How the Mafia Once Controlled the New York Gay Scene

Phillip Crawford Jr.'s book "The Mafia and the Gays" traces the history of the time when the mob had a near-monopoly on NYC's gay bars.

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Jul 30 2015, 5:45pm

In the second half of the 20th century, New York City saw a boom in organized crime, with New York and New Jersey at the epicenter of mob rule in the US. Meanwhile, the gay scene had exploded.

The Mafia—which had a stranglehold on nightlife since the end of Prohibition—spotted a gap in the market. There was a whole new audience who wanted to go to a bar or nightclub to experience the then luxury of being among other gay people. In the aftermath of Prohibition, a new underground scene developed, and naturally the Mafia wanted in on the action. What followed was years of pimping, financial exploitation, the NYPD completely ignoring the LGBT community's concerns, and gossipy FBI files speculating about certain mobsters' sexualities.

Phillip Crawford Jr., author of the book The Mafia and the Gays, argues that the Mafia were much more than proprietors of illegal nightspots; he says that they are in fact an intrinsic part of the LGBT movement, sparking the Stonewall riots and enabling the gay community to thrive. VICE called him up to talk about all that.

VICE: Hi, Phillip. When did the link between the gay community and the Mafia begin?
Phillip Crawford Jr: The Mafia was behind many speakeasies in the big cities, such as Chicago and New York, during Prohibition. After Prohibition was repealed, state agencies regulated bars with vague standards against disorderly premises and moral indecency, which were interpreted to prohibit serving gays. Accordingly, the Mafia took its experience with speakeasies and used it to operate gay bars, which involved paying off the police departments and liquor authorities charged with enforcing these discriminatory laws.

It seems like an unusual fusion...
Well, the Mafia didn't much care about enforcing societal mores or respecting government rules. Ernest Sgroi Sr, one of the principal fronts for gay bars controlled by mob boss Vito Genovese in Greenwich Village, obtained his first liquor license right after the repeal of Prohibition. He was involved with some of the most popular gay bars during the post-war years, including the Bon Soir and the Lion, which started off as nightclubs with live entertainment attracting both straight and gay patrons but ultimately became predominantly gay bars. The Lion was where Barbra Streisand made her first public singing performance in 1960.

So do you think the Mafia exploited the gay community purely for their own financial ends?
The Mafia controlled most gay bars due to their illegal status, and extracted a monetary premium from the gay community. This recognized both the legal risk the Mob was taking and the near-monopoly status it enjoyed. After all, where else were gay folks going to meet? There were often high cover charges and minimum drink requirements. Moreover, gay men were at risk of blackmail from their Mob overlords. The Mob's exploitation of the gay community was among the reasons for the 1969 protests outside the Stonewall Inn. Indeed, after the Stonewall protests, once of the principal goals of the activist groups such as Gay Activists Alliance and Gay Liberation Front was to get organized crime out of the gay bars.

Did anything change?
Unfortunately, the LGBT community's complaints about gay bars operating under the Mafia's thumb continued to be ignored for years by law enforcement and public officials. With the liberation movement, gay bars became cash cows for New York's Mafia families.

Your book says the Mafia pimped out gay men, too...
The gay bars were part of the vice rackets, and that also included the flesh trade. For example, Ed "the Skull" Murphy, a former pro wrestler who became a gay bar bouncer, had a proclivity for young boys, and he pimped them out through bars at which he worked. New York law enforcement investigated the mob's role in running gay bars and pimping underage boys pursuant to Operation Together in the mid 1970s but according to Assistant District Attorney Paul Flaxman "top brass" shut it down right before the indictment stage because it implicated powerful people in politics, business, and society.

Was that activity just confined to the Mafia?
I spoke with a now-retired detective who worked undercover vice on Operation Together, and he mentioned a couple of household names from the entertainment field who allegedly were involved with the jail bait. Moreover, the Mafia was also behind many of the hustler bars. For example, Matty Ianniello, the Genovese capo who controlled much of New York's gay nightlife, was behind the Hay Market in Times Square where generous men could find some young company.

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Does it seem strange given the stereotypical homophobic image of the Mob that they would get so closely involved with the gay scene?
Most mobsters are sociopaths only interested in making money, and their entire lives are about trafficking drugs, producing pornography, making bets, or whacking rivals. Running gay bars is a relatively minor break! Sure, many mobsters had a homophobic bent and often expressed their contempt for gay patrons, but generally there was a benign tolerance for the LGBT community based on financial interests, and they separated their personal lives from business affairs.

Did some Mafia members get involved in the gay scene in any meaningful way?
From the Mob's earliest days to the present time there have been many gay wise guys, although they operate on the down low. For example, David Petillo was "reputed to be a 'fairy'" according to FBI documents. In 1936 the 18-year-old Petillo was busted with Lucky Luciano for running female brothels, and after he got out of prison in 1956 became a Genovese soldier involved with gay bars and the smut trade into the 1970s. DeCavalcante boss John D'Amato was whacked in 1992 for being gay, and his killer Anthony Capo said in court: "Nobody's going to respect us if we have a gay homosexual boss sitting down discussing La Cosa Nostra business." More recently, Robert Mormando, a onetime Gambino hitman, came out of the closet in 2009 after entering the witness protection program.

How long did the connection between the gay scene and the Mafia go on for? Is it finished now?
There's some evidence to suggest that the Genovese and Gambino families still may have a hidden hand in some establishments. However, most gay bars today are run by legitimate business interests. The near-monopoly by the Mafia over gay bars was broken in the mid 80s when federal prosecutors aggressively targeted New York's crime families on multiple fronts, which included convictions against Matty Ianniello and several of his associates for skimming cash out of several of his Times Square gay bars and strip clubs to avoid income taxes.

The Mafia and the Gays is available at Amazon.

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