Why the Mafia Controlled Stonewall and the Other Gay Bars in 1960s New York

It’s easy to forget that  just 50 years ago, gay people weren’t even allowed to dance in public.

From the AskHistorians sub-reddit:

“It wasn’t just Stonewall. In the 1960s, the Mafia (and specifically the Genovese mob family) was behind pretty much every bar in Manhattan that courted a gay clientele. And it wasn’t just $3500 startup–it was $1200 a month after that, to ensure that the police and State Liquor Authority would allow Stonewall to reopen after each very frequent raid.

“The repeal of Prohibition may have restored Americans’ right to drink alcohol, but municipalities and states found various ways to curtail gay people’s ability to drink together in public. In San Francisco, Sal Stoueman’s Black Cat Cafe (made particularly famous by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) handed out “I’m A Boy” nametags to patrons, so undercover cops could not arrest its drag performers, “gay screaming queens” (TM Ginsberg), or even “gray flannel suit types” for female impersonation with intent to defraud or deceive someone into sex. Los Angeles undercover cops would count the seconds they saw people kiss (in greeting, on New Years’ Eve, whatever) and arrest or brutalize whatever they considered to transcend the line from celebration to queer. The favored tactic of the New York SLA, of course, was to raid and shutter bars declared “disorderly,” such an excellent weasel word.

“Things might have reached a breaking point around 1960. Out in California, a group of San Francisco gay bar owners had banded together to go public about the massive bribes they were paying police in order to remain open, the effect being, they exposed significant police corruption. This resulted in the effective closure of SF’s 50 or so gay bars–but had ramifications across the country, too. In New York, only one bar managed to survive an initial 1960s shakedown and mass closure.

“The good half of the story, from there, is that the 1960-61 bar closures marked some of the most important pre-Stonewall gay rights protests and publicly broadcast activism. The Black Cat’s famous drag-performing singer, Jose Sarria, was the first openly gay candidate for public office in the US (SF city supervisor). Several bar owners’ groups (the Tavern Guild in particular) formed to lobby specifically for the rights of owners to court a gay clientele; even The Advocate started publication in response. In New York, a massive group of gay men staged a public protest of, essentially, “being gay in public” in midtown until cops and politicians basically allowed bars to operate for a period of time so they would go be queer out of sight.

“But the earlier entrenched corruption of statutory violation, raid, bribe, reopen cycle became even more vicious in most places. In the 1960s in particular, therefore, the Mafia pretty much made New York’s gay bar scene a treasured racket. They charged ridiculous cover fees and generally served cheap, lousy alcohol in exchange for the masquerade of protection from police raids. In fact, gay bars were raided as often as ever; just, protection fees like the $1200 Stonewall paid monthly meant the bars would be allowed to reopen afterwards. Stonewall’s bribe was particularly high, generally rumored the highest, because of all the other shady business that went on or allegedly went on (blackmail of customers, a prostitution ring, possibly a pedophile ring that accompanied a reputation in the heterosexual NY community of Stonewall as a place to go “tourist slumming.”)

“Word of mouth that Stonewall (Cherry Lane Theater, Fifth Avenue Bar, etc) were ‘periodically safe’ places for gay people to drink and be gay in public was crucial for the Mafia to keep their gay bars profitable, particularly a complete dive like Stonewall for which the space was really the only attraction.

“But it wasn’t just a one-way street, obviously. The gay community had its own formal means of communication, like the Mattachine Society’s Gay Scene Guide that informed readers the Stonewall Inn was one of a very few (maybe the only?) gay bar that allowed dancing and welcomed people obviously dressed in drag or otherwise flouting gender, not just sexuality, norms. The publication itself warned potential patrons that Stonewall was not safe (don’t give out your real name or address; the bar owners and workers are not on your side, either; the cops will raid periodically)–conditions fostered in large part by the mob ownership and oversight.

“In the middle of the 20th century, gay bars were a hot moneymaking opportunity for any shady criminal businessman or corrupt cop. In New York, the Mafia took particular control of the situation in the 1960s, including the fateful cultivation of Stonewall into the trashiest yet in some ways most emotionally significant in terms of “freedoms” permitted queer-clientele bar in the city.”

Full discussion in context with suggested readings.

Image from Encyclopedia Brittanica.






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