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A Place to Dream Out Loud

By Alexander Chee

A dance at the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse, 1971. Photograph by Diana Davies. Courtesy the New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

A dance at the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse, 1971. Photograph by Diana Davies. Courtesy the New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

I  don’t remember exactly when I finally decided it was time to go inside the Stonewall, as the bar was known after it reopened in 1990. When I arrived in New York in the early Nineties, it was a curiosity, a mediocre bar placed on the site—really half the site—of a legendary moment of political resistance. Going there never entered into the calculus of my early days exploring the city. There were so many places for the young gay man I was to go, and the West Side was not my style. I hadn’t yet developed a fondness for show tunes and piano bars, and the leather scene always seemed a little bit of a scam—the one night I had to check a cowboy shirt for being too colorful, I was over it. I eventually came to love the multilevel disco and piano bar called The Monster, but I only discovered it because of the crush a friend had on someone who worked the door. To my mind, the Stonewall seemed staid by comparison, with its name that sounded like a restaurant in Connecticut, someplace I might have taken my mother for chowder.

Back then, New York gay bars were often Mafia-owned. The Mafia owned gay porn distribution too, and this was just another way our culture didn’t belong to us. I vividly remember a woman describing herself as the daughter of a gay-bar owner in Manhattan: “I told the kids at my school in Long Island that I knew Marilyn and Liza, Diana Ross and Cher, all of the stars. And then I got older and found out they were just drag queens.” All of this was code for, “My father was a Mafia man.” I used to amuse myself by imagining gay mobsters with secret or not-so-secret obsessions, but the real reason they were in the business was that there was money in it. I don’t know whether that’s still the case, but it’s worth reflecting that, before we insisted on owning our stories ourselves and got told there was no money in it, money was indeed made. I say this because at some point I learned that the Stonewall was one of those Mafia-owned bars.

By the time I heard this story about the bar and the stars, the AIDS epidemic was almost a decade old. I had come out to New York from San Francisco, and I knew very little of Stonewall. I knew it was a bar that was raided, and that the raid had inspired an uprising against the police. It was common to see a banner in the Pride parade with the word “Stonewall” in it. And my short visit on that night in the Nineties may even have been on Pride. The parade ended there—all of us marching our way to the bar, a reenactment of the days of rioting but in the form of floats and families and corporate sponsors. I recall thinking, at the door, This bar is a part of your history, just go inside.

Inside I found an ordinary gay bar, like so many, part of something I thought of then as white gay culture. In those days, it was normal for me to enter a bar and find a stack of flyers by the door with white men on it, a magazine with white men on the cover, and posters on the walls featuring white men. A crowd of mostly white men would look me over, or not, depending on their tastes. To walk through the crowd at Stonewall and find not a part of your own history but the same scene you’d been trying to escape since you came out—one you maybe never really took seriously because it never seemed to take you seriously—this was the most alienating part. I used the bathroom, had a drink, and left.

If I could go back to that night and find my younger self, I might tell him that the first Stonewall was named for a memoir by an anonymous lesbian. That it was, at the time, the only place gay men in New York could dance, before or after being arrested on a given night. Or that trans people of color were some of the fiercest fighters during the riots. I might have told myself the stories that would let the place belong to me the way it does now, even though I still don’t think I would have stayed for the second drink.

I wanted to find some visible sign of the revolution there, something in the air. I wanted to connect to that radical spirit. I still do. Gay bars for me then were places I often felt judged, excluded, or objectified in ways I wasn’t always comfortable with. I might see friends but I might also see enemies, or I would make a new friend and wind up making out by the jukebox before heading off to wherever we were going next. I now know that most of this was about my relative youth, but it was also about the gay bar as a place to dream out loud, if you were lucky. To invent the future of our desires as well as the present, in an outfit, or on a go-go stage, or on a dance floor, dancing to a new song or an old one.

This year, I want to go back and do it over. Get a drink and imagine myself finally getting to dance with someone I desire, to a song I like or even love, after years of hiding what I want, and then the police coming through, arresting me, taking me away as the bartenders go on like nothing happened. I will ask myself what it would feel like if that had happened for years, and was even expected. Ask myself, if that kept happening, what I would do some night when I finally couldn’t stand it.

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