NYC Gay History
by David Sokol, 03/27/2009
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Forty years ago, New York City’s Greenwich Village served as the site of the Stonewall Riots, an uprising widely recognized as the birth of the modern gay rights movement. In the predawn hours of June 28, 1969, a handful of City police descended on the Stonewall Inn, a popular neighborhood gay bar. Such raids were commonplace during that era due to strong anti-gay bias, the enforcement of arcane local laws and the connection that some establishments had with organized crime. The bar’s patrons, perhaps emboldened by the civil rights movement, refused to disperse peacefully, holding a series of protests during the next few days. In the wake of the Riots, the gay pride movement took hold as groups of New Yorkers formed the Gay Liberation Front, launched the newspaper Gay and organized the Gay Activists Alliance. The first Pride March was held to mark the event’s one-year anniversary.
In the years since, gay pride has developed a multifaceted identity and achieved an impressive series of accomplishments—and all the while, New York City has remained at the epicenter of it. NYC gay history long predates Stonewall. New York’s Bowery, Greenwich Village and Times Square neighborhoods were home to a thriving gay culture by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1890, the Bowery was home to saloons and “degenerate resorts” that catered to gay men. Although we think of the nearby site of the Pyramid Club, on Avenue A in the East Village, as the birthplace of drag in the 1980s, masquerade balls and cross-dressing performance played a large role on the Bowery scene. Lesbians were less noticeable in this period, due in part to women’s lower wages, but they, too, found havens of safety and self-expression in Harlem, especially in the 1920s.
After World War II, New York City and the United States as a whole reacted against the openness of previous decades until the Stonewall confrontation elicited a firestorm of counter-resistance. Ten years later, in 1979, HIV and AIDS first began appearing in LGBT communities in Los Angeles and New York and felled too many of their members shortly thereafter, stoking another profound era of activism. In 1981, writer Larry Kramer gathered 80 peers at his apartment and founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC); GMHC would open its first office on West 22nd Street the following year. In 1987, speaking from what is today the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, Kramer issued a call for government and community response to the epidemic; his efforts eventually led to the formation of the organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
Kramer’s milestone achievements are just two examples of the LGBT community’s construction of an unprecedented network of support and services for friends and neighbors that materialized after Stonewall and continues to this day. The programs now in existence allow community members to cope with illness or substance abuse, contend with the aftermath of anti-gay or domestic violence, come to grips with their sexual identity at a young age and more. Throughout these four decades, too, gay men and lesbians have lived in New York openly, contributing to everyday initiatives as well as signature institutions and events that magnetize newcomers.