Bar and nightclub refer to private or semi-public spaces in which people gather to socialize, get intoxicated, dance, watch performances, and seek out romantic and sexual liaisons.
Popular Beliefs about Homosexual Activity in Bars
European festive spaces for same-sex romantic encounters and diverse gender expression have been recorded since the early 1700s. Some of the first known examples of Gay-related bars were the molly houses in Britain, taverns for mollies (effeminate, homosexual men) where they could drink, dance, dress up in women’s clothing if they chose, have sex, and engage in comic rituals such as laying-ins (mock birth ceremonies).
Accounts of Gay bars in America date back only to the 1890s. The scene was underground, and for good reason. Since homosexual practices were illegal and Gay bars could not advertise openly, patrons could find these bars only through the right connections. Police, local media, and the public at large had a negative opinion of these establishments, as seen in the following report in the San Francisco Call in 1908 about a bar called the Dash, which was closed by the authorities that same year:
Flanking the stage on either side of the big room are curtained boxes, in which are ensconced degenerate female impersonators. The “Dash” is the home of unspeakable vices.
Such beliefs were much the same across the country in the early twentieth century. In the same year the Dash closed, Vito Lorenzo’s Saloon in New York was dubbed a “fairy place” (“fairy” is a synonym for “effeminate man”) by the police, who raided Gay-friendly establishments in NYC since at least 1901, especially in the Lower East Side’s Southern Italian neighborhood. George Chauncey (Gay New York) postulates that the raids in that neighborhood were due to the more tolerant attitude of Southern Italian men concerning homosexual liaisons, which led to more places that catered to same-sex erotic transactions and, consequently, greater surveillance by authorities: “an important part of the homosexual culture of fairies and their sex partners visible in turn-of-the-century New York represented the flowering in this country of a transplanted Mediterranean sexual culture,” says Chauncey.
Soon after the branding of these establishments as sites where fairies and perverts convened, newspapers and law enforcement offices made concerted efforts to get rid of them. The goal was to close the bars down and shame the patrons. Fear of arrest and humiliation drove some patrons to more public but less conspicuous places — baths, beaches, parks — to meet sexual partners.
During Prohibition, The Harlem Renaissance brought Gay folklife to Harlem nightclubs such as the Ubangi Club. By the 1930s, Lesbians had bars of their own, including Mona’s in San Francisco. However, police harassment continued. Gay bars were frequently raided for no legitimate reason, and police often demanded bribes for the privilege of remaining open. Officials were unapologetic about police harassment. In 1953, the Miami Chief of Police justified his moral reform efforts in bars and beaches to the Miami Herald: “We had no charges we could book them on, but it’s just a question of cleaning up a bad situation and letting undesirables know they’re not wanted here.”
Newspapers helped stigmatize bar patrons by publishing the names of those arrested. But even as some bars closed, others opened.
Gay Resistance and the Making of a Community
As police were conducting their raids and sweeps, Gay-affirming communities were forming. Lisa Ben (a California office worker who devised her pen name from the letters in the word “lesbian”) wrote of her experience in 1945 at the If Club, a Gay bar in Los Angeles:
When we all walked in there, why, someone was bringing a birthday cake to one of the booths. There were some girls sitting there, and they were all singing happy birthday. I looked around me and tears came to my eyes — partly because of the cigarette smoke — and I thought, How wonderful that all these girls can be together.
Experiences like these were liberating and they assured many who were just coming out that they were not alone. In 1947, Lisa Ben wrote an essay, “Here to Stay,” in Vice Versa (a newsletter she created for San Francisco Lesbians), saying that the unsympathetic majority had better get used to the Gay community. There was a growing sentiment among Gay people elsewhere that open resistance was long overdue.
José Sarria, a drag queen-activist working in the Black Cat, a renowned San Francisco Gay bar of the mid-twentieth century, sang to audiences the following campy lyrics to the tune of Carmen:
When you are on your knees, praying to God in your own way
If you get tapped on the shoulder by a big blue star
Remember you swallow first. (Gulp)! And then you say
I’m not guilty and I want a trial by jury
Sarria also created slogans such as “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one,” which he incorporated into his routine. In an effort to get patrons to be proud of who they were, he often persuaded them to join hands and sing “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” sometimes out on the street in front of a jail near the bar.
On June 28, 1969, riots in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City marked the beginning in earnest of the Gay rights movement. The name of the bar is also the name of the riots and of many LGBTQ community centers that sprang up around the nation in the years to follow. After Stonewall, members of the Gay male community had their own private festival spaces in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Loft, Sanctuary, Tenth Floor, Twelve West, and Flamingo in Manhattan, the EndUp and Trocadero Transfer in San Francisco, and the Probe in Los Angeles. Nightclubs such as the Paradise Garage (1976-1987) and the Saint (1980-1986) in Manhattan played an important role in the development of internationally-renowned house music and Gay men’s Circuit parties. Also in Manhattan was Sahara, a women’s nightclub in the mid- to late 1970s that featured women’s art, female musicians and DJs, and an inclusive atmosphere for people of any gender and orientation.
In 1990, a police raid of Sex Garage, a Montreal after-hours party catering to a sexually and gender-diverse crowd, led to what some Quebec activists call their “Stonewall.” Police were recorded on video harassing participants with homophobic slurs and beating them, which inspired the Montreal LGBTQ community to demand better treatment.
Contemporary Gay Space
The triumphs and tribulations of Gay bar patrons with respect to the police have served ultimately to solidify and strengthen the LGBTQ community and enhance its diversity. There are Gay bars specifically dedicated to genres of dancing and music (hip hop, country and western, and house), drag shows, strip shows, burlesque, and to specific communities, such as AG-Fem (mostly Latin and African American Lesbian butch-femme), Bear, and Leather.
The existence of openly Gay bars in different countries around the world is also a sign of further acceptance in countries that, only a few years ago, had never heard of Gay Liberation. Such bars and nightclubs in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (Central Asian countries that, along with Tajikistan, have legalized homosexuality) mark them as more tolerant of LGBTQ people than their Central Asian neighbors, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where homosexual acts are illegal. The same can be said for Côte d’Ivoire and Benin in West Africa. Although Gay people still face huge challenges, non-criminalization of homosexuality (which is also being challenged in Mali) and the presence of discreet but well-known Gay bars in major cities mark those countries as more accepting than Ghana, Togo, Liberia, and Burkina Faso, at least on the surface.
Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965.
Berkeley: University of California, 2003.
Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay
Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic, 1994.
D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual
Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. 2nd Edition. Chicago: University of
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