How the Stonewall Riots Worked

The Stonewall Inn
The Stonewall Inn opened as a gay bar in 1967. Roger Gaess/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

The Stonewall Inn was originally a pair of brick buildings that housed stables, then a bakery, on Christopher Street in Manhattan's West Village (the western part of Greenwich Village). The Stonewall Inn Restaurant opened at the location in 1934.

But since the laws of the era made being gay in public practically illegal, and many bars refused to serve LGBTQ people, organized crime figures saw an opportunity to exploit a market that wasn't being served by legal establishments. So, in 1967, a small group of Mafia-connected investors opened the Stonewall as a gay bar. In fact, several gay clubs and bars in New York City in the '60s had Mafia owners.

Primarily gay men went to the Stonewall Inn, although lesbians and transgender people did as well. There was an informal segregation between the main bar, populated by masculine gay men, and the back room's dance floor, home to the queens and other LGBTQ groups that were more vulnerable or held a lesser status according to contemporary stigmas. It was a multiethnic crowd.

But despite the bar's popularity, its Mafia connections created a lot of tension. It's likely the owners dealt drugs and operated a prostitution ring out of the Stonewall, and it was no secret that they paid bribes to the cops of the 6th Precinct to look the other way. There's evidence that at least one Mafia-connected owner, Ed "The Skull" Murphy, ran a homosexual blackmail racket. Taking advantage of the oppressive, secretive life of LGBTQ people at the time, he would obtain incriminating photographs and coerce them into making big payoffs to avoid being outed. The owners also didn't invest a lot of money or effort into the Stonewall Inn. It was a grimy, dark place, and the drinks were usually watered down [source: Carter].

Even with its flaws, the Stonewall Inn was a refuge for LGBTQ people. It was one of the few places where they could be accepted and feel relatively safe from harassment, even if only for a few hours of dancing to Motown hits. June 28, 1969, the day the Stonewall riots occurred, was no exception — until the police showed up a little after 1 a.m.