The Mafia has always been known for their business savvy and violent conflict resolutions. Nobody asked questions as long as the payments were hefty and anyone who opened their mouth lost their head. The Mafia’s legacy is infamous, but not many people know about the role they played in the development of New York City’s LGBTQIA bar scene.
Back in the 1960s, members of the LGBTQIA community had few places to go where they could be themselves. New York City gay bars were often raided and shut down for ‘indecent conduct’. Meanwhile, the patrons were often assaulted and arrested. Homosexuality wasn’t against the law, but it wasn’t accepted either.
Much of the city’s LGBTQIA community was centered on the Westside in the Village. This also happened to be the territory of one of New York’s five families, The Genovese crime family.
The family, led by Vito Genovese at the time, saw a prosperous business opportunity in this situation. They bought up the local bars and opened them to the LGBTQIA community.
No one should ever claim the Mafia was an ally to this community, they were just unwilling to turn away a paying customer, no matter what their orientation might be. Patrons were overcharged and served watered-down drinks, but community members had finally found a safe place to gather.
That’s not to say these establishments were completely immune to the raids. However, most owners were usually tipped off ahead of time and they took place in the afternoons or early evening when few customers were on site.
One of the most famous bars owned by the Genovese family was the Stonewall Inn. The bar had no running water, no fire escape, and the toilets were regularly unkept. It was disgusting, but for many, it was all they had. Same-sex couples could dance together freely, drag queens were celebrated, and newcomers were welcomed.
LGBTQIA community members weren’t stupid; they knew they were being used. This mistreatment was one of the reasons the 1969 Stonewall riots occurred. The community was tired of the raids and the demeaning treatment by the police who conducted them, but they were also tired of being exploited by the five families as well.
Despite these conflicts, the Mafia’s hold on the bars continued well into the 1980s. In fact, the bars became important gathering spots for equal rights supporters and groups like the Gay Activists Alliance, which is still in existence today.
Over time, NYC’s gay bar scene has flourished into a thriving epicenter of activism and support for all members of the LGBTQIA community. Because of the Mafia’s greed, this movement found its feet.