In the years and months leading up to Stonewall, there was a mounting air of frustration and excitement. The queers were quietly starting to revolt. Gone were the days of hiding or silently slipping away into the darkness.
From the brawl at Coopers Do-Nuts, to the protests in Washington D.C., to the Compton Cafeteria Riots. One outburst, one rebellion, one picket line after another was sparking a resistance. All across America the queer community was standing together and heading towards an all-out war. Join us on Part One of Stonewall as we cover the events that lead us to the brink of that war.
Why the Stonewall, and not the Sewer or the Snake Pit? The answer lies, we believe, in the unique nature of the Stonewall. This club was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place. It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.
The “drags” and the “queens”, two groups which would find a chilly reception or a barred door at most of the other gay bars and clubs, formed the “regulars” at the Stonewall. To a large extent, the club was for them…. Apart from the Goldbug and the One Two Three, “drags” and “queens” had no place but the Stonewall….
We want to start this episode off by listing our references and Evan will talk a little about them. Going into our second year, we are going to be much more aware of our making sure we note our reference material. We will also be publishing our scripts online, and sources for those scripts (with links) will be marked at the bottom. We hope this will help people doing research for their own queerstory.
Our references this week come from several sources. Our main text is the book “Stonewall; Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights” by Ann Bausum. While this book does give an excellent timeline of the events that unfolded before, during and after the Stonewall Riots, it does not accurately represent the many heroes of the riots. Particularly People of Color and Transgender women.
Our second source is Transgender History by Susan Stryker. We have used this book in much of our research on this podcast and cannot recommend it enough. Strykers book was used for these two episodes to gain a better picture of transgender activism leading up to Stonewall.
Our last main text was the Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America; Volume 3. Any good Encyclopedia of queer history is definitely recommended for our serious queerstorians. We also pulled some info from the following sources; A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, Modern HERstory by Blair Imani, and several online articles from the Advocate, the Atlantic, Britannica, Wikipedia, and more. Which will be linked on the scripts if you would like to check them out.
But now let’s dive into the story of one of the most momentous occasions in American Queer History, and even world history. The story of a small bar in East Greenwich Village New York. But before we get to that bar, and that pivotal night. We must first establish the reasons behind the Stonewall Riots. Why was THIS raid on THIS bar on THIS night so different from the hundreds of raids of various gay bars in the past on countless other nights?
Throughout the mid-1950s and into the ’60s, queer individuals had begun to come out into the open. New information about homosexuality was coming to light through the Kinsey Report and Dr. Evelyn Hooker’s research. Organizations such as the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and the Janus Society, had formed and were actively working towards social acceptance and queer rights. Magazines like One, The Ladder, Transvestia, and Drum were now legally able to be sold thanks to One Magazine winning their “Obscenity Battle” in court. These newsletters further connected the LGBTQ community and made it possible for queer individuals all across the country to stay informed of their rights and social progress.
And as more groups formed, and more information was offered, and more people came out of the woodwork to join the ranks of the Homocracy – the air of revolution began to ripen. And the 60’s were a perfect time for a revolution. The Black Civil Rights movement was in full swing, the Feminist Uprising was taking suburban homes by storm. Asian Americans were speaking out against the injustices they had faced during World War 2 and a century before. LatinX and Hispanic migrant farmers were meeting and beginning to whisper against their cruel labor conditions. America was set for the largest upheaval she had seen since the Civil War. And the queers weren’t going to be left behind.
On a late Los Angeles evening in May of 1959, Police barged into a small all-night coffee shop named Cooper’s Do-Nut. The cafe was nestled in-between two gay bars and was a favorite late-night hangout for drag queens and transgender individuals. Almost all African-American or LatinX people, and many of whom were homeless. The shop was constantly under police surveillance and the officers routinely harassed those coming in or out of the place. They would demand I.D. and if the person’s perceived gender didn’t match their attire, the officers would arrest them. Which for drag queens and transgender people was naturally a problem.
On this night though the Police became more aggressive. This time they went straight into the cafe and began to round up anyone they suspected of crossdressing or general deviancy. The people inside began to resist, throwing doughnuts at the cops and eventually outright brawling with them. The event went unnoticed by the general public, but the queer community was ignited by word of the small riot. Activists began to rev up their cries for action.
In September of 1964, a small group of gays and lesbians picketed outside a military building in New York City. Their protest, the first organized gay rights demonstration on record, was against the Military’s violation of queer personnel’s confidentiality. The Armed Services had released records of gay men who were discharged, publicly outing those individuals. A few months later in December, another group of homosexuals picketed a local lecture by a psychotherapist who claimed homosexuality was a mental illness.
In 1965, Queer protests erupted across the country. In San Francisco, there was a brief riot outside of the “Council on Religion and the Homosexual.” In Washington D.C. and New York City, members of the Homophile movement protested against Cuba’s enslavement of homosexuals. In Philadelphia, 150 people staged a sit-in at Dewey’s Restaurant after the owner refused to serve to people in “non-conforming clothes”. The business had been a popular queer joint for over 20 years but suddenly management had decided they were bad for business. Three people were arrested in the initial sit in, and over the next few weeks, dozens of queer individuals picketed the restaurant. Finally, in May the business ceased its discrimination and the non-violent protest came to an end.
Philadelphia’s queer organization, the Janus society, often overlooked beneath Mattachine’s shadow, understood the importance of equal rights and equal justice for ALL queer people. Not just the white, cisgender, heterosexual appearing queer. They wrote of the Dewey protest on May 2, 1965:
All too often, there is a tendency to be concerned with the rights of homosexuals as long as they somehow appear to be heterosexual, whatever that is. The masculine woman and the feminine man often are looked down upon….but the Janus Society is concerned with the worth of an individual and the manner in which she or he comports himself. What is offensive today remains offensive tomorrow to some persons, there is no reason to penalize non-conformist behavior unless there is direct anti-social behavior connected with it.
As the homophile and transgender rights movements marched on with more protests, pickets, and activism throughout 1965 and into 1966, the biggest pre-stonewall outcry was yet to come. On a hot August night in San Francisco in 1966, a group of queens sat at a table in the Compton Cafeteria. An all-night diner – is anyone recognizing a theme? – and habitual hangout for lgbt people, especially POC who were drag queens and transgender. On this night, the table of queens was being too loud, according to the manager, so the staff called the police. This wasn’t the first time the employees at Compton’s had called the police on their queer patrons. Since July, several LGBTQ protesters had been picketing in protest of the restaurant’s mounting bigotry.
When large officer wrenched the arm of one of the drag queens, her coffee flew into his face. Immediately the cafe erupted into an all-out brawl with tables flipped, plates smashed, and drag queens beating off cops with their stiletto heels. Around 50-60 people began to riot, vandalizing the police wagon that had arrived to arrest the queens and trans women. Raymond Broshears later recalled, “General havoc was raised that night in the Tenderloin” (the name was given to that area of San Francisco). The next day there was another picket line, and by that evening the protest had dissolved into riots again.
The Compton Cafeteria Riots were a preview of the chaos to come. As activist revved up their protests, Police and public officials revved up their open discrimination. While New York had been the first state to repeal their sodomy laws in 1950, they were light years away from acceptance and tolerance. Though an individual could no longer be arrested for sleeping with a person of the same sex, Police still found plenty of ways to harass the queer community. The New York State Liquor Authority had a long-standing law that prohibited the sale of alcohol to “sexual deviants” a.k.a queer people. A similar law was in almost every state in the country at the time. This meant that gay bars, or gay bars that served alcohol at least, were illegal. Though many places ignored their laws against serving homosexuals, other’s took the regulations quite seriously. Many bars even posted a sign in the window that read “If you’re Gay, go Away”.
In addition to the no drinking laws, Police also had the ability to arrest cross-dressers and sex workers. Which disproportionately targeted transgender women of color who often had not other means of income. The police also set up entrapments for gay men. Often an officer would lure a man behind an alley or into a bathroom and offer the man money for sexual favors, or simply claim that he had offered money. Once the act was underway – many times WELL underway – other officers would come around and arrest the deviant. And while lesbians didn’t face the same kind of entrapment, they battled the sexism and oppression that all women faced. Only they were also dealing with the intersecting identity of being a queer female, which doubled their oppression and harassment. And if they were a queer woman of color? Forget it. The scrutiny was unending.
Because of the many legal limitations, gay bars were often forced to go through the Mafia. Due to their ties with the NYPD, the mafia was able to notify a bar if a raid was scheduled for that evening. This, in turn, allowed the managers to notify their patrons to stay away. Even after the repeal of the Alcohol Laws in 1968, the raids continued to happen and many bar owners felt compelled to keep their mafia ties. Which came at quite a price. Not only did the owners have to pay the Mob’s steep fees, but they also had to send along funds to the corrupt policemen who worked for the mafia. If someone couldn’t make their payment, suddenly their bar was raided by the NYPD. And of course, there were raids strictly for political appearances. Most queer patrons knew to stay away from the bars during election seasons when the raid frequency went up as candidates attempted to show they were “cleaning up the city.”
In 1966, Mob cronie Tony Laria, a.k.a. Fat Tony, who served under Mafia Boss Matty the Horse, opened up a new bar on 53 Christopher Street. The bar was built in the former home of the Stonewall Inn Restaurant which had closed down after a severe fire. Fat Tony lacked imagination and creativity – as evidenced by his black paint to covered the fire charred walls – and simply named his new bar “The Stonewall Inn”. But what he lacked in decorative imagination, he made up for in business savvy. While the issue of serving alcohol to homosexuals was currently being debated in city and government meetings, Gay bars were not yet in the clear. So instead, Tony made his establishment a bottle club. Every bottle had a person’s name as if it belonged to a “member”. This made the bar appear more exclusive and private. Which would limit police suspicion.
This also created a safe space for queer people, and through time, especially queer people of color. In order to keep up appearances, the bar was selective of who they allowed inside. They also required all patrons to sign in on a registry. And in the first year or so, POC were often turned away. But in time that changed and eventually the Stonewall would become THE place for queer people of color. We don’t have a set reason as to why this happened, but we do have a theory.
Initially, racism and prejudice played their ugly hands in excluding POC, transgender individuals and gender non-conforming people from the Stonewall. No doubt the Mob bosses thought they could make better money off the white patrons. And since white patrons had better job (and overall) opportunities that wasn’t a bad guess. But in late 67 the SLA (State Liquor Authority) began to ease up on its charges against gay bars. And in January of 1968, a Judge ruled “There is nothing wrong, per se, with a gay bar”. This allowed queer citizens to officially own and operate their own bars. Without Mob interference and thus Mob dues.
Many white gays and lesbians jumped at this chance. Even with the continued Police raids and harassment in search of other violations, it was still better than to be beholden to the mob. Because not only had the Mafia taken advantage of the bars through extortion of funds; but they had also been blackmailing the patrons. Yes, if you visited a gay bar in New York and you weren’t already out, the mob would blackmail you and threaten to expose you to your work, your family and any other relation that could be harmed. Gay men especially were paying hundreds of dollars to the Mob to keep their orientation a secret. And lesbians with children were being forced to find a way to pay off the sharks so that they did not lose custody of their kids.
In reaction to this seedy practice, white gays and lesbians began to petition the community to avoid Mafia run bars. And for the whites, this was doable as many of them also had other clubs, organizations, and bars that they could frequent. But for transgender individuals, and cross-dressers, and homeless youth and people of color, the options were limited. Most feared the police raids more than they did the blackmail, as many had little to lose. So in time, the Stonewall Inn became a safe haven for the queer misfits. Here was a place where they could gather, with others like them, and not fear the discrimination of the police, the local citizens, and even their own LGBT siblings. The Atlantic featured gay journalist Dick Leitsch account of the Stonewall Inn:
This club was more than a dance bar, more than just a gay gathering place. It catered largely to a group of people who are not welcome in or cannot afford, other places of homosexual social gathering.
The “drags” and the “queens”, two groups which would find a chilly reception or a barred door at most of the other gay bars and clubs, formed the “regulars” at the Stonewall. To a large extent, the club was for them….
Then too, there are hundreds of young homosexuals in New York who literally have no home. Most of them are between 16 and 25 and came here from other places without jobs, money or contacts. Many of them are running away from unhappy homes (one boy told us, “My father called me ‘cock******so many times, I thought it was my name.”). Another said his parents fought so much over which of them “made” him a homosexual that he left so they could learn to live together.
These were the people who made up Stonewall. Those rejected by everyone else. And Fat Tony, understanding a business opportunity, capitalized on this nitch market. He turned the bar into a thriving hotspot of popularity. The Inn took in about 10-12,000 dollars every weekend (the equivalent of 35,000 today) and they paid out roughly $1,200 to the Mob (worth $8,000 today). Within two years the Stonewall went from a dull, drabby bar to a swanky club complete with caged male go-go dancers. The perfect place for a great birthday party. Which is exactly what Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were doing on June 28, 1969, when the world exploded.