Instead of the usual dinner and movie, a recent date offered to give me a tour of historical gay establishments in Manhattan. We met late one chilly Saturday afternoon in Soho. Our first stop was at the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (26 Wooster St.) Co-founders Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman began collecting art in 1969. Their “underground” gallery eventually expanded to its current spacious location and received official museum status by the New York State Board of Regents in 2011. My date and I gingerly held hands and meandered through the exhibits, taking in permanent pieces by the likes of Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. Hosting five new exhibits every year, the Leslie + Lohman Museum is the first and only gay art museum in the world.
From Soho, we took the 1 Train uptown to Christopher Street, which was once the epicenter of all-things-gay in New York City. Although most of the gay nightlife has moved uptown to Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, the West Village still touts several laidback gay bars that are rich with history.
Our first stop was Julius Bar (159 W. 10th), a landmarked dive bar famous for their delicious burgers. The building itself dates back to 1826 and in its heyday; the bar was frequented by Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Fable has it that Julius Bar is the oldest gay bar in New York, however, that distinction actually goes to the Upper West Side’s Candle Bar (309 Amsterdam Ave., now closed.) Candle Bar, known as the Candlelight Lounge in the 60’s, staffed gay bartenders and openly served gay men long before a gay rights group known as the Mattachine Society induced a “Sip-In” protest in 1966 at Julius Bar.
Until the Sip-In, it was illegal for gays to cruise each other in bars. Patrons were encouraged to face the bar and those who turned away from the bar to scope the room were ejected by bouncers. Thankfully, my date and I were free to cozy up to a table made from a vintage Jacob Ruppert Brewery barrel and flirt with one another over burgers and beer.
A West Village bar-hopping excursion would not be complete without visiting the iconic Stonewall Inn (53 Christopher St.), the location of the legendary Stonewall riots in 1969. Now a multi-level entertainment spot, Stonewall has maintained a friendly neighborhood vibe complete with pool tables, karaoke and friendly bartenders. The crowd is a mix of men and women, locals and curious tourists alike.
Stonewall was much smaller in 1969, but it attracted large crowds because it was the only gay establishment that allowed dancing. During a routine police raid, fed up with the harassment and inequality, bar patrons refused to cooperate with police and the violent Stonewall Riots began, drawing hundreds of protestors and beginning the gay liberation movement.
After a couple of libations and a hilarious drag show, my date and I decided to end our evening with a stroll through Christopher Park, just across the street from Stonewall Inn. The park is home to pop sculptor George Segal’s Gay Liberation. After suffering years of vandalism while on display in Connecticut and Wisconsin, the sculpture was moved to the West Village in 1992 and serves as a reminder of the bravery and struggles endured in the fight for equality. As my date and I stood, proudly looking at the celebrated sculpture in the moonlight, I couldn’t help but notice that despite numerous bars within ear shot, the quiet park was filled with a solemn reverence.