This is part of the author’s LGBTQIA encounters in New York City (and beyond), as he works with The Brooklyn Community Pride Center (BCPC) as a State Department Fellow/Community Solutions Leader of the Community Solutions Program (CSP), a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State, and implemented by IREX.
Barbara Adams (“Not ‘BARBRA,’” she stressed, with a wide, toothy smile. “My name has that ‘A’ in the middle.”) is now in her 70s, but she can still recall that time when The Stonewall Inn, this seemingly nondescript place along Christopher Street in Greenwich Village (the “gay village”), made a mark in history.
As part of The Brooklyn Community Pride Center’s Elder Pride, which gathers LGBTQIA people aged 65+, we went to the New York Public Library Jefferson Market Branch (for the Queer Book Diorama Show NYC 2014); and – after checking out the exhibit – they decided to show me, the newbie, the gay center of New York. And so, inevitably, The Stonewall Inn entered the picture.
“It started in this leather bar along Hudson Bay (at the end of Christopher Street). See, those leather guys you don’t mess with. That time, that day (in June 1969), they didn’t put up with the haters,” Barbara continued.
After a confrontation with some haters, some of the patrons of this leather bar, she said, then went to The Stonewall Inn to celebrate. “And then… that thing happened.”
And when “that thing” happened, Pride (with the capital “P”) was given birth, too, signifying that LGBTQIA people – wherever they may be – will not always take things lying down.
CRASH COURSE OF “THAT THING”
In the 1960s, being gay was not necessarily a source of pride – e.g. bars (or all venues, for that matter) they frequented were constantly raided, it was illegal to serve alcohol to gay people, and it was illegal for gays to dance with one another (SIDE NOTE: Sadly, the latter is still enforced by so many bars in the Philippines).
On June 28, 1969 (a Saturday), after 1:00AM, eight police officers who arrived at The Stonewall Inn decided to take everyone in. Their patrol wagon, however, did not yet arrive; and while they waited, a crowd gathered outside the venue. A scuffle eventually broke out, with the crowd trying to overturn the first police wagon that arrived. Everything was thrown at the police wagon – pennies, beer bottles, and then bricks. This forced the police officers (totaling 10 at that time) to barricade themselves inside The Stonewall Inn for their own safety. But the crowd’s anger didn’t let up, as garbage cans, bottles, rocks, and bricks were hurled at the building. Heck, even an uprooted parking meter was used as a battering ram on the doors of the venue!
And then the Tactical Police Force of the New York City Police Department arrived to free the police officers trapped inside The Stonewall Inn, and – with a larger number – detained anyone they could.
The next night, though, rioting again happened along Christopher Street, after news of the earlier riot spread quickly throughout Greenwich Village. This time, thousands of people gathered in front of The Stonewall Inn, confronted by over a hundred police.
On Wednesday, the street battle continued, when more protesters gathered again.
All these fighting highlighted the plight of gays and lesbians, eventually paving way for changes in their treatment. And – also eventually – it gave birth to Pride.
“JUST A BAR”
Walking along Christopher Street from W 4th (the train station), Barbara emphatically said that “we’re headed to Stonewall, which is – you’d notice – really just a bar,” as if trying to manage my expectations.
And even just standing in front of The Stonewall Inn, her observation was to-the-point. More akin to a (small) pub, the historical venue looked… common. Nothing about the place shouts “gay” or “proud” or whatever. In fact, since it is but one of the venues in a brick building, the only thing that tells passersby that it’s an LGBTQIA venue are the small paper rainbow flags atop the neon sign (behind a glass window) that reads (simply) The Stonewall Inn. In front, a menu board states: “Happy Hour – 2-for-1 All Drinks”.
Inside, where Barbara led us, the place didn’t look any grander. When entering, one immediately encounters newspaper clippings – framed for posterity – of that fateful night, when this “homo nest” (as one of the clippings states) was under siege. To the left is a long bar, with stools in front. There are posts that “separate” parts of the venue – at the center is a small space (where people end up swaying – as the mood demands); close to that is a pool table; and at the right are the tall tables and chairs/stools. Then on the walls, more framed clippings and/or photographs from the past can be found. The second floor opens when the crowd flocks (usually later in the day/night), affording people dancing space.
“It is small,” I said. “For a place that contains that much history.”
“Yes, it is,” Barbara seconded. “Yes, it is.”
IT’S THE SPIRIT…
But for its size, “this place gets really packed. Really, really packed,” John Vazquez, an elder gay guy, said.
“For a small place, that’d be easy,” I said, teasing.
He laughed. “It’s the spirit of the place, see?”
And yes, he’s right, of course.
Yes, even sans the history, the place is cozy.
And yes, here, the drinks are comparatively cheaper. This is when we speak, at least, of the Happy Hours – from 4:00PM to 9:00PM on Sundays, when a drink cost from $3 to $4; and from 2:00PM to 8:00PM from Monday to Friday, when it’s two-for-one. (An acquaintance complained how gay bars in New York City charge upwards of $8 for a bottle of beer, “and gay men just buy even if it’s a rip-off!)
But there’s a feeling of being welcomed here.
“Most certainly!” was the bartender’s answer when Barbara asked if it’s okay to have photos of the bar taken. This response is, by the way, not typical in New York City, where people are expected to ask for permission before pointing and shooting, and then only to be told “No photography allowed here!”. Because here – it is apparent – the history of what happened in those days in June in 1969 are still remembered, and celebrated, and willingly shared.
And that, in so many ways, somewhat shows this place’s relevance in the struggle.
That even in unexpected places, we can gather our forces, fight battles, win battles, and celebrate our successes.
“You want a drink?” I asked Barbara.
She laughed heartily again.
And then off we discussed how to regroup (be that while drinking beer), so that newer battles (for other LGBTQIA people in other parts of the world) can be fought…
The Stonewall Inn is located at 53 Christopher Street, New York City. It is open daily from 2:00PM to 4:00AM. Be sure to bring a valid (21+) ID to be allowed access.
For more information, call +1-212-488-2705; or visit http://www.thestonewallinnnyc.com/StonewallInnNYC/HOME.html.