The renowned riot at the gay bar Stonewall Innin 1969 has been recognized as the start of the modern homosexual political movement (Duberman, 1993, p. xv). This riot revealed intense tensions between the police and the homosexual community, which represented a traditional conflict between the homosexual minority and the heterosexual public. This eruption also signaled how activism at gay bars would be at the forefront of the movement from the perspective of both the homosexual population and police community. By viewing the Stonewall Inn Riot as the transitional event after which homosexual people spontaneously walked out of the “closet” and collectively protested for their human rights, people today celebrate the riot every year, and it is marked as an important annual event for queer communities (Humphreys, 1972, p.6).

For years the public have passively accepted that this riot brought the LGBTQ community into public view. Historical narratives articulate that the Stonewall Inn Riot was a spontaneous event without thinking historically about why the event happened at a specific place in a specific city. But there were protests before the riot elsewhere in the United States. So, why has this event become the symbolic monument of gay resistant history? Why have homosexual people tended to gather in bars? The answers to these questions can be found by viewing multiple historical events since 1900s in New York City: the construction of homosexual economic institutions, the performance of homosexual people (especially gay men in this discussion), the night life in New York City, the distribution of police and Mafia, and the demarcation between public and private spaces. In a word, through stories from the history of gay bars in New York City, one can map the transition of homosexual communities from underground and marginalization to openness and normalization.

The main methodologies of this paper come from anthropology and microhistory. Philosopher Michael Foucault profoundly viewed the archive as the experiences (the events) which are recorded through different discourses, thereby determine historical narratives. Normally, historians seek out primary sources and first-hand evidence. However, it is difficult to study the perspective of homosexual communities and understand how individuals from the LGBTQ community have self-identified in the past, because these experiences were kept secret and suppressed for so long that they are virtually invisible in archives. Fortunately, some anthropologists have studied and done field works on gay bars that covered periods before the 1980s. These ethnographies detail and recorde the activities of gays in gay bars in New York City and other big cities, such as San Francisco and Chicago. This paper translates these anthropological ethnographies into narratives of original experience, and uses theories of embodiment, structuralism, and performance to weave fragmented historical remnants into a broader macro-narrative. At the same time, this study uses micro-historical characters, such as the influence of the Mafia on bars and saloons during the 1920s in New York, to help reconstruct the context of the history of gay bars.

Instead of reinforcing the suffering and oppression of gays in the 1960s, which for years were seen as the direct trigger of the riot, the goal of this paper is to stretch the  landscape of the history of homosexual communities into the nineteenth century and to articulate the gradual transition of this community’s identity relative to the larger public. The main argument of this paper is that the private and public binary experience of LGBTQ communities can be seen in the way that gay bars acted both as safe spaces and spaces of contestation in New York City. Their identities, night life, relationship with the other communities, and performances in gay bars reveal the role gay bars have played in homosexual people’s social participation in public and private spheres. At the same time, these discussions unfold different perspectives of homosexual communities when facing the demarcation between public sphere and private places. The historical connections between the development of gay bars and the construction of homosexual communities in New York City were represented by the navigation between senses of public and private of homosexual people from 1920s to 1970s. This paper attempts to map the shifting of identities between the public and private which are two features of homosexual communities that are entangled with the public sphere. As places where a balance was found between “closeted homosexuals,” police, and Mafia, gay bars acted as different parts of the public sphere, which revealed the changing perspective of public on these three subjects.

The concept of the public sphere sheds light on many discussions in social science. In his famous monography The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas defined the public sphere as a virtual or imaginary community which can exist in any forms of material space. The public sphere theory is a seminal analytic tool for social scientists to understand how the masses can collectively engage in the public politics without discarding their private senses. Following and critiquing Habermas, many scholars such as sociologist Craig Calhoun and multimedia scholar Michael Hofmann attempted to figure out the transitional process of spaces from being material to social and the conservation of their structures as material spaces (Calhoun, 1992; Hofmann, 2017). Habermas’s framework of the public sphere to the study of middle and lower classes economic institutions such as saloons, cafés, and teahouses in China, provided a lens for historians to study how citizens in the nineteenth centuries assembled, and collectively constructed centers for communication, criticizing politics, information transportation, and cultural performance through consuming simple materials. In these examples, the spaces were formed by materials such as beer, wine, tea, and snacks, and acted as social infrastructures in which the public can communicate with each other and conduct social relationships. This particular social circumstance of those spaces revealed a gradual transition of the places where citizens spend their leisure time from private houses to public spheres, blurring the boundaries between people’s consciousness of public and private. Consequently, the public sphere allowed for the development of community identities, and thereby improving the political power of bourgeois.

Bars and saloons in the United States represented virtual economies which closely pertain to some social communities[1]. One differentiator is that alcohol makes customers in bars and saloons freer to open themselves up than in teahouses and coffee shops. In saloons and bars, people talked more freely, discussed politics, sang songs, watched performances, and even gambled. As Powers noted, saloons served as ideal clubs for millions of workingmen to entertain themselves (Powers, 1998, p. 13). People who spent their money and leisure time in saloons spontaneously constructed their own communities, identities, and culture. The formation of this culture, to some extent, brought them from the margins of their societies to the center of their own neighborhoods. In his book, Powers argued that “old-time saloons were the places where union leaders first organized their members, machine politicians cultivated the workingman’s vote, and immigrants sought the assistance of their countrymen (Ibid, p.6).” As a result, by drinking and socializing in saloons, these communities found ways to gain power in politics and ask for more rights from the privileged classes. The spirit developed by working class communities in saloons was a legacy inherited by the homosexual community starting as early as the 1920s. In the same way, gay bars would help homosexual people form communities, navigate the public and private spheres, and make their case for equal rights.

Gender was a significant issue in bars and saloons. Most saloon-goers were male before 1920, therefore, and this gender identification of the saloon, allowed men to separate themselves from their own families and escape from their wives. Except for a few men who brought their wives to saloons, most male saloon-goers viewed saloons as a public sphere where they could spend their money and time more freely, thereby exercising their masculinity and privileges (Ibid, p. 27). Going to bars, as a result, became a performative action that could help people clarify their sexual identities. Historian Roy Rosenzweig concluded that saloons, at that time, acted as a demarcation between the free public entertainment and the private family life– obviously, the former spheres were more appealing to the males (Rosenzweig, 1983, p. 40). This men’s preference in the early saloon culture potentially purified the gender in it, and thus provided the possibility for gays to construct their “pure” bars in which they could also escape from social discrimination. As a graduate student in 1964, Nancy Achilles observed that the sexual separation by male consumers in saloons contributed to the protection of gay bars in that “[I]t is such a common type of establishment that there is no great pressure from members of the larger society to gain access to any particular bar (Gagnon, 1967, p. 231).” Though Achilles’ research focused on gay bars in San Francesco, her discussion about how gay communities made bars protective for their social activities can be also applied in New York City. In New York City, the situation was worse for the homosexual community than it was in San Francesco. New York homosexual communities were subject to more terror from the police and Mafia, and during the 1930s to 1940s, New York State’s Liquor Authority (NYSLA) and New York Police Department (NYPD) closed hundreds of gay bars under the New York State’s liquor laws. These laws stigmatized serving drinks to homosexual people as a “disorder”. (C. Alexander Hortis, 2014, p. 167)The former protection for gays could no longer help prevent them from being raid. How did this complicated social matrix make gay bars in New York City special?

To further answer this question, we need to reexamine the framework of the public sphere in the context of the homosexual community in the 1960s. By saying that “Despite the efforts of management and clientele alike, the bar cannot, by its very nature, remain a totally private and segregated institution,” Achilles pointed out the conflict that gay bars needed to be both public and private, as “The bar… becomes both the center of the private activities of the community and its liaison with the larger society (Gagnon, 1967, p. 232).” From Achilles’s perspective, the bar’s nature was “public,” while the gay community’s nature was “private (or ‘closet’ at that time).” On the other hand, Duis defined the saloon as a semi-public business in that saloons were owned privately but served the public(Duis, 1983, pp. 4–5). In other words, for Duis, bars’ nature still kept a balance between public and private. Since the homosexual communities in New York city before 1969 were mostly underground, the best way to examine the navigation between public and private is to understand how gay bars in New York City maintained their multiple natures. Habermas and his followers assumed that the word “private” means bourgeois individuals’ own lives beyond work and that the word “public” meant the connections between bourgeois and the whole society. However, when considering gay bars in New York City, the homosexual community were ascribed a far more abnormal social status, so that it is inaccurate to only use economic factors to categorize them. Therefore, we need to abandon the traditional Marxist attention on “classes” through which bars and saloons have commonly been seen as public spheres in many academic studies and rethink the economic structure of the public and private aspects of gay bars.

Considering economy conditions is one way we can easily see how gay bars act as connectors between homosexual individuals and the public commercial world. Famous historian Jeffery Escoffier analyzed how gay bars acted as protection for homosexual communities and helped them construct ghettos in New York City. Escoffier argued that “being in the closet,” which was normal for homosexual people before 1969, led to a double cost for homosexual people who needed to perform as both heterosexual and homosexual individuals (Gluckman & Reed, 1996, p. 126). By Escoffier’s reading, this double life meant that institutions with the potential to allow for private experiences, such as bars and baths, became centers for the homosexual economy. In this way, gay bars served homosexual communities’ private needs while also acting as spaces in which to execute public commercial functions. In addition, the locations of the gay bars would cause homosexual people to move together and form real neighborhoods. These neighborhoods subsequently made homosexual communities more visible, and in a few years of time these communities themselves would become more visible and public.

The digital humanities project OUTgoing ( displays the formation of homosexual neighborhood in Greenwich Village in New York City. This project mapped nightlife places of the homosexual community in New York City from the 1800s to 2015. By the 1960s, most of these places are bars. Users can choose to fix the time period and see yellow (refers to historic places) and purple (refers to current places) points distributed on the map. According to the designer, the project’s data came from guidebooks for homosexual visitors to New York City since 1966, therefore, the information and phenomenon it displays before 1966 are limited and to some extent inaccurate[2]. However, by comparing the time sections between 1964 and 1945, the map clearly reveals two facts. On the one hand, there was a dramatic increase of homosexual nightlife institutions (most of them bars) from 1964 to 1965. On the other hand, most of those institutions were in and around Greenwich Village, which reveals the formation of homosexual neighborhood in the area as far back as the late 1920s. This map helps us find the starting space and time of the formation of homosexual neighborhoods in New York City, which leaves us a clue to finding the connection between gay bars and homosexual communities.

See how OUTgoing tells the story.

Making bars the primary connection between public and private spheres was inevitable for homosexual communities. Before 1969, homosexuality was viewed as illegal and deviant. The social matrix made homosexual people’s public and private life entwined and entangled. While heterosexual people were more easily able to distinguish private sphere from public life through normalized relationships such as family and marriage, it was difficult for homosexual people to easily find a sense of community or belonging at home or in public spaces. Therefore, bars became a specific place for homosexual people to meet and construct intimate relationships. The combination of identifying as strangers and being intimate with others made gay bars fuse together the functions of public sphere and private “home.” Ethnographer Carol A. B. Warren in his “Sun City (a western American city)” found that gay bars were significant to the communities because they were sexually defining spaces[3], places for meeting new people, and specifically identified spaces (Warren, 1974, pp. 25–26).

Surrounded by discrimination and marginalized by mainstream heterosexual communities, homosexual people have often found it difficult to find their spiritual home. Therefore, they gathered in gay bars and worked to construct them as their home. Gender and performance studies scholar Marie Cartier, in her book Baby, you are my religion: Women, gay bars, and theology before Stonewall, draws an analogy between gay bars and churches to show the central position of gay bars among homosexual communities and examines the function of and structure in the pre-Stonewall gay bars from the point of view of gay women (Cartier, 2014). In Cartier’s opinion, homosexual communities before 1969 had their own theological consciousness of gay bars and developed a sense of sacredness of gay bars through their ritual performances. Cartier’s analogy provides another way to understand the function of public and private of gay bars, as places for individual mental alleviation and as a community’s spiritual home. Either as private or public sphere, gay bars during this period provided emotional consolations just as much as they did physical entertainments.

The gay bars’ history can not only reveal such historical landscapes, but also connect other histories of communities and groups in New York City. In fact, one cannot ignore the Mafia’s contribution to and exploitation of gay bars’ consumers. According to scholar C. Alexander Hortis, the Mafia owned and controlled gay bars as early as the 1930s, when gay bars were forced underground (Hortis, 2014, p. 167). To prevent the bars from being raided by the police, the Mafia would pay the police to leave them alone and for guards. In order to compensate for these costs and to make more profits, the Mafia watered down the alcohol and made drinks very expensive. Therefore, because they were reliant on the Mafia for protection, no matter how illicit it was, homosexual people were left to suffer the cost of high price and low-quality drinks.

The relationship between Mafia, homosexual people, and police displayed the power structure in New York City, especially downtown near Greenwich Village. Hortis notes that the 181 Club and the Stonewall Inn were all in Greenwich Village, which was under the control of Vito Genovese, a renowned Italian mobster who accepted homosexual communities in his manorThe entangled power structure harks back to the question about why gay bars in New York City were special (Ibid, pp. 169-172). Specifically, the homosexual community paid money to and earned money for the Mafia. They received less discrimination from the Mafia than from the formal police, but they also were exploited by the Mafia. Therefore, in one sense the Mafia helped the homosexual community by allowing them to go out of their private sphere but at the same time confined them in another non-pubic or semi-public sphere. Notably, this public sphere was not like Habermas’s framework in that people going to the gay bars were still controlled directly by the Mafia and indirectly by the police and could not freely practice their political and social power. Nevertheless, the gay bars were taking the advantage of the Mafia’s own conflicts with state power, to strike a special balance of public and private sphere in New York City

In 1970s or a bit early, drag queen shows began to become popular and served as an additional sensual entertainment in gay bars. The popularity of these shows not only enriched homosexual in-bar activities but also reformed the structures of relationships between homosexual people, bar owners, police, and Mafia. Drag queen shows served as sensual and sexual performances adding a new way in which gay bars were becoming a central position of homosexual communities’ leisure time. In her 1979 ethnography Mother Camp, which can to some extent be used as an archive today, anthropologist Newton Esther recorded abundant information about drag queens who performed in gay bars in New York City and the Bay Area, unfolding both the spiritual and physical experiences of drag performers. Esther’s interviews with drag queens and bar-tenders revealed how some gay men strived to make money and keep occupations (Esther, 1979, p. 1).  By providing honors (the “queen”), money, and a new form of occupation, drag shows reflected a new way in which homosexual communities were pursuing their public identities. Esther also explicitly described the power structures in bars. The heterosexual bar owners, bartenders, drag queens, and audiences acted together to construct “semi-public parties (Ibid, p. 115).” Esther noted that performers had no control of their working conditions and job security, and usually paid their money back to the bar in order to drink and build social relationships with others. Even though this ethnography was done in the 1970s, which was after the Stonewall Inn Riot, it still can show how homosexual people constructed their communities and entertained themselves in a semi-public sphere and under the power of heterosexual private bar owners decades before. Their sexual attributes were utilized by the power of heterosexual people from public and their homosexual agencies were also used by capitalists to make profits. However, within the context that homosexual people were discriminated and uneasy to get jobs, these communities made themselves invisibly get involved into the heterosexual public world through sensual performances.

The sensual performances were not just practiced in underground bars. Gay men also dressed like women on the public streets in order to clarify their sexual identities. As homosexual activist Foster Craig insisted “the only thing we have in common with heterosexuals is what we do in bed (Duberman, 1993, p. 111),” the homosexual people desired to perform their uniqueness publicly. However, in 1960s, influenced by burgeoning resistance movements on the West Coast and conflicts between the homosexual community and police, homosexual people in New York City began to form resistance organizations and tried to legitimate their public sexual identities. In order to do so, the community organized a protest called a “Sip-in” which started at Julius’s bar in 1966. This movement was organized by the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights organization which was founded in Los Angeles and then spread to New York City in the 1950s. On April 21, 1966, gay people walked into the Julius’s bar and ordered drinks after declaring their homosexual identity. During the movement, protesters found there were not too much discriminations in bars and their protests were supported by some bar-owners[4]. The movement spread quickly and had a significant impact on the public’s impression of homosexual people. The “Sip-in” movement marked the development of a new understanding of the demarcation of public and private among homosexual communities. Instead of hiding and playing within their own communities, members of the homosexual community had decided to raise their voices in the real public sphere.

After the Stonewall Inn Riot, homosexual communities had gained more power in this city and marched north. The complicated and long-lasting power competition between the Mafia and police shows why the homosexual community finally had to take a stand and come out from their underground private spaces to became more popular and visible in the public sphere. This is why the Stonewall Inn Riot is such an important moment in the homosexual political movement, because not only were the protesters fighting against the police, but they were also looking to get out from under the control of the Mafia.

Habermas and his followers viewed the concept of the public sphere as a tool with which they can analyze the relationship between individuals and collective ideologies as well as daily materials and spiritual places. Based on their ways of thinking, this paper has analyzed gay bars as the public sphere which acts as the agent of underground homosexual communities, the transition spaces that connected public spaces and private areas, the bridges which were built between homosexual communities, police, and Mafia, and finally, the foundation from which homosexual communities could gradually muster the drive to march into public spaces, both physically and spiritually. Therefore, this study of the history of gay bars in New York City maps the historical view of bars as public spheres in which individuals felt their connections with public politics, on one hand. On the other hand, more significantly, the story of gay bars provides a lens for scholars to profoundly understand the transforming epistemologies of public spheres, spaces, and places. Instead of thinking how the public sphere serves to connect different groups of people, this discussion focuses more on how the communities that overlap in these spaces, whether they be homosexual people, the Mafia, the police, or the public at large, understand the homosexual embodiment of that binary.

 Sociologist Manuel Castells defined place as “a locale whose form, function, and meaning are self-contained within the boundaries of physical contiguity,” and he views space as a physical region which connects the society (Castells, 2009, p. 453). In the history of gay bars in New York City, the nature of gay bars has changed from public sphere to public space, and finally, public place. The bars changed from a public service to semi-public space and finally a private place for homosexual people. At the same time, homosexual communities marched from the closet to a semi-private public sphere and finally the public street. These parallel but opposite directions of transition to some extent answer the questions at the beginning of this paper. The Stonewall Inn had first become the “home” of homosexual people before the famous riot erupted. On the other hand, it was the last step of this march of homosexual communities from underground spaces to the public places.

[1]In the following discussion, for convenience, I will use saloon to refer to those places in which people bought alcohol and made conversations before 1920, while take bar to identify the similar places after 1920. This way of designation attempts to cohere with important former historians, Madelon Powers and Perry R. Duis, who together marked the year 1920 as the ending point of saloon’s history. In these scholars’ books, saloon is a specific term for drinking places for the poor people. After 1920, bars have become more common to the public, and therefore, the name has become more normal.


[3]The situation was almost same in New York City. After the Stonewall Inn Riot, gay bars increased dramatically in New York City. Following that, a magazine called the Michael’s Thing in which numerous sensual and naked gay photos companied with bar recommendation lists had quickly become popular in New York City. The terror of AIDS and illegal drug problems in gay bars after 1970 also can reveal the hotchpotch of good and bad, legal and illegal things.



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Website Articles:

Escoffier, J. & Mitchell, C. Bars and the Queer Economy.

Simon, Scott. Remembering a 1966 “sip-in” for Gay Rights.

Sisson, Patrick. How Gay Bars Have Been a Building Block of the LGBTQ Community.

Thomas, June. The Gay Bar: Why the gay rights movement was born in one.