I was in my fondly forgotten twenties when I made it to 53 Christopher Street, site of the 1969 Stonewall riots and, since 1994, the second most historic address in Greenwich Village. (The apartment building from Friends is three blocks over.) The Stonewall Inn that stands there now is only the latest establishment to bear that name, the premises having served as a stables, then a bakery, and later a speakeasy before the mafia relaunched it as a gay bar in the late Sixties. There were no fire doors and no running water; the walls were painted black to cover up past fire damage. It was no Studio 54.
In the small hours of 28 June 1969, police carried out a routine raid but this time were met by resistance from patrons in an uprising that lasted six nights. ‘Limp wrists were forgotten,’ The Village Voice reported at the time. Stonewall wasn’t the first pushback or even the start of the Pride movement, which preceded the riots by a few years, but it was the venting of pent-up anger, pain and indignity. A wounded cry from the fags and the fairies, the queers and the queens, that they’d had enough and weren’t going to live their lives only in the small hours anymore.
By the time I got to Stonewall, 45 years and a whole world later, all this was prologue. The Obergefell case and a constitutional right to same-sex marriage were one year away. Windsor had already filleted the Defence of Marriage Act and a decade prior Lawrence had struck down anti-sodomy laws. Barack Obama and Dick Cheney had both come out for gay marriage. The fight was won and the Stonewall I visited seemed to reflect that: almost empty, aside from a couple of middle-aged guys day-drinking at the bar.
I had imagined it would be special, I had willed it to be special: retreading the stilettoed steps of queer history.