Posted May 21, 2021

How LGBTQ+ History and Culture Have Shaped New York City

Celebrations

Loud and proud, over 5 million individuals took to the streets of New York City on June 28, 2019, representing all colors of the rainbow and celebrating all things LGBTQ+. The timing and location of the largest international pride parade in history was no coincidence. It was exactly 50 years prior that the Stonewall Riots in New York City had launched the modern gay rights movement.

NYC Pride 2019, Photo by Unsplash

Back in 1969, New York City had already established itself as a global center for underground queer culture. Despite homophobic political, social, and legal climates, gay individuals sought refuge in the progressive-for-the-times Greenwich Village and other liberal pockets of NYC. Even the hard-to-reach eastern end of Jacob Riis Park in Queens had unofficially become the city’s gay beach. As being queer by day wasn’t an option (beyond clandestine Riis Beach), night life grew as the main space for expression and socialization. Among the most well-known spots was the mafia-backed Stonewall Inn, which had transitioned into a gay bar in 1966 and persevered despite frequent police raids.

However, one fateful Saturday night in the summer of ’69, the NYPD raid of the Stonewall Inn didn’t go quite as planned. For the first time, patrons fought back against arrests and police brutality; violence erupted. Hours later, the police were forced to sashay away. The momentum continued with demonstrations and riots the following night and weeks, resulting in significant press coverage of the events. The Stonewall riots had galvanized the LGBT community, coming out of the shadows and shining a light on homophobia and social injustice—a light that eventually grew into a rainbow.

Within months of the riots, a number of gay-focused periodicals were actively published in New York City. Gay rights groups began to form. A year following the Stonewall raid, June 28, 1970, the first New York City gay pride march kicked off on Christopher Street, outside the Inn, and continued to Central Park, making the front-page of The New York Times. NYC’s ensuing disco era was defined by hedonistic overtones, staunch activism, a burgeoning modern arts scene, and growing acceptance of eccentricity. It lured LGBT individuals from near and far to express themselves in the Big Apple, establishing many of the gayborhoods we know and love today, from the West Village to the East Village to Chelsea and Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The eighties brought big hair, ballroom culture, gay book shops, coffee shops, and recognition of the LGBT community to NYC politics.

Broadway NYC, Photo by Unsplash

By the nineties, LGBT culture was one with the city’s identity. The best bars and clubs were gay ones (duh!) They ruled the city’s retail, fashion, literary and entertainment scenes (hello: Broadway!), threw the best A-list parties, and were thoroughly embraced—even revered—for our differences. In February 2000, the Stonewall Inn was declared a National Historic Landmark, officially recognized as a site of significance to the LGBT community. President Obama doubled-down on that designation creating the Stonewall National Monument in 2016, which encompasses—and federally protects—seven acres surrounding the Inn.

Thanks to COVID, the pride parade of NYC Pride 2021 is going virtual. But as the Big Apple reopens, there are still plenty of places to get your LGBTQ+ pride on. For example, sunbathe and socialize at the historic Riis Park beach, still going strong with eye candy aplenty, or simply throw down a towel in Central Park (forgoing the schlep to Queens). In the West Village, order a stiff drink at Cubbyhole, one of the last remaining lesbian bars in Manhattan. Belt out show tunes and show off your pipes with new friends at Marie’s Crisis, a late 19th century prostitute’s den turned gay bar, resurrected in the late 20th century as a piano bar. And, of course, pay a visit to Stonewall National Monument to amble the lanes—and visit the bar—where the gay rights movement began some 52 years ago.

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