Corruption’s Queer History: Stonewall’s Seedy Underside

A little after midnight on June 28, 1969, New York City police officers raided the Stonewall Inn, a seedy bar in Greenwich Village known for catering to a mostly LGBTQ crowd. Such raids were not uncommon—in fact, the Stonewall Inn had already been raided just four days prior to that now historic evening. But for some reason, that particular raid on that particular night had touched off violent clashes between police and Stonewall’s patrons, becoming a watershed moment for the LGBTQ civil rights movement in the United States. Indeed, the Stonewall Inn is now a national monument, and the anniversary of Stonewall is commemorated every year with Pride parades around the world.

In the days following the riots, however, the Stonewall Inn was in utter disarray: graffiti sprawled on its boarded-up windows read: “GAY PROHIBITION CORRUPT$ COP$ / FEED$ MAFIA.” That brief and blunt statement captures an important truth about Stonewall, one that is important for understanding both the historical context of the Stonewall uprising, as well as the intersection between anti-LGBTQ discrimination and corruption that persists today: The riots weren’t only about police discrimination—organized crime and corruption also played a fundamental role.

The history of the Stonewall Inn is closely intertwined with the history of organized crime and police corruption. In the 1960s, New York State liquor laws law made it illegal for establishments to serve alcohol to homosexual patrons. As a result, LGBTQ people were forced to socialize in spaces outside the social and legal margins. The mafia saw this as a lucrative business opportunity. In New York in the 1960s, most gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn, were owned and operated by the mafia. The mafia-affiliated bar owners would pay corrupt police officials up to $3,000 a month in bribes to turn a blind eye to the goings-on at their establishments. Such practices weren’t unique to New York: In much of the U.S., police bribery was essentially the only tool the LGBTQ community could use during the mid-twentieth century to preserve their safe spaces.

Even with the protection provided by bribing the police, mafia-owned gay bars were still raided on a regular basis. Most of these raids were mere “show raids,” wherein corrupt cops would tip off the mobster bar owners beforehand, giving them plenty of time to hide their liquor and cash. But while the bars would usually escape punishment, the police raids would still subject the bars’ LGBTQ patrons to humiliating arrests and police violence, all to appease neighbors and government officials with the appearance of “law and order.”

Part of the story here is, of course, anti-LGBTQ bigotry. Discrimination against the LGBTQ community is a large part of why New York laws against “disorderly conduct” prohibited establishments from serving liquor to homosexuals in the first place. For the police and the mafia, however, norms of sexual morality were not the main concern. Rather, it was all about the money. The police were more than happy to turn a blind eye to mafia-sponsored “disorderly conduct,” as long as they got their payoffs. So, while anti-LGBTQ attitudes were notoriously widespread in the 1960s, it doesn’t seem that most New York police were especially interested in vigorously enforcing anti-LGBTQ laws in a serious attempt to enforce “proper” social conduct. Instead, these laws provided police with an opportunity to extract revenue from marginalized communities.

As for the mafia, while they did create spaces for LGBTQ people to congregate and socialize, the relationship was far more exploitative than symbiotic. Sure, mafia-owned bars catered to an otherwise shunned community, but they also exploited and blackmailed them for profit. Stonewall’s owners frequently extorted large sums from their LGBTQ patrons, targeting primarily those who could lose their jobs if they were publicly outed—like public school teachers or federal employees. In fact, because extorting patrons was so lucrative, Stonewall’s principal owner (a mobster named Fat Tony who was connected to the Genovese crime family) had stopped bribing the police; as a result, Stonewall did not receive a tipoff that the bar would be raided on that fateful June night.

That historical irony aside, it is clear from both contemporary accounts and historical investigation that the legal marginalization of the LGBTQ community left that community vulnerable to exploitation by organized crime, and that bribery played a key role in perpetuating this system. To be sure, bribery of the police had a mixed, even contradictory impact on the welfare of New York’s LGBTQ community. On one hand, places like the Stonewall Inn were only able to operate because of bribery. On the other hand, much of the exploitation that LGBTQ patrons experienced was exacerbated and exploited by the mob and corrupt police.

For both the police and the mafia, the criminalization and stigmatization of homosexuality was a mutually beneficial source of revenue. Disgust with this corrupt and oppressive system is what pushed the LGBTQ community to rise up and fight back. Activist Morty Manford, who was present during the Stonewall protests, summed up the situation succinctly: “[T]here was a slight lancing of the festering wound of anger … that the local bar is run by organized crime and is taking payoffs and doesn’t have a liquor license … because of the system of official discrimination by the State Liquor Authority and the corruption of the local police authorities.” In fact, around the time the protests occurred, the Homophile Youth Movement distributed flyers denouncing the “mafia monopoly” and demanding that the gay community remove organized crime from its safe spaces. Following the uprising, getting rid of the mafia became a primary goal of gay activist groups such the Gay Liberation Front. A few months later, the Stonewall Inn closed its doors. Eventually, legitimate and legal gay bars took its place.

The connection between the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and corruption is by no means an antiquated anomaly. Indeed, discrimination and corruption are inextricably linked: Discrimination leaves stigmatized communities more exposed to extortion and abuse, which in turn exacerbates marginalization and inequality. The intersection of these phenomena, referred to as “discriminatory corruption” by Transparency International, remains an especially salient issue in the fight for global LGBTQ rights to this day. Understanding the role corruption and the mafia played during the Stonewall uprising is therefore fundamental to contextualizing the ways in which ostracized LGBTQ communities are extorted and blackmailed by law enforcement around the world.

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