This is the first in a series of “Then & Now” articles looking at historic places that have made New York the cradle of LGBTQ life from Stonewall to today at Pride 50.
In the late 1960s, The Stonewall Inn wasn’t the history-altering turn-up it is today.
It was a Mafia-owned private club that catered to Greenwich Village’s emerging community. Like all gay bars at the time, the place was subject to frequent police raids—just another fact of life at a time when homosexuality was outlawed and pretty much everyone was on what now call the DL. During one such raid on the night of June 28, 1969, a riot broke out after bar patrons began resisting arrest.
Urban legend has it that the queens at the bar that night were so distraught by the recent death of gay icon Judy Garland that they were in a particularly defiant mood. “Not today, Satan,” doesn’t even begin to describe their response to the boys in blue. As patrons were loaded into the paddy wagon, the crowd on the street turned on the police, forcing officers to barricade themselves inside the bar itself.
A year later, the heartiest among them marched from the Village to Central Park to commemorate the event, in what is recognized as the first gay pride march and a precursor to the riotous parades we see all over the country today. The Stonewall riots, as they are now known, are considered the spark that ignited the modern equality movement.
The bar’s history has been immortalized in more than one eponymous film. Skip Roland Emmerich’s whitewashed 2015 retelling and try to dig up a bootleg copy of English director Nigel Finch’s 1995 flick. Like Emmerich’s Stonewall, Finch’s is heavily fictionalized, but it honors the role that trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson played in the uprising.
Today, Stonewall Inn occupies half the space of the original—but it’s exponentially louder, prouder, and more historically significant. The space reopened in the 1990s and underwent several renovations and revamps before being declared a national monument by President Obama in 2016. The Stonewall National Monument includes not only the bar, but Christopher Street Park across the street, featuring haunting statues by sculptor George Segal commemorating the long struggle for equality.
It is the first LGBTQ site in the country to have been listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places and to be named a U.S. National Park monument – and it’s probably a good guess that it’s the only one that features our own kind of natural beauty: drag shows, go-go dancers, and DJs.
As such, it has become something akin to hallowed ground for America’s gay community. In recent years, it has been the site of protests against the Trump administration, memorials for the victims of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub massacre, and celebrations marking the passage of marriage equality both in New York state and the nation as a whole.
But don’t let its revered status fool you. Stonewall is still a place to grab a drink – or several – shoot some pool, flirt with an increasingly diverse group of cute queers, and work up a sweat on the dance floor.
If you’re lucky, you may even run into a celeb or two. Cate Blanchette, Taylor Swift, Joe Biden, and Madonna are just four divas to have graced the bar’s cabaret stage for surprise appearances over the years.
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