as those found each year during Pride. Check back on the blog for more on ACT Up! later this summer.
This June, honor this queer New York City history with Antonio at the first Out of Line of the Season this June 19 and 20.