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Why Dancing Was So Important at the Stonewall Inn, New York's Newly-Landmarked Gay Bar

The Stonewall riots were motivated by gay men and women feeling that their freedom to dance was being threatened.

by Steve Weinstein
Jun 24 2015, 8:15pm

On June 28, 1969, a dark, dingy dance bar in New York's Greenwich Village known as the Stonewall Inn was raided by police. When its patrons resisted, the three nights of rioting that followed inadvertently kicked off a worldwide gay rights movement.

On June 23, 2015 history was made again when the bar was declared an official New York City landmark. For many, it's long-overdue recognition to a place that Barak Obama, in his second inaugural address, used as a byword for LGBT rights, along with feminism's Seneca Falls and the Civil Rights movement's Selma.

Coverage of the Stonewall riots was tinged with homophobia

While its centrality to the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States is widely acknowledged, the point that gets lost in the historicity of the place is that the Stonewall was, above all, a dance bar. Even before the riots, the Stonewall had already achieved underground fame as a rare space where gay men, lesbians and drag queens could lock limbs with each other with impunity. The violent protests in reaction to the police raid were motivated—at least partly—by these marginalized groups feeling that their freedom to dance was being threatened.

"It was the only bar where we could slow dance," recalls artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, who participated in the riots. "That was totally revolutionary. Being able to dance with someone of the same sex changed everything in the way you felt about yourself. Because you were having an affectionate moment, you felt totally humanized."

"That had everything to do with the rebellion," he continues. "It was totally spontaneous. We were angry that we couldn't dance."

As for the music that soundtracked that dancing, "it was totally eclectic," Lanigan-Schmidt says. "It attracted people of every class. Everyone went because it was the best place to dance and the jukebox was so good. The music was mostly Motown, a lot of Martha and the Vandellas."

The Stonewall Inn in 1969 (Photo via the New York Public Library)

The Stonewall was controlled by the Mafia who regularly paid off the police, who in turn tipped off the owner about any upcoming raid. These raids usually culminated in a few cross-dressers, illegal at the time, getting booked at the local precinct. Later that night, the bar would re-open, and soon enough it would seem like nothing had happened.

Except that on that steamy June night, things didn't go as planned. Maybe there was something in the air; a rash of spontaneous protests against police raids in other bars were happening elsewhere in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and at Julius, a gay bar around the corner from the Stonewall where the men dressed in suits and ties.

A still from the upcoming 'Stonewall' film (Photo via Stonewall)

Scholars have struggled to explain what made Stonewall different. For riot veteran Martin Boyce. it was a matter of being the right place at the right time. "It was because this was the only place in the city where we had a turf," said Boyce, who served as an advisor to Stonewall, an upcoming feature film starring Jonathan Rhy-Meyers. "Greenwich Village was the freest part of New York, which was the freest of all cities. It was all about freedom in those days."

Certainly, the building itself offers nothing of architectural interest. Stonewall closed a few months after the riots and, after serving as a bagel shop and clothing store, reopened in 1990. Ten years later, it became the first site specifically of LGBT interest designated a National Historic Landmark. Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation Executive Director Andrew Berman is among those who have been advocating city landmark status for years.

A gay bar guide from the 60s highlighting the Stonewall Inn (Photo courtesy of the LGBT Community Center, National History Archive)

"Its funny," he said. "It takes a couple of decades to get this kind of recognition." The remarkable recent advances in LGBT rights probably had a lot to do with finally forcing the Landmark Commission's hand, he added.

The National Park Service project has identified close to 400 sites deemed of historical LGBT interest across the country, from bathhouses to places of worship. In addition to Stonewall, there are four other sites already given National Historic Landmark status, all of them private homes.

"There's a lot of interest right now in LGBT history," said Tom Mayes, deputy general counsel of the National Trust for Historical Preservation. "It's always easier to save beautiful buildings than ugly ones, but buildings of cultural significance are still important."

Of course, many local nightclubs could fall under that requirement. But in New York, only four have been landmarked so far, and of them, exactly two began life as dance clubs: the Rainbow Room, a high-end supper club in Rockefeller Center; and La Casina, an Art Moderne building on the eastern fringe of the city, long used as a factory. Of the two others, Webster Hall, built in 1886, became a nightclub in 1992; and the Church of the Holy Communion became the notorious Limelight (now closed).

"People traditionally haven't focused on use" when considering landmark status, Mayes noted. "Increasingly that's starting to change."

"I think it would be near impossible to designate non-functioning nightclubs as landmarks," he continues. "Nightclubs have their own natural lifecycles. Imagine the insane cost of maintaining the megaclubs from yesteryear once they have ceased operations."

Maybe so, but local preservationist Richard Adkins complained to the Los Angeles Times, "It's hard to see how far you have come when you have no evidence of where you began. The cultural use should be given more weight. We're going to wind up losing these places one by one."