How Liquor Licenses Sparked the Stonewall Riots

Gay bars were crucial in the fight for equal rights, which is why they kept getting shut down by the government.


When patrons of the Stonewall Inn rebelled against police on June 28 and 29, 1969, they were rioting for equality, for dignity, and for a decent a place to get a drink. Today, the Stonewall riots are widely seen as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama cited Stonewall in the same breath as Seneca Falls and Selma. But the story of this civil rights victory is incomplete without an examination of one of the most powerful weapons the government used to stop gay activists: liquor licensing laws.

Police harassment of gay bars was a top concern of the queer community in New York in the 1960s, second only to entrapment, according to Dick Leitsch, who headed the Mattachine Society of New York, one of the nation's first gay rights groups.

Sodomy laws were still on the books in 49 states (Illinois became the first to decriminalize homosexuality only in 1962), so a group of gay people in public was practically a criminal conspiracy. Amidst an atmosphere of fear and repression, gay bars were crucial to creating a sense of community and brewing political agitation.

Just three years before Stonewall, gay New Yorkers won the right to drink in bars. But that right was contingent on hiding any trace of a queer identity: Kissing, dancing, or trying to find someone of the same sex to take home for the night were all lumped under the designation "disorderly conduct." Bars could lose their liquor licenses if caught playing host to such criminality.

Sensing an opportunity, the Mafia opened establishments under the ruse of being members-only "bottle clubs" that had no need for a license. One of their more popular—and more profitable—bars was also one of the few places queer men and women could dance: the Stonewall Inn.

"Homosexuals knew the Mafia would find some way to supply us with a place to meet and socialize," remarked Leitsch in historian David Carter's 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. "The sad philosophy of the gay world was that expressed by [Bertolt] Brecht's [1939 play] Mother Courage: 'Our only hope lies in corruption.'"

Gay and Disorderly

The ban on gay bars dated back to the repeal of Prohibition. Once alcohol was re-legalized, state lawmakers created new agencies with the power to license the selling of liquor. In California, an establishment that hosted homosexuals was considered a "disorderly house…injurious to the public morals." Under New Jersey's post-Prohibition liquor laws, gays were considered a "nuisance" and were denied service. The Garden State also banned serving liquor to "persons of ill repute," which lumped "female impersonators" together with "criminals, gangsters, racketeers, pick-pockets, swindlers, confidence men [and] prostitutes."

In New York, the State Liquor Authority (SLA) was granted the power to revoke the license of owners who "suffer or permit [their] premises to become disorderly." (Legislators deliberately declined to define "disorderly,"  "lest the craft of men evade the definition.") As in other states, the SLA considered the mere presence of gay people at a bar "disorderly."

In one of the earliest gay bar cases, the SLA shut down Gloria's Bar & Grill in 1939 for "permitting homosexuals, degenerates and undesirable people to congregate on the premises." One SLA investigator was even blunter: Gloria's manager was "a fag and a leader of that element." When the bar failed to comply with the SLA's order to boot all of its "degenerate" patrons, Gloria's lost both its license and the ability to license the premises to other owners for one year.

Gloria's sued the SLA, arguing that the Authority didn't actually have the authority to ban serving gay people as long as they were behaving in an orderly manner. Nevertheless, the bar lost in trial court and on appeal. Without any judicial check on its crackdowns, over the next 25 years, the SLA closed hundreds of bars that catered to—or merely tolerated—gays and lesbians.

With the rise of agencies like the SLA across the country, liquor license holders now had a potent legal incentive to shun LGBT clientele. It became almost impossible for queer people to freely express themselves and associate with one another in public. As Yale historian George Chauncey argued in his Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, liquor licensure "expanded the reach of state surveillance into every establishment serving liquor in the state," transforming bar owners into "deputy enforcement agents." He wrote that "the SLA had only a small staff of plainclothes agents to investigate the compliance of bars. But by threatening proprietors with the revocation of their licenses if its agents discovered that customers were violating the law, it forced proprietors to uphold those regulations on behalf of the state."

Law enforcement was "at once invisible and pervasive," wrote Chauncey, allowing the government to "police most of the common sites of urban sociability."

San Francisco Gay Blues

A favorite of John Steinbeck and Allen Ginsberg, the Black Cat in San Francisco catered to disaffected bohemians and gays alike after World War II. It was also home to José Sarria, a buoyant, aria-singing drag queen and one of the nation's earliest gay rights activists. With slogans like "There's nothing wrong with being gay—the crime is getting caught," Sarria held rallies with Black Cat patrons outside of jails where gays were imprisoned. To clog up the court dockets, he advocated that everyone who was arrested demand trial by jury.

By incubating gay advocates, the Black Cat found itself targeted by a 15-year-long campaign of harassment by the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC). In 1948, Sol Stoumen, the Black Cat's (straight) proprietor, had his liquor license suspended because his bar was a "disorderly house" frequented by "persons of known homosexual tendencies." Stoumen sued.

An appellate court upheld the suspension, even going so far as to argue that regular meetings of gay people draw up "all of the potentialities for evil and immorality." But Stoumen appealed to the California Supreme Court and won. His license was reinstated in 1951.

In  Stoumen v. Reilly, the California Supreme Court ruled, "Members of the public of lawful age have a right to patronize a public restaurant and bar so long as they are acting properly and are not committing illegal or immoral acts." A restaurant or hotel that merely served prostitutes didn't lose its license, the court reasoned, so the same should apply for "the patronage of a public restaurant and bar by homosexuals." Instead, it found that a license could only be suspended if the government actually had evidence that gays were breaking the law.

The top court in the nation's then second-biggest state had ruled that gay men had a right to meet in public. That decision "may have been the first significant appellate victory of the young gay rights movement," according to New York Law School Professor Arthur Leonard. At the time, Harvey Milk was fresh out of college, and some of the Stonewall rioters were toddlers. The decision also came almost seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected gay publications, because such publications were not in fact "obscene" by nature.

The victory was short-lived. Just four years after Stoumen, the California legislature passed a law that allowed liquor licenses to be revoked if "the premises of the licensee are a resort for prostitutes, pimps, panderers or sexual perverts." Kissing, dancing, caressing, and gender bending were grounds for license revocation, and the appellate courts regularly rubberstamped the ABC's crackdowns.

In 1959, the California Supreme Court once again unanimously ruled in favor of a gay bar (the First and Last Chance Bar in Oakland) and held that the new law was unconstitutional. But the decision in Vallerga v. Department of Alcohol Beverage Control did precious little to protect the LGBT community. Instead, the court created a massive loophole: Gay men and lesbians who displayed their "sexual desires and urges" would now constitute "sufficient evidence" of immoral conduct. The court even suggested that "women dancing with other women, and women kissing other women" could be "sufficient evidence." Such displays would be considered "contrary to public welfare or morals" and could be grounds for suspending or revoking a gay bar owner's liquor license.

In other words, the only government body willing to rein in the ABC had now given it carte blanche to raid gay bars for the flimsiest of reasons. Out of the 30 gay bars in San Francisco, 12 lost their licenses in in the two years after Vallerga.

Amid this new wave of police harassment, José Sarria ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961, becoming the first openly gay candidate for public office. Sarria lost, but earned some 7,000 votes and inspired new forms of political activism. After his historic race, Sarria, along with other gay-bar employees and owners, formed the Tavern Guild of San Francisco, the nation's first association of gay businesses. During the 1960s, the Guild devoted its efforts to challenging police raids and ABC crackdowns, though it was unable to stop the ABC from permanently shutting down the Black Cat in 1963.

"Despite the symbolic importance of statements that homosexuals had the same rights as other citizens to congregate in public places for social intercourse and recreation," legal scholar Arthur Leonard noted, "these decisions did not make the gay bars a safe place in which people could connect with others for romantic purposes." 

From Sip-In to Stonewall

On April 21, 1966, after trying out three other bars, four men walked into Julius, a tavern in Greenwich Village, and ordered drinks. When the bartender learned they were gay, he put his hand over the glasses and denied them service. The Sip-In had just made history.

In New York, "the Sip-In was the opening shot in the campaign to make gay bars legal," historian David Carter said in an interview with The Village Voice. "It was actually the challenge to SLA policy that led to private clubs like the Stonewall Inn being open."

As Carter noted in his history of the Stonewall riots, the Mattachine Society of New York had examined the New York Alcohol Beverage Control Law and determined it was not against the law to serve gays per se, so long as they were not being disorderly. Taking a page from the civil rights movement, Mattachine decided to stage a protest at a bar. Members would out themselves just before ordering a drink. If the establishment refused to serve them, Mattachine would sue both the bar and the SLA for "violating their constitutional rights to free assembly and equal accommodation."

Less than a week after the Sip-In, the SLA announced it "would take no action against bartenders or liquor licensees who refuse to serve drinks to homosexuals." The Sip-In also catalyzed two 1967 landmark rulings in New Jersey and New York that partially legalized gay bars.

Adopting arguments made by the Mattachine Society in an amicus brief, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled that gay people have "the equal right to congregate within licensed establishments such as taverns, restaurants and the like." Their rights to "assemble in and patronize licensed establishments are intertwined with the asserted rights of licensed establishments to serve them."

In deciding One Eleven Wines & Liquors, Inc. v. Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the court cited not only the Stoumen and Vallerga California gay bar cases as precedent, but also famed U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Griswold v. Connecticut, (access to contraceptives), NAACP v. Alabama (confidentiality of membership lists) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (parental rights). The New Jersey Supreme Court was linking the gay rights movement to past struggles for individual liberty.

One month later, New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, similarly ruled, "The mere congregation of homosexuals…does not make the premises disorderly." A liquor license could not be annulled unless there was "substantial evidence" of an actual "breach of the peace."

With looser restrictions in place, legitimate business owners started to invest in and open their own gay bars. Yet victory was far from complete. While bars in New York and New Jersey could no longer refuse service to someone just because he was gay, establishments could deny those who acted gay.

In his concurrence to the One Eleven Wines & Liquors case, Justice Haydn Proctor wrote, "Well-behaved homosexuals cannot be forbidden to patronize taverns." But their rights didn't extend to anything "which would be offensive to public decency." For Proctor, that included "men kissing each other on the lips."

Likewise, less than a month after it ruled in favor of a "mere congregation of homosexuals," in late December 1967, New York Court of Appeals held that gay men who were slow-dancing close together, "sexually fondling" each other, or "embracing one another and gyrating," were, in fact, disorderly. Living in a real-life version of Footloose, gay New Yorkers turned to the black market and patronized the Stonewall Inn, one of the few places they could dance.

After Stonewall

Visiting an illegal bar was risky business. Stonewall's Mafia owners routinely blackmailed patrons. The Ladder, a lesbian publication, noted, "Since the SLA refuses to issue licenses to gay bars, these bars are generally run…under unsanitary conditions." Stonewall was no exception, with constantly overflowing toilets, a lack of fire exits and no plumbing behind the main bar. A hepatitis outbreak was reportedly linked to the bar staff rinsing glasses in tubs of stagnant water. Despite Stonewall's owners bribing police at least $1,200 a month—four times the bar's rent—the inn still faced monthly raids. Just days before the riots, Lilly Law arrested bar personnel and confiscated liquor.

Long-simmering tensions finally came to a boiling point. For one weekend in June 1969, 53 Christopher Street in New York City became a war zone. Rioters threw garbage, shards of glass, bricks, cobblestones and Molotov cocktails. A parking meter became a battering ram. "There was never any time that I felt more scared than I felt that night," Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, who led the NYPD's raid on Stonewall, would later remark in an interview. Pine literally wrote the book on hand-to-hand combat for the U.S. Army during World War II. He also survived a mine explosion at the Battle of the Bulge.

After the Stonewall riots, gays would not go gently into that good night. According to Frank Kameny, one of the pioneers in the U.S. gay rights movement, in June 1969, there were 50 or 60 gay groups in the United States. Two years after Stonewall, that number soared to 2,500. During the 1970s, 20 more states joined Illinois and repealed their sodomy bans.

Facing newfound political and legal pressure from an increasingly assertive LGBT community, state liquor authorities began to back down. "The key variable became how much of its resources a liquor board was actually willing to invest in vendettas to close down particular bars," noted Yale Law Professor William Eskridge. Less regulatory hostility fostered unprecedented growth for gay bars. Between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, the number of gay bars doubled in New York City and quintupled in Chicago. By 1976, there were some 2,500 nationwide.

But Stonewall wasn't one of them. With boycotts over its Mafia ties and an inability to sell liquor (a stint as a juice bar was unsuccessful), the inn closed a mere three months after the riots.

Despite all the advances for gay rights since Stonewall, licensing continues to be wielded as a form of harassment. In 2013, Pat Newton wanted to re-open a gay bar in Shannon, Mississippi. In a past life, Shannon's bar was the only LGBT establishment within 100 miles. It was even profiled in the documentary Small Town Gay Bar. But when Newton applied for a license at a town meeting, a crowd of 30 to 40 people angrily grilled her. One of them presented a petition that had been reportedly signed by nearly 200 people (Shannon has fewer than 2,000 residents). Newton later said she received anonymous, threatening phone calls.

Ultimately, the town's aldermen denied her the license. The town's city attorney told a local paper the decision was based on prosaic concerns like congestion and "public need" as another bar was across the street.

Partnering with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Newton filed a civil rights lawsuit, instead arguing that this denial was "indicative of purposeful discrimination" and violated her First Amendment rights, as well as her right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment. According to a complaint filed in October 2013, the SPLC argued, "No legitimate evidence regarding health and safety concerns was presented to [the aldermen], and they had been advised by a zoning consultant that Newton met all the requirements to obtain a license." The complaint also noted that others did try to open a gay bar at that same location, "but Shannon officials denied all applicants." After a media firestorm, the town decided to settle the case in May 2014.

While prejudice against queer Americans is not as widespread as it once was, licenses to run certain types of establishments or practice certain trades, still prevalent in the nation, continue to give small-minded officials excuses to quash people's right to assemble freely or even to earn an honest living.

More than four decades on, Stonewall continues to inspire resistance to state-sanctioned tools of oppression. Just as crucially, the years of legal challenges to liquor-license regimes before the riots are a stirring reminder of how an engaged judiciary is vital to uphold Americans' constitutional rights, especially for those who have been shunned and spurred by society.