Clare Hand is a self-described flaming London lesbian. Since October, she’s been working on the door at queer women’s events in London. She documents the atmosphere, music, fashions, vibe (are you going to get laid or make new mates), the public’s response to queer women’s priority spaces and the people behind the nights. When she first conceived of the project, she wanted to take it international—and that’s exactly what she’s doing here at GO Magazine. In May, she crossed the Atlantic. She started in San Francisco, then LA, then she will be heading to Bogota and São Paulo. After this, she is off to NYC for WorldPride/Stonewall 50. These are her Lesbian Door Diaries. Catch up on the last one here.
It’s finally WorldPride | Stonewall 50 weekend, which means NYC is bursting at the seams with queer folks; for real, it’s actually surprising to see public displays of heterosexuality out here.
People from Coney Island and Amsterdam, Jersey and Taipei, are roaming around town: their flip-flops slap the pavement, while their rainbow attire gleams in the light. “Happy Pride,” can be heard in coffee shops in Queens, gyms in Manhattan and parks on Staten Island.
At some point this week, most of these people will pay a visit to a living piece of queer history– The Stonewall Inn. All will take a photo – hundreds were taken in the few hours I was there alone – and most will stop for a moment and pay homage to this small two-story, red-brick bar.
Fifty years ago, this was one of very few places queer people could blossom, evolve, dance, find family, friends and lovers. Back then, it was hardly a safe space; it was mafia-run, and police officers – their batons held-high – were some of the Inn’s most regular visitors.
And then on the night of June 28th, something extraordinary happened: our queer ancestors decided that they would live in subjugation no more. Butch black lesbian Stormé DeLaverie was one of the first to stand-up, a parking metre was uprooted, fires were started, bottles were thrown and six police officers were locked inside the bar. For the next six days, thousands of people – led by the likes of black drag queen Marsha P Johnson and Latina transwoman Sylvia Rivera – took to the streets. Stonewall isn’t just a gay bar, it is the place that summoned rebellion in our queer forebears. Having a drink inside while contemplating all of this is a very powerful experience.
I had to ask for the honour of working on Stonewall’s door. I arrived at 9pm, it was a hot and sticky night (just as it was in 1969). A congregation of queers were papping the bar: “hey, would you mind taking a photo of us”, “don’t zoom”, “no, look at my hair, take another.” They pose under an army of pride flags – gay, trans, lesbian, leather, bi, intersex, genderqueer – you name the flag, it hangs from the venue.
A queue had already started to form behind a red velvet rope, a TV crew filmed the frenzy, a mother stood outside with her kids; “so this the bar where it all happened,” she said. Meanwhile, Mike the security guard – donning a hot pink sweater – checked IDs and recited his mantra, “no large bags, no attitude.”
As I entered I was greeted by what can only be described as a two-woman stand-up show. Michelle and Mel, Stonewall-bartenders turned door people for the night, were taking $5 cover and leaving people in hysterics as they stepped inside.
The pair were covered in Stonewall merch, and handed out wristbands, or as they called them, “complimentary orange bracelets, they’re waterproof.” They placed their ‘free bracelets’ on the right or left arm, “whichever you prefer,” they’d say, as they ascertained whether people were a top, bottom or verse based on the wrist you offered up. They’d sing little tunes, dish out high-fives and cheer like they were courtside at a Knicks game. They’d energise anyone who walked in the building and, as I worked alongside them, made me look as witty as a plain piece of paper in comparison.
The crowd were, to put it lightly, eclectic. A person in dark blue scrubs came in for a post-hospital pint, three staff from London’s only lesbian bar She Soho swung by, while drag queens came in their droves – one was dressed as an “orange bearded lady or Jessica Rabbit’s long-lost uncle, transitioning into a carrot,” their words, not mine.
Many came coated in glitter, looking like they’d just hit 21; a mom dropped two of them off and wished them a great night, like it was their first day at school. On the other end of the age-spectrum, an 80-year-old (heterosexual) Chinese couple came in to pose for a photo with the ‘Raided Premises’ sign in the bar’s doorway. Soon after, Paul from Scotland – who was born on June 28th 1969 – had to go home to get his ID.“My ID?!” he protested, “I’m fucking fifty myself,” he said as he walked away. I saw him inside an hour later, “I spent thirty quid on a cab back to the hotel,” he said jovially, “I had to come, fifty for fifty.”
There were people from Denver, São Paulo, Lima and Lagos. South Africans clapped giddily as they arrived, German’s said “tshüss” as they left.
Everyone nestled comfortably into the venue which, though packed, never felt too full. Stonewall is a carefully curated space. The music is present but not loud enough to disturb conversation, the temperature is nice and the interiors are iconic (think gold-tiled ceiling and vintage Tiffany-style lights). It has all the intimacy of a dive bar, with the vibrancy of a club; it’s fresh and smooth-running, yet drenched in history.
People congregate in circles and pairs, others stand alone and ponder the significance of the space. Some are exchanging flirtatious glances, most are chilling, too busy basking in the frivolity of Pride to eye-bang strangers. Though it is the most renowned gay bar in the world, it still feels down-to-earth: it is queer, playful and important. People express their gender/sexuality in various ways, and the atmosphere doesn’t allow for prejudice or judgement. This is exactly how a safe space for queer folks should feel.
Upstairs I could hear the beginnings of the evening’s drag show. I headed up to find a heaving crowd, beside themselves as a glam queen lip-synced ‘I Will Survive.’ It was too packed for me to get involved (and so packed that tips had to be passed by hand from back to front), so I headed back downstairs to chat with some more strangers and crack-up with the Village’s funniest door-girls.
The bar stayed open til 4am. I headed off before close, as I stood on the pavement outside I could still hear the slap of Michelle’s welcoming high-five. I decided to go for a little stroll: down Christopher Street, past Gay Street, there were gay flags hanging from nearly every restaurant, bar, shop and home in sight. I gave a little salute to our loud, proud and defiantly queer ancestors. It was their revolution, on these very streets half a century ago that made all this possible.