LGBTQ History: Around Christopher Street

Christopher Street is the place most of us look to when it comes to LGBTQ history in New York. It is the site of the Stonewall Uprising, with the second Stonewall Inn, the Gay Liberation Monument, and the Gay Street photo-op all within a few steps of each other. However, there are also a number of less appreciated sites within just a few blocks of Christopher Street.

Sheridan Square, for example, is the site where Stewart’s Cafeteria and Life Cafeteria were located in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They based their late-night operations on the idea that allowing gay men and lesbians to gather at their establishments would also attract tourists, who would come to gawk . Life Cafeteria in particular became an entry point into the larger gay world, attracting young people who didn’t know of anywhere else to go, and bringing them into the gay community. (Gay New York, 167-168)

Gene Malin got his start at Paul and Joe's.

Gene Malin got his start at Paul and Joe’s.

Paul and Joe’s, which became one of the Village’s best known personality clubs, opened as an Italian restaurant in 1912 at 66 West 9th Street. It gained a reputation as a ‘rough place’ during the First World War, when it attracted soldiers on leave, as well as prostitutes who reportedly robbed their customers. It began hosting impromptu drag performances after the war, giving Jackie Law, Gene Malin, and many other female impersonators their start. Jackie Law would go on to open his own place, the Studio Club, on 15th Street.

Gene Malin would become highly successful as the 1920s went on, bringing the ‘pansy craze’ to Broadway, and ending up in Hollywood before dying in a car crash at the age of 25. By the 1920s, Paul and Joe’s had established itself as a major ‘gay’ institution of the Village, but moved up to 19th Street to avoid a crackdown in 1924. There, they became the ‘headquarters for every well-known Lesbian and Queen in town,’ who were comfortable being open with their sexuality and gender performance there. This location closed in 1927, possibly due to the efforts of anti-vice organizations in the city. (Gay New York, 239-240)

Another bar at 188 Waverly Place/159 West 10th Street only began attracting large numbers of gay customers in the 1940s-1950s. Julius’s, founded in 1864 as a saloon and operating as a speakeasy in the 1920s, is now the oldest surviving gay bar in New York. It had become a gay hangout by the 1950s, despite the State Liquor Authority’s ban on serving alcohol to homosexuals. Some bars at the time even posted signs to discourage homosexual patronage: ‘If you are gay, please go away.’ Despite the growing gay clientele at Julius’s, it was no different from other establishments in that it refused to serve known homosexuals.

The 'Sip-In' at Julius', 1966.

The ‘Sip-In’ at Julius’, 1966. Copyright Estate of Fred W. McDarrah

We’ve already written quite a bit about the 1966 ‘sip-in’ by the Mattachine Society (an early gay and lesbian civil rights organization.) This protest led to the 1967 ruling that required ‘substantial evidence’ of indecent behavior, as opposed to same-sex kissing or touching, for the SLA to shut down an establishment. A ‘sip-in’ is held at the bar every year, to commemorate the 1966 event. (To read more about it, see: “Before Stonewall: The ‘Sip-In’ at Julius'” or “A Peek Back at the Village’s LGBT History.”)

Learn more about GVSHP’s efforts here.

The Stonewall Uprising began on 28 June 1969. In November of that year, Craig Rodwell, Ellen Broidy, Linda Rhodes, and Fred Sargeant proposed a march as an annual reminder of those events, as well as a way to remain relevant and reach out to more people. (Rodwell had been a young member of the Mattachine Society–indeed, he was the same Craig Rodwell that had participated at the ‘sip-in’ at Julius’– but believed that something larger and less conservative was needed.) Meetings to organize the march began in January at 350 Bleecker Street, the apartment where Rodwell and Sargeant lived. Michael Brown, Marty Nixon, Foster Gunnison, Judy Miller, Jack Waluska, Steve Gerrie, and Brenda Howard soon joined the group. Howard became known as the ‘Mother of Pride’ for her work coordinating the march. As Tom Limoncelli said, ‘the next time someone asks you why LGBT Pride marches exist or why [LGBT] Pride Month is June tell them “A bisexual woman named Brenda Howard thought it should be.”’

On 28 June 1970, ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day,’ the first Pride Parade marched from Washington Place and Sixth Avenue, fifty-one blocks north, to Central Park.

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Tasha Tasha was an intern at GVSHP in the fall of 2014. She did her undergraduate work on the history of gender and sexuality.