The LGBTQ+ Communities of New York City (1890 – 1970)

Historian Edmund White once claimed that prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, gay pride did not exist. 1John Strausbaugh, The Village: 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues: A History of Greenwich Village (New York, NY: Ecoo, 2014), 457. In the place of gay pride was “gay fear and gay isolation and gay distrust and gay self-hatred.” 2 George Chauncey, “A Gay World, Vibrant and Forgotten,” The New York Times, June 25, 1994. While gay clubs, bathhouses, and bars began to appear in their earliest variations in New York City in the final quarter of the 19th century, the earliest years of the 20thcentury saw the emergence of an unusually vibrant, working-class, gay community in New York City. 3 Ibid  Changing social attitudes towards sex in 1920s New York City, bolstered by the energy of the Progressive Era and the liberal culture of the Roaring ‘20s, allowed for a proud LGBTQ+ community to emerge in its own nooks and crannies of New York City. LGBTQ+ Historian George Chauncey claims that,

Openly gay men drank with sailors and other working men at waterfront dives and entertained them at Bowery saloons; well-known gay people casually mixed with other patrons at Harlem’s basement cabarets; lesbians ran speakeasies where Greenwich Village bohemians — straight and gay — gathered to read their verse.”4 Chauncey, “A Gay World, Vibrant and Forgotten”

However, whatever societal acceptance of this burgeoning LGBTQ+ community existed in New York City ended as the Great Depression swept the United States, effectively destroying the liberal cultural attitudes of Progressivism and the Roaring ‘20s. 5Natalie Zarrelli, “The Incredible Forgotten Queer Nightlife Scene of the 1920s,” Atlas Obscura, June 12, 2016, accessed February 18, 2018, Gone were the vibrant drag shows that The New York Age claimed saw “color prejudice…thrown to the winds, as Nordic contestants mixed freely with their darkskinned [sic] brethren,” events that even “the police did not find necessary to raid.”6“Hamilton Lodge, No. 710 In Annual Masquerade And Civic Ball,” The New York Age, March 5, 1927. Instead, the 1930s forced many members of the LGBTQ+ community into a closet that had not existed ten years prior. 7 Zarelli, “The Incredible Forgotton Queer Nightlife Scene of the 1920s”

Gay Liberation Front march on Times Square in New York, N.Y., 1969.
Youth members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1969. (Diana Davies, “Gay Liberation Front marches on Times Square, New York City, 1969,” digital image, New York Public Library Digital Collections, 2017,

Despite New York City’s fading cultural liberalism, it was in New York’s Greenwich Village, a pre-established haven for the culturally, racially, and ideologically diverse, that the LGBTQ+ community crafted the beginnings of an artistic, sexual, cultural, and ideological renaissance. The culturally conservative attitudes that arose in 1930s New York City allowed for a cultural exodus to occur, one that pushed artists and bohemians into the established artistic oasis in downtown Manhattan. Along with the artists and bohemians came the the communists, the anarchists, and the “queers and fairies,” in the words of Chauncey. 8George Chauncey et al., Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: BasicBooks, 1994), 244Drawn to the eccentricity of the Village and the open-minded ideologies of it’s residents, the LGBTQ+ community was able to flee the conservative ideologies of New York and in some cases, the greater United States in order to find social harmony amongst the bohemians of Greenwich Village. 9Ibid

Just as World War II resparked the American economy and revitalized New York City as an American cultural capital, the Village continued to grow as an eccentric alternative to the glitz and glamour of 1940s Midtown Manhattan.10Strausbaugh, The Village, 216. However, despite the growth of cultural influence in Greenwich Village that occurred during the War, mainstream post-war American society was not as accepting of the eccentricities and ideologies that Greenwich Village housed. The McCarthy-ist “witch-hunts” of the early Cold War were not reserved solely for government officials who were suspected communists and, in fact, the Second Red Scare allowed for an increase in blatant homophobia as the LGBTQ+ community was targeted in “The Lavender Scare.” 11David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Civil Service, 1945-1975 (2000), 219. McCarthy’s anti-communist sentiments were often accompanied by homophobic remarks, commonly referring to the two groups as the “communists and the queers” in speeches.12Lillian Faderman, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 21-22.Greenwich Village was just as much a hotbed for communism and anarchism following WWII as it was a gay haven, and as such, the neighborhood was the target of scorn from mainstream American society. 13Strausbaugh, The Village, 223.However, despite exterior societal, medical, and governmental voices condemning LGBTQ+ communities like those in the Village, the 1950s saw the establishment of a burgeoning civil rights campaign that would one day become the LGBTQ+ rights movement. 14 It was during this time period that President Eisenhower passed Executive Order 10450, and the psychiatric field deemed homosexuality a curable mental disorder. In the words of LGBTQ+ Historian, Charles Kaiser, “Despite its many hardships, gay life in New York City in the fifties offered more possibilities than it did anywhere else.” 15Charles Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis: the Landmark History of Gay Life in America (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 88. The Mattachine Society, an organization dedicated to repealing homophobic laws and preventing discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, established its second chapter outside of San Francisco in New York City in 1955. 16 “Mattachine Society, Inc. of New York Records 1951-1976.” Mattachine Society, Inc. of New York Records. Accessed February 18, 2018. The group saw it’s most active period in the mid-1960s as the gay rights movement sprang to action against sodomy laws and housing discrimination. 17 Ibid The “Sip-in” protest of 1966 saw anti-gay liquor laws overturned when members of the NYC chapter of the Mattachine Society went to Julius, a tavern based in Greenwich Village, announced their sexuality, ordered alcoholic beverages, and sued for discrimination upon refusal. 18“Gay Rights,”, 2017, accessed February 18, 2018, These protests, based on the civil disobedience practices of African Americans in the American south, saw minor victories given to New York’s LGBTQ+ communities on the path towards equal rights and societal acceptance.19Faderman, The Gay Revolution, 179.

However, the burgeoning gay rights movement that existed prior to June 28th, 1969, pales in comparison to the LGBTQ+ rights movement spurned following the Stonewall Riots. What truly occurred that night at the Stonewall Inn is not known. According to LGBTQ+ historian Linda Hirshman, “The events at the Stonewall Inn in the early morning of June 28, 1969, are the most contested hours in gay history. People who were there dispute each other’s accounts and people even dispute who was there at all.” 20Linda R. Hirshman, Victory: the Triumphant Gay Revolution(New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2017), 88.

However, despite a lack of concrete evidence to support the happenings of the night, it is undeniable that the Stonewall Riots were a unifiying catalyst in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights across New York City, the United States, and the world. The Stonewall Riots saw the Mattachine Society, a group that advocated for mere assimilation of LGBTQ+ individuals into mainstream society, fall in favor of more radical LGBTQ+ inclusion groups, including the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). 21Hirshman, Victory, 92-93.GLF fought for the creation of specific spaces for sexual minorities, eradicating the more passive Mattachine Society-esque LGBTQ+ rights movement , and were key in reviving a politically and sexually liberated LGBTQ+ community in New York City, the likes of which had not been seen since the fall of Progressivism. 22Faderman, The Gay Revolution, 196-197.

However, the emergence of such a proud liberated culture amongst LGBTQ+ communities across America did not emerge without consideration of the risks that such a culture may bring. While American society viewed the sexual relations of the LGBTQ+ community even prior to the AIDS Crisis as risky and promiscuous, activists within the community emerged as infrastructural leaders in their efforts to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.23 Strausbaugh, The Village, 537-538 Activists worked to ensure that sexual behavior remained safe in gay clubs, bathhouses, and other popular “cruising” areas in the Village by providing condoms and other forms of sexual protection, and through establishing gay clinics and health centers that provided testing for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and hepatitis, the diseases that were of the the largest concern to the LGBTQ+ community in the 1970s. 24 Ibid This new generation of vocal activists included men like Paul Popham and Larry Kramer, men who advocated for the well-being of their greater community, men who would one day fight for the lives of thousands of their peers during the height of the AIDS Crisis. 25Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988), 120. By creating an LGBTQ+ movement in the Village that fought for radical and immediate change, post-Stonewall LGBTQ+ rights’ activists were able to make mainstream the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community and to pave the path for further equality for sexual minorities.



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