I've gone to the new "gay-owned" Stonewall Inn almost every week on one night or another since it opened in early 2007. I was very excited when it opened and made sure to be there on the very first day (I wanted to be the first customer but got there too late).
I've had some good times there, but my main reason for going is to support the bar, since the Stonewall Inn -- frankly and ironically -- is not nearly as much fun as the straight-owned Stonewall Bar that occupied the same place up until about five years ago. That Stonewall was always packed wall to wall with men of all ages (mostly younger, however), had fun entertainers and party nights, a disco upstairs if you felt like dancing, and early in the evenings on some weeknights one of the great bartenders, Danny, would be behind the bar upstairs where there was a chummy, more intimate feeling. The place should have been a goldmine, but somehow the owner completely screwed up and the Stonewall Bar closed down. The new Stonewall was going to play up the fact that it's "Where Pride Began" (its slogan) and I was all in favor of it. So I went, even if I didn't always enjoy it. (By the way, keep in mind as you read this that the slogan "Where Pride Began" doesn't have the word "gay" in it. You'll understand why later.)
Yes, I was overjoyed to hear that it was going to reopen, this time with a gay owner. [I believe there are actually three owners. The first two are the same men (Bill Morgan, Tony DeCicco)who own the Duplex down the street -- I have no idea of their sexual orientation. The third owner, Kurt Kelly, -- and the manager of the Stonewall Inn, apparently worked as a bartender and manager in the Duplex for many years and is gay. So I guess it's safe to say that the Inn is at least partly "gay-owned." The Duplex is considered gay-friendly -- especially the upper level -- but as far as I'm concerned it's always been basically a straight or mixed bar.]
I had a feeling right from the first, however, that the new Stonewall Inn might have a problem surviving, even if the old place was thriving practically until the day it had to close its doors (and not for lack of customers.) The idea was to have a place where all factions of the gay community (and presumably the LGBT community) could mingle -- gay men and lesbians, drag queens, leather kings, bears, and so on. There are both gay men and lesbians in the Inn, but I've never seen a drag queen or leather man, and the only bear (otter) I've ever noticed in there is me. Of course, although I've been going for months I'm not there every night. I could easily have missed a lot. Still, what works for the LGBT center wouldn't necessarily work for a bar.
I knew the new Stonewall would not be a hot, cruisy, mostly all-male establishment like the straight-owned version, but I applauded the decision to bring different factions of the community together. But I thought to myself -- will this mixed bar idea really work? Bears and lesbians and leather men and drag queens already have their own hang-outs to go to -- why will they need the Stonewall? I had a feeling that "mixed" was eventually going to mean gay and straight, which is pretty much what's happened.
Because many of the gay customers have gone to new bars in Chelsea, many of the gay places in the West Village -- where the Stonewall is located -- now have a kind of "open door" policy. Cool straight people were always welcome in gay bars before, but a doorman would check them out and make sure they knew what kind of establishment they were entering. The straight people who went into gay bars twenty years ago are often different from many of the straight people who go in today (and often there are no doormen). Back then, they almost always went in with gay friends, but nowadays they often come in on their own, wanting to have a hip gay experience or just too drunk to care with whom they're getting loaded. Often they don't even realize they're in a gay bar. To say that this can be a recipe for disaster -- and lawsuits -- is an understatement.
Before I go off on a tangent, let's look at this in the context of the Stonewall Inn. A gay man manages and co-owns a gay bar to which he hopes many different kinds of gay people (but drinkers all!) will come. Unfortunately, not enough gay people come. Straight people come in, buy drinks -- he doesn't care, he's just grateful for the business -- he has bills to pay. (And I'm sure the straight and gay owners of many other gay bars feel the same.) Some gay bar owners get bitter, angry that the community isn't "supporting" them. Let the straight people come -- and who cares if they don't really like "fags" deep down and have no idea that the Stonewall Inn was the site of the Birth of the Modern-Day Gay Rights Movement (all this has pretty much been down-played in the Stonewall despite the grandiose plans). I can sympathize to a point with bar owners who are afraid of losing their shirts and managers and bartenders who are afraid of losing their jobs. But still ...
The trouble is that the gay customers who do keep coming and are loyal to the bar are sort of forgotten. I have no problem with a few friendly straight people in most gay bars, but as the months went by I noticed that the Stonewall got straighter and straighter. All right, it was never exactly the greatest gay bar and some of the straight customers were perfectly okay, it just wasn't exactly the gayest of experiences. I wasn't surprised that many of the straights were coming directly from the Duplex, even though there are two straight bars in between the Duplex and the Stonewall. Gee, I wonder how that happened?
Curiously, some bars in the West Village have managed to remain predominently gay (The Monster and Ty's), probably because they give their customers what they want. Ty's (my favorite bar) is for masculine, mostly middle-aged gay guys who want to cruise and converse, and The Monster is a fun place where you can cruise, sing at the piano, or dance downstairs -- there are more options than in the Stonewall. Marie's Crisis is more straight than gay on most nights, and the less said for now about the former Boots and Saddle the better. (Let's just say that what was once one of the best gay bars in the city, a village institution, is now one of the worst, except for certain times and evenings, and despite some friendly staffers and customers.)
The co-owner/manager of the Stonewall Inn is probably a perfectly nice guy; I've only seen him at the Stonewall two or three times and he's never been what I would call warm and welcoming, hale and hearty, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the compromises he's had to make to keep the bar open have him so harried, maybe even frightened, that a man who must have had a nice personality when he worked all those years at the Duplex has become just a bit taciturn. I have to assume that he does give a friendly greeting to the regulars he's known for years. (Then again, he could be a complete stiff who's in the wrong business and is his own worst enemy -- who knows?)
So I continued to go the bar, although sometimes it was dead, sometimes "overrun" with straight drunken tourists (but I thank them for helping New York City's economy and some of them can be nice and fun, of course, if not exactly what I'm looking for), and sometimes I didn't bother to stay. There was the very nice gay bartender who they moved down from upstairs at the Duplex. And a nice conversation one evening with the brilliant performer Everett Quinton. I made out with more than one attractive male. It wasn't all bad and sometimes it was pretty gay. I very much wanted the bar to succeed. Some friends commented that you never knew exactly what you'd find when you walked into the bar, which made it kind of interesting but probably has also kept it from building a big, devoted following like, say, Ty's.
Okay there were a few odd things along the way. There was that weird "straight" bartender who "fooled around with men." And the somewhat bizarre ad they had during Gay Pride week. But nothing compares to what happened to me on the Thursday night of January 31st, 2008 around 11 or 12. I was by myself, and wanted to start a conversation. While waiting to catch a bartender's attention -- the place was fairly busy -- I gave a friendly greeting to what I thought was a gay male couple standing nearby. I asked them how long they'd been together. I mean, this is a gay bar -- what's wrong with that?
Well, I guess they weren't gay. Almost before the words were out of my mouth, one ugly little wretched creature -- who I realized was not just drunk but shit-faced -- raised his fist in outrage and began punching my chest repeatedly. Apparently he didn't like my suggestion that he was gay. Flabbergasted, I stepped back, held up my arms, and told him to calm down. Frankly, another gay man might have socked this idiot in the face, but I did my best to defuse the situation. I am not a violent man -- I have nothing to prove -- but I'm not a doormat, either.
Suddenly out of the blue an attractive, poised young Asian-American woman (I only mention her ethnicity so readers can "watch out" for her, assuming anyone would actually want to go here), approached us and asked one of us to leave.
Was it the shit-faced homophobe who was physically assaulting a friendly gay man in the gay bar "Where Pride Began?"
It was me.
That's right, me. I was so shocked that for once in my life I was speechless. I could tell she wasn't interested in hearing my side of it (although surely she had seen who was hitting whom?) "Are gay men no longer welcome in this bar?" I asked her. She only smirked in reply. (I was so completely outraged that I didn't argue or say anything more. I just left, determined never to darken this gin joint's door ever again.)
So let's see. The gay man was asked to leave and the gay basher was allowed to stay. And this in the Birthplace of the Modern-Day Gay Rights Movement, no less.
I've only been gay-bashed twice in my life and both times it was in a gay bar that allowed in inappropriate, overly inebriated straights (or self-hating homos). The first time was much more violent that the Stonewall incident, but luckily I was not seriously injured either time. You can bet I would have had the perpertrator arrested and filed a law suit against the bar if I had been.
Y'know, maybe I've lost a little sympathy for the owner and his bills and everything else. I go to a bar to support a gay business and businessman, to have a good time in a relatively gay-safe environment, and I wind up being smacked by a drunken asshole who is apparently preferred as a customer over me -- who has never hit anyone in a gay bar or anywhere else.
Frankly, I'm a little sick that it's come to this. I had such high hopes for the Stonewall Inn. Where Pride Began, eh? Bullshit. As usual, it's just about dollars and cents. I'm never setting foot in the place again -- it's just not worth it, and who knows what will happen next? -- and I'm getting the word out via blogs, message boards and word-of-mouth to avoid the place at all costs. A bar should not cater to violent homophobic assholes at the expense of its gay customers and expect its gay customers to come back, no matter who the fucking owner is. The fact that it's a gay guy makes it even worse. (I've no doubt he'll just see me as some "trouble maker" or "asshole" or "one of those horrible gay activists" or some such shit. Which is pitiful.)
The Stonewall Inn of today has nothing to do with "Gay Pride" and it shouldn't pretend that it does. It's obscene that it's going to continue to use "pride" as it's selling point when this kind of shit is going on.
I hope it changes its name to The Duplex II, because that's what it's become, as I feared. And that a year from now it'll be just another Bagel Joint.
Whatever you want to call it, it is not "The Stonewall Inn" and apparently never will be. In trying to be all things to all people -- and keep the cash register ringing -- it's managed to become nothing, just another bland "cocktail lounge" with no real character of its own.
And to think ... I wanted to be their first customer ........
What a joke.