An earlier version of this piece mentioned that a grass roots group, Dykes Against Racism, organized demonstrations against the practice of double carding. The group is actually named Dykes Against Racism Everywhere.
Yet, while Stonewall had major historic ramifications, change came slowly. In fact, police raids persisted throughout the country. For instance, in 1982, police raided the Blues Bar, a working-class African American LGBTQ bar in Times Square.
The Blues Bar raid, the protest it triggered and the failure of New York’s government to offer justice to the victims teach us a different multiracial history than the one we learn from Stonewall. The historical amnesia of the Blues Bar raid reveals something fundamentally flawed in the way that LGBTQ history has been told and provides lessons for the push for equality moving forward.
New York Police Department officers raided the Blues Bar on Sept. 29, 1982, at 10:30 p.m. The bar, which was located on 43rd street on Eighth Avenue, was just a few blocks from the Waldorf Astoria, which was then hosting the Human Rights Campaign’s first fundraising dinner. Founded in 1980, the then-nascent LGBTQ political advocacy organization had welcomed former vice president Walter Mondale as its keynote speaker that year.
Twenty NYPD officers entered the bar claiming its patrons had attacked two officers nearby. Various witnesses claimed the police had been at the Blues Bar weeks prior harassing patrons and accusing the bar of being involved in crime. There was no evidence to substantiate that, however.
The police did not accept denials by the bar patrons that they had not attacked any officers. Instead, the officers attacked 40 patrons, the majority of whom were Black men, along with some trans women.
During the nearly 30-minute attack, police referred to their bullets as “f--- suppositories” and threw homophobic slurs at the patrons. Police used one person’s crutches to beat them and knocked another one’s front teeth out so violently that their blood stained the bar’s wall. The officers particularly acted out against the trans women. Several patrons were sent to the hospital requiring immediate medical attention. The bar also suffered tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.
Arthur Bell, one of the few reporters who covered the Stonewall rebellion, also covered the Blues Bar raid and referred to it on air as “worse than Stonewall.”
The attack sparked a protest on Oct. 15, 1982, with more than 1,500 LGBTQ people — one of the largest such demonstrations in New York before the more visible AIDS-related protests in the coming years. LGBTQ people of all races, genders and backgrounds marched. This included Black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson, who also took part in the Stonewall riots.
One of the raid victims, Herb Jackson, spoke to the crowd that night and said: “I’m glad that we’re united …. I’m so glad that everybody’s here — Black, White, Puerto Rican, red, yellow. I don’t care what color you are, man. You are my brothers and sisters.”
The rally convinced Jackson that the police couldn’t “get away with this.” Jackson believed the demonstration would break the case “wide open” and lead to a “full, thorough investigation on what went down.”
While there was an investigation into the raid, it ultimately proved unsuccessful in holding the police accountable. Many different factors led to the case not moving forward. This included pressure applied by some real estate elites who did not want to challenge the gentrification that was transforming the landscape of Times Square. The investigation also coincided with the beginning of the AIDS crisis, which immediately overwhelmed the city’s LGBTQ activists and organizations. The raid’s victims also did not trust the district attorney’s office to conduct a fair investigation, and Mayor Ed Koch did not apply ample pressure on the district attorney’s office to work with the victims.
But another major factor contributed to the investigation’s lack of success: the interconnected role that race, class and homophobia played for the victims before, during and after the raid.
The government and most of the world still openly disdained LGBTQ people regardless of race, gender or class. Violence at the hands of police and ordinary people was often the norm.
The LGBTQ community was also segregated, with many LGBTQ people of color often feeling isolated or erased from the movement. Many LGBTQ bars and clubs were informally racially segregated. Blues Bar was in Times Square, where many LGBTQ bars and clubs frequented by people of color were located at the time. Meanwhile, many White LGBTQ bars and clubs frequently performed “double carding” wherein Black and other people of color were often asked to present two or more pieces of identification to enter.
Even after the gains produced by the LGBTQ rights movement in the 1970s, LGBTQ bars and clubs had little to no legal protection in New York. The city did not pass a gay civil rights bill until 1986. This meant such establishments were technically illegal. That left proprietors in perpetual fear of their liquor licenses being revoked — a penalty that frequently occurred. To counter that, many White LGBTQ bars and clubs bought protection from the mafia, which added pressure to keep the bars segregated.
Grass-roots interracial LGBTQ organizations, such as Black and White Men Together and Dykes Against Racism Everywhere, organized demonstrations against double carding. Despite their efforts, many bars remained segregated.
The Blues Bar raid inspired a sense of solidarity among White LGBTQ people and others, who joined the protests and marches. Being White allowed many LGBTQ people to create their own spaces, but it did not necessarily provide protection from the harassment of police or society at large. In addition, the AIDS crisis and the fear, hate and bigotry it provoked during the 1980s and beyond demonstrated that newly secured “gay rights” didn’t guarantee the protection of most LGBTQ people anyhow — regardless of race and class.
Meanwhile, as the raid at Blues Bar reveals, many LGBTQ people of color confronted not just homophobia, but also racial and class bigotry. Even within the LGBTQ community and movement, they were regularly made invisible and were excluded from being part of the culture.
After the Blues Bar raid, Lionel Mitchell observed in the New York Amsterdam News, a historic Black newspaper, that “many white gays were asserting that the police would not have dared brutalize White people in the same way.”
Mitchell found it most revealing of White privilege that “while white gays were having their $150 fundraiser across town in a near lily-white affair,” a reference to the HRC fundraising dinner, “the poorly organized Blacks, scarcely protected by the all-new won 'gay rights,' were being stomped within an inch of their lives by that police department.”
Police raided the Blues Bar because it was a Black, LGBTQ working-class bar owned by Black folks and located in a gentrifying neighborhood.
Sept. 29, 2022, marks 40 years since the Blues Bar raid. Part of its legacy is this lesson about the intersectional roles of race, sexuality and gender identity in society.
The Blues Bar raid reminds us that the story of Pride and the history of the LGBTQ movement is incomplete without including people of color and recognizing the importance of their intersectional experiences.