Out in the Open

The Rock Walls That Sheltered a Movement

It was a fluke that I wound up at Christopher Street in front of the Stonewall Inn. I was headed to another wall on Great Jones Alley a few blocks away when my GPS redirected me to the NYC landmark.

From the street, the Stonewall Inn isn’t much to look at. Some red brick topped by a plaster façade, punctuated by two arched doorways and four windows, one of which is rectangular and filled with a neon sign.

The Stonewall Inn, NYC

Save for the row of rainbow-colored flags that wave from the iron frames of the second story window boxes, not much distinguishes the building from any other Greenwich Village property, let alone give reason for the name.

Which got me wondering— What happened to the stone wall? 

Did one ever exist? 

Given the symbolism attached to the named Stonewall, I wanted to know if the wall buttressing the nation’s LGBTQ+ movement was real or imagined.

Standing on the sidewalk, I pulled up images of the building taken in 1969, the same year police raided the Stonewall Inn (then a Mafia-run gay bar and dance club), setting in motion the three-day rebellion that bears its name. 

Finding no evidence of a stone wall I scrolled back further in time to the 1930’s when the inn—then called Bonnie’s—was a tearoom (officially) and speakeasy (unofficially) for straight patrons. No mention anywhere of stone or walls. 

Wilson Lee Henderson, the founder of the Stonewall Veterans Association solved the mystery for me.  

A former patron of the Stonewall, Wilson confirmed during a telephone interview the existence of not one but two interior stone walls that have since been covered in plaster. Dating back to the 1840’s when the building was used to stable horses and an adjacent tavern, the walls were positioned at opposite ends of the building, each inset with arched support structures that may have doubled as a doorway. 

“You were there,” I said to Wilson. “What did it feel like to be inside those walls?”

I had to know. The walls buttressed the nightclub, yes, but also its patrons, providing shelter from an outside world where acceptance of gay life was all but non-existent. 

“No one ever asked me that,” Wilson responded, excusing himself to take care of some SVA business. “Call me back tomorrow.”

When we reconnected, Wilson described a pair of walls comprised of large, irregular stones, likely river rock, that made the interior of the inn feel, “safe and secure and fun.”

A so-called “bottle bar,” the Stonewall wasn’t licensed to sell alcohol which meant patrons brought their own booze. Wilson remembered a jukebox that played edgy music from new Black artists like Gladys Night and the Pips and The Temptations. Wilson recalled the stage where live bands played and drag queens performed before tightly packed audiences. 

As Wilson remembered, “The place would fill up with young gay boys and girls and their straight friends, and everyone would dance and drink. The music was great and everyone was so friendly.”

Crowds outside of the Stonewall Inn

Friendly, yes, and also often exploited and harassed. The same mafia owners who held the police at bay most nights with bribes also extorted their gay, trans and other gender nonconforming patrons with blackmail and expensive drinks. 

On the evening of June 28, 1969, the cops raised the Stonewall Inn for the last time. Wilson was there. Rather than submit to the arresting officers, Wilson remembered how he and his fellow patrons resisted—first in the bar and then on the street. Neighbors from the surrounding community joined their ranks.  

Wilson, then in the “closet” and living with his mother, remembered feeling at once exhilarated and also “fed-up” with society’s oppressive treatment of him and his friends.

The history of Gay America, captured in this video from YouTube history guru, Hip Hughes, is littered with instances of discrimination, mistreatment and persecution. After decades of being trashed, the gay community to which Wilson belonged, said, “Enough.”

As I sit here, writing this post, I try to picture Wilson on that night 53 years ago. I’m a straight, white female, so this is hard. Still, I try. 

In my mind, I see him leaving the inn and the safety of its stone walls, to join the protest outside. Stepping into the crowd, surrounded by friend and foe, there will be no going back now.  

He’s out in the open, there on Christopher Street, for you and I to see. 

And know.

Coda: On June 24, 2016, the Stonewall National Monument was established in the park directly adjacent to the now-famous inn. The 412th unit of the National Park System, the monument is the first federal landmark to recognize the rights of America’s LGBTQ community.