June is pride month. This year I decided to post a PRIDE picture to Instagram each day of the month. I thought it would be a fun way to get people to think about our community. What I didn’t count on was how much I would learn about our history.
I knew this year marked 50 years since the Stonewall riots. I knew that Stonewall Inn was located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, that within two years it become the largest gay establishment in the United States, and that it catered to drag queens, transgender people, male prostitutes, and homeless male teens.
I didn’t know that the Stonewall Inn was Mafia run or that the mafia paid the Sixth Precinct of the NYPD a monthly stipend of $1,200 to keep the club running with minimal police interference.
I did know that patrons were charged just to walk in the door, because that was still the case the first time I walked into a lesbian bar in 1983.
The bar was the Hershee Bar in Norfolk, Virginia. It had just opened. I paid $2.00 to a large bouncer who would stand guard and warn us if something was amiss. Even in 1983, there was a police raid during the first night of operation. Afterward, Annette Stone, an inspiration and hero to many women, installed a warning light above the dance floor that would flash to let patrons know that police were coming. I remember quietly fleeing when it flashed.
I didn’t know that the State Liquor Authority at this time considered any establishment that served alcohol to gay customers to be “disorderly houses” or places where “unlawful practices are habitually carried on by the public.” Because of this, the inn was known as a “bottle club,” meaning it didn’t need a liquor license because guest brought their own bottles.
Except they did sell liqueur.
I didn’t know that they didn’t have running water behind the bar. No. Running. Water. Glasses were not really washed. Instead, they were only rinsed in sinks of stagnant water that grew increasingly filthy as a night wore on, and this was sited as the cause of a hepatitis outbreak in 1969.
I didn’t know that Stonewall Inn, just like so many other establishments that catered to our lgbt community, had toilets that were overflowing and no fire exits.
I knew that fifty years ago it was risky to visit bars that were known to accommodate lgbt clientele. I just didn’t realize how much, and I also didn’t realize how much I have been a part of that change. I guess we don’t think about it as much when we are doing it.
Things have changed. We can marry and love and move about with less chance of harm. Thinking about the last fifty years has taught me that less chance of harm is not good enough. There are still few monuments or places where we can go to stand in our history. We must not loss site of this.
I am proud to be queer and so thankful for everyone who has fought, and everyone who continues to fight, for our civil rights.
For an interesting account of the Stonewall riots, check out the radio documentary that uses views of the participants as it examines the gay life both before and after the event.