Uncle Charlie’s, which opened in 1980 at 56 Greenwich Avenue and closed in September 1997, was one of the city’s most popular gay video bars and one of the first to appeal to gay men of the MTV generation. The bar, with its large modern interior and television screens, was a stark contrast to the prior generation of gay bars that were perceived as outdated and dark. It attracted a “younger, suit-and-tie crowd” and, over time, gained a reputation as a so-called “S and M” (Stand and Model) bar, due to the fact that numerous patrons stared more at the TV screens than talk with each other.
On April 28, 1990, at 12:10 a.m., a homemade pipe bomb exploded, injuring three men who were later treated for minor injuries at nearby St. Vincent’s Hospital. The bomb was made from several M-80 firecrackers that were stuffed into a six-inch length of pipe. It had no timing device and was lighted and placed in a garbage can inside the bar moments before the blast.
Although the police said the blast did not appear bias-related, Mayor David Dinkins and several gay rights groups characterized it as an anti-gay attack since Uncle Charlie’s was a well-known gay bar. The recently formed Queer Nation and other groups organized a demonstration of almost 1,500 protesters from Uncle Charlie’s to the Sixth Precinct at 233 West 10th Street, carrying a banner that read “Dykes and Fags Bash Back.” The Mayor released a statement calling the bombing the 26th bias incident against the LGBT community that year.
Queer Nation was founded March 1990 at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (now the LGBT Community Center) with the mission of eliminating homophobia and increasing LGBT visibility. Its four founders (Tom Blewitt, Alan Klein, Michelangelo Signorile, and Karl Soehnlein) were members of ACT UP New York. They were outraged by the escalation of violence against LGBT people in the streets of New York, and the continued existence of anti-gay discrimination. The group’s name was an early re-appropriation of the word “queer” as a political identity. Their rallying cry during demonstrations was: “We’re here! We’re Queer! Get used to it!” The group developed chapters in cities nationwide, including Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Portland, and San Francisco.
In 1995, the blast at Uncle Charlie’s was discovered to have been one of the first terrorist attacks on U.S. soil by a radical Muslim group. The New York Times reported that El Sayyid A. Nosair, one of the leaders on trial for the terrorist conspiracy to blow up New York City landmarks, allegedly planted the bomb at Uncle Charlie’s as a protest against homosexuality on religious grounds. The trial resulted in Nosair being sentenced to life in prison.
Photos, top to bottom:
Uncle Charlie’s bar on Greenwich Avenue, October 1992. Photo by Ken Lustbader.
Interior of Uncle Charlie’s, c. 1990s. Source: Then and Now: Uncle Charlie Remembers Queer Memories of New York Facebook Page.
May 16, 1990 Outweek article by Andrew Miller and Duncan Osborne about the bomb and protests. Photo by Tracy Litts.
Andrew Miller and Duncan Osborne, “Bombing at Gay Bar Raises Community Ire,” Outweek, May 16, 1990.
David Bahr, “Uncle Charlie’s Closes and With It, Perhaps, an Era,” The New York Times, September 21, 1997.
James C. McKinley Jr., “Bomb Explodes at a Gay Bar, Prompting a Protest,” The New York Times, April 29, 1990.
James C. McKinley Jr., “Many Accused in Terror Plot Bombed Gay Bar, U.S. Says,” The New York Times, January 15, 1995.
“Today In Gay – April 28, 1990: Bomb Explodes At Uncle Charlie’s Downtown NYC Later Found Out To Be Terrorist Attack,” Back2Stonewall, April 28, 2017, https://bit.ly/2Hwijvl.
“Uncle Charlie’s Downtown”, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, February 20, 2014, https://bit.ly/2HZqFLC.