Gay History

WEBSTER HALL, NYC – First Gathering Place for Gay and Lesbian New Yorkers?

webster hallEach night before I go to sleep, I like catching up on one of my favorite podcast ,no, not my own podcast, which is amazing though. The podcast that I love listening to each night is called The Bowery Boys. Each episode two friends Tom Meyers and Greg Young focus  on the history of one person, place, or event in New York City history. As of April 2013, the Bowery Boys have produced 149 episodes. I am incredibly fascinated with New York as well as American history so I love each episode they have produced.

Among many fascinating shows, one being an fascinating episode about Stonewall, the inn and the riots, I caught one the other evening that I have missed. The title of the podcast was simply Webster Hall. I decided to give it a listen since I haven’t heard it before and it turned out to be another great episode.

I know I’ve mentioned in the title of this blog that it has a gay and lesbian connection, but I would really like to give some history on the building first.

Currently, Webster Hall is a night club and concert venue located at 125 East 11th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues, near Astor Place, in Manhattan, New York City. Built in 1886, its current incarnation was opened by the Ballinger Brothers in 1992. It serves as a nightclub, concert venue, corporate events center, and recording venue, and has a capacity of 2,500 people – including the club; 1,400 for the main stage.

Since Webster Hall was built in 1886, the building has gone through many incarnations. Originally, the plan for the building saw it host countless labor union rallies, weddings, meetings, lectures, dances, military functions, concerts, fundraisers and other events, particularly focused on the working-class and immigrant population of the surrounding Lower East Side neighborhood during its early years. The near by Catholic church had a “feeling” that this building was going to bring no good to the neighborhood. Currently Webster Hall still stands and the Catholic church is long gone.

Lets jump forward about 25 years. At this time Webster Hall was the site of masquerade balls and other soirees reflecting the hedonism of the city’s Bohemians. Nicknamed the “Devil’s Playhouse” by the socialist magazine The Masses, Webster Hall became particularly known for the wilder and more risque events of the time; Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Stella, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Charles Demuth, Scott Fitzgerald and many other notables regularly attended events there during this time.

It was quoted by one Greenwich Villager –

“‘We’ve sold our bed. Why sleep when there’s a dance every night at Webster Hall?’”

The amazing part of the building’s history that caught my attention was who was not only welcomed but invited to the masquerade balls on the late teens and early 20’s. Webster Hall during this time was a predominate place for gays and lesbians to gather and basically party. It could be argued that Webster Hall was not only the first “gay club” in New York City, but in America.

The event space served a significant role in the development of New York’s early gay and lesbian scene. By the 1920s, gay men were organizing their own masquerades, where they were free to arrive in full drag. And their heterosexual late-night counterparts welcomed, and even encouraged, their presence at their balls and masquerades, as “they knew they enhanced the reputation and appeal of such events.”

As we all remember Stonewall Inn as the amazing start of the LGBT revolution and the beginning of the fight for LGBT equality, I think it is important for us to remember Webster Hall as being a place that brought together homosexuals and heterosexuals together. Shortly after this period of time a more conservative America would break through which then out-lawed the gathering of homosexuals until the brave patrons of the Stonewall Inn stood up in defiance to this.

1920 LesbiansWebster Hall played a significant role in LGBT history. It is said that the first drag queens graced the stages in Webster Hall during this time. (Picture to the left shows lesbians dressed in drag in 1920)

Webster Hall has changed hands many times since then, but in a way it still holds the same spirit it did in the days of the roaring 20’s. Today it is a night club who has seen the likes of Lady Gaga and many more artists.

To me it is amazing to think that 95 years ago gays and lesbians not only we accepted by society, they were admired. To think that gay and lesbian couples openly walked around and attended parties 95 years without ridicule or condemnation is a mind blowing thought, at least to me. It shows how incredibly conservative America became. Maybe it was because of the crash of the stock market or perhaps America’s entrance into WWII, or maybe a combination of both. I can’t help to wonder if America hadn’t become so conservative in it’s thinking and society was allowed to build on the apparent acceptance of LGBT citizens they had in 1919 and the 1920’s, where would we be today? Would LGBT rights even be something we question as a country?

Well, no matter what we may wonder, what we all can definitively know is that Webster Hall has served as a great platform and possibly a “jumping off point” for gay and lesbian Americans.

I suggest if anyone who reads this lives in the NYC vicinity to check out the venue. If you don’t either visit or at least research this amazing piece of LGBT history as well as American history. A great starting point is checking out The Bowery Boys podcast episode.

I’ll end this by saying thanks to all the amazing and brave LGBT Americans who came before me. Those who attended parties at Webster Hall, those who stood up the the NYC police when the Stonewall Riots happened to all those who rallied and fought for rights before me. I know we still have a way to go, but I couldn’t imagine how different my life would be as an LGBT American if those brave individuals didn’t come before. So, my deepest thanks and gratitude to you all.

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