Did the Mafia Help Spark the LGBTQ Movement?

The Mafia owned gay bars across the country in the 1960’s to conduct illicit activities, but in June 1969 it ignored a tip about a police raid at The Stonewall Inn that launched a gay revolution.

Not a pandemic, not an infestation of locusts, not a dust-storm the size of Pluto could stop Pride from happening this year!

Pride will go on . . . online that is.

NYC Pride will feature performances starting at Noon on Sunday, June 28.

San Francisco Pride will also be available for streaming.

And Los Angeles Pride will host a three-hour event with activists and performers.

The timing is fortuitous, as the country examines equality and justice for communities of color.

This weekend, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Pride March for LGBTQ rights in the United States.

The catalytic event, as some may know, was a police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village called The Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969.

Although homosexuality was legal in New York, the State Liquor Authority refused licenses to gay bars.

Businesses that were able to obtain a license were regularly raided by the police and/or had their licenses revoked for “indecent conduct.”

In other words, any business caught flouting societal mores (aka serving the LGBTQ community) would be shut down.

Therefore, pay-offs to police departments and liquor authorities was the cost of doing business.

The Shadowy Underworld

Cue the Mafia.

I confess, I myself as a gay person just recently learned the details of this wild story.

With extensive experience running illegal speak-easies during Prohibition, organized crime families later applied this experience to operating gay bars.

Specifically, five families controlled most of the bars and nightclubs in New York City and Chicago, according to Phillip Crawford Jr.

Gay bars, operating outside of the law, were the perfect site for the Mafia to conduct their illicit activities from the ‘50s through the ‘80s, including drug trafficking/dealing, prostitution, and blackmailing wealthy, closeted patrons.

Operating in the Shadows

During the 1960s, the Genovese crime family dominated the bar scene in Greenwich Village, and saw a lucrative opportunity catering to the ostracized LGBTQ community flourishing in the neighborhood.

The Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher Street, was originally a restaurant and bar for straight customers converted into a gay bar and nightclub in 1966.

Circumventing laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to LGBTQ customers, Stonewall operated as a “bottle bar”—or private club—such that it didn’t require a liquor license and patrons (club members) would sign in under aliases.

To maximize profits, basic conveniences, like running water behind the bar and clean glasses, were scrapped, while watered-down drinks were marked up.

Nevertheless, Stonewall quickly became a popular hole-in-the-wall hang-out for gay men, lesbians, drag queens who were rejected at other establishments, and queer homeless youth.

To keep things running smoothly, the savvy Mafia slipped $1,200 in cash each month to the cops to ignore the patrons’ “immoral” behavior.

A Tipping Point

Purchased “ignorance” was bliss until it’s suspected that the police didn’t receive their monthly pay-off. David Carter also hypothesized that they were upset about not getting a cut of the extortion funds from blackmailed patrons.

In late June 1969, Stonewall management was tipped off about a planned police raid late in the evening, whereas most obligatory raids occurred in the afternoon when they were few customers. So, they blew it off.

Yet, eight law enforcement officials arrived at 1:20 on Saturday morning to shut the bar down for good, announcing, “Police! We’re taking the place!”

Officers ordered customers to line up for an identity check, and an invasive gender verification in the bathroom. Anyone without an ID or “cross-dressing” was hauled away in the paddy wagon.

Trans women and drag queens were escorted into the wagon, while lesbians were inappropriately touched during frisking.

Oddly, there was resistance from the start.

A crowd quickly swelled outside, watching as a handcuffed lesbian scuffled with officers. She called the bystanders into action when she looked at them and yelled, “Why don’t you guys do something?”

After watching police aggressively hurl her into the paddy wagon, the crowd of 500 people sprang into action, throwing projectiles and attempting to overturn the police wagons and cars.

Police backup arrived, pushing back the angry crowd with nightsticks.

Kick-lines formed to mock the officers, yet everyone fought back in solidarity—from trans individuals, to street youth, to gays, to lesbians—of all ethnicities and economic classes.

The riots continued over six days with thousands of participants.

Events from that first night are awash in myth, but we can distill the truth from some of the actual participants.

From Resistance to a National Liberation Movement

In the aftermath, there were calls for gay people to own gay establishments and to boycott all Mafia-owned bars.

Two gay rights organizations that formed after the riots—the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front—advocated forcing the Mafia out of gay bars.

Shortly thereafter, Stonewall was closed (and re-opened in the early ‘90s under new ownership). Other clubs changed management, as prominent mafia members were sent to prison in the ‘80s.

Netflix’s documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, expands the focus on the mob as possibly being behind the death of this extraordinary trans activist, while giving a glimpse into the criminal syndicate’s activities.

The Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee originally organized the annual NYC Pride Parade and Christopher Street Festival commemorating the Stonewall riots.

However, it was widely suspected of being mob controlled. Committee members were alleged to be skimming donations and profits rather than directing funds to the LGBTQ community.

In 1984, a transparent non-profit organization—Heritage of Pride (HOP)—was founded to take over planning for the Pride Parade. And in 1992, HOP also took charge of the street festival production.

Unwittingly Facilitating a Revolution

Although the opportunistic Mafia offered a safe space for LGBTQ patrons, mobsters exploited the community for profit, providing poor conditions, preying on its patrons, and even employing underage boys in its sex rings.

Ironically, the Mafia unwittingly played a role in the national launch of the LGBTQ rights movement by fatefully ignoring a tip about a police raid in the early morning of June 28, 1969.

In turn, years of pent up anger and resentment over oppression sparked a revolution.

And 50 years later, The Stonewall Inn is now recognized as a national historic landmark. Yet, it’s at risk of shuttering once again . . . this time due to a pandemic. 

As we celebrate Pride, we remember all those courageous individuals who made living openly as LGBTQ possible.

How will you be celebrating Pride (even as an ally) this year?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s