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New York's famous Stonewall Inn, on March 13, 2012
New York's famous Stonewall Inn, on March 13, 2012
Ben Hilder/Getty Images

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How Gay Bars Have Been a Building Block of the LGBTQ Community

Gay nightlife has always served as vital space for community-building and escaping societal persecution

On Monday evening, charged crowds of New Yorkers made their way to Sheridan Square in the West Village to mourn the victims of the terrorist attack at the Orlando nightclub Pulse. Before celebrities and politicians got up to the mic, and smartphones were held high to create constellations of light behind the podium, the crowd had already spilled down side streets, surrounding the space in front of the Stonewall Inn, the crucible of the gay rights struggle and a potential national monument.

Friends met and embraced. A man with rainbow-colored angel wings stood watching the scene unfold. The occasional Orlando t-shirt slid through the crowd, a physical reminder of how close many of the assembled were, and felt, to those who were murdered less than 24 hours earlier.

At the edges of the thousands-strong crowd, it was difficult to hear the speakers, or make out the shouts of solidarity. Inside The Monster, a gay bar around the corner from Stonewall, where the event played out on video screens, it was difficult to hear for a different reason. Near the entrance, the bartender—in between giving hugs to friends and regulars—was running up and down the line, greeting regulars and reminding everyone of the 2-for-1 special tonight.

In the corner, pianist Dan Daly was entertaining the crowd with classics, sipping a Perrier set atop his frosted glass-covered cocktail table, as patrons circled up and joined in on every number. At the crescendo of one particular lyric—"that's the story of, that's the glory of love"—a crooner from the crowd, his square, white sunglasses askew, flashed a smile, adding contagious enthusiasm to an already buoyant singalong.

Just one of a string of gay bars in the immediate neighborhood, The Monster was in the midst of a normal Monday. Certainly, sober conversations and discussions around the televisions on the wall suggested nobody was unaware of the significance of the activities outside. But the community and camaraderie made the bar’s buzz of activity special, and (thankfully) ordinary: Space to socialize and celebrate at a gay bar in 2016 isn’t hard to find.

Despite the massive strides the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and queer communities have made in the last few decades, the shocking horror of the weekend’s shootings made clear the continued relevance and importance of these bars and nightclubs. While the protests and marches at The Stonewall Inn turned the bar into a symbolic headquarters for the Gay Pride movement, gay nightlife has always served as vital space for community building and escaping societal persecution.

The people behind these places have sparked political activism (Joe Scialo, the late former owner of The Monster, supported employees in the ‘80s fighting AIDS and even traveled to Mexico to bring back life-saving drugs) and have fostered music and creative expression for decades (gay clubs such as the Warehouse in Chicago and Paradise Garage in New York gave birth to house and various strains of electronic music). The worldwide rallies honoring the Orlando victims, often at places similar to where their lives were cut short, underscores the importance of gay nightlife over the last half century.

Across the country, LGBTQ Americans turned to bars and nightlife to provide an escape from pervasive prejudice, and to carve out spaces of their own.

It’s no surprise family and friends of the victims at Pulse compared the attack to the invasion of a church or sacred space, because that’s what these institutions have always represented for the LGBTQ community, both in Southern Florida and around the world. Like any safe haven in a tough world, these venues had to develop tough exteriors to protect the valuable community inside; they’ve always bravely battled harassment, bounced back, and rebuilt or relocated despite overwhelming odds. Just a day after the vigil, an anonymous caller made threats to The Monster.

Brief moments throughout Miami’s gay history suggest as much. Just a little more than 60 years ago, infamous police raids in Miami attempted to shut down the city’s gay nightlife, resulting in newspaper headlines such as "Perverts Seized in Bar Raids," "Crackdown on Deviant Nests Urged," and "Great Civilizations Plagued by Deviates."

The notorious "Purple Pamphlets" disseminated by state Senator Charley Johns, who had led witch hunts against gays in state government and led investigative committees that fired hundreds of gay schoolteachers, portrayed the culture as deviant and dangerous. The 1977 Save Our Children campaign, led by singer Anita Bryant, the celebrity face of the movement and orange juice spokesmodel, successfully overturned a local ban on housing discrimination against LGBTQ people. The community never stopped pushing back. Decades of discrimination and hate haven’t stopped places such as Pulse from serving as community beacons, and now seems like an especially unlikely time for any to begin backing down.

Ramrod gay bar
A man holding an American flag stands outside Ramrod, a gay leather bar on Christopher and West 10th Streets in the West Village in New York, Dec. 10, 1985.
AP Photo/Carlo Rene Perez

Like the gay community, gay nightlife has always been around, "since time immemorial," as poet Allen Ginsberg would say, in one form or another. But it wasn’t until the seismic shift of World War II changed gay culture in the United States that the bars and nightlife of today began to truly take shape.

While select nightspots and theaters in prewar bohemian districts—like San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, the French Quarter of New Orleans, and Harlem and Greenwich Village in New York—catered to LGBTQ clientele, many felt isolated, persecuted, and lonely. Being gay was considered a psychological malady by mainstream society and the medical profession, and was often treated as such.

While on its own the war didn't create any lasting legal changes in the shameful way the country treated homosexuals, it did set in motion other lasting social shifts. The single-sex arrangement of military life, as well as increasing independence (and economic advances) of women working on the homefront, offered many gay Americans the ability to congregate in greater numbers for the first time.

When the war ended, vast groups of former GIs, servicemen and women, brought together in big cities, helped create the conditions necessary for a vibrant underground of bars and clubs. The release of the Kinsey Reports (1948’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and 1953’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female) reinforced the then-new notion that being gay was perfectly normal.

While this rising awareness helped create new gay rights organizations, such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, it was quickly countered with a conservative backlash of conformity and Communist paranoia, exemplified by Senator Joseph McCarthy. His investigations, part of an anti-gay witch hunt in the federal government called the Lavender Scare, would persecute leftists for years, and along with casual bigotry and widespread amusement over terms such as ‘pixie,’ would help falsely link being gay with deviance and anti-American behavior in the popular imagination.

"Not until the ‘50s and ‘60s did the government bring its power to bear on repressing homosexuals," wrote Steven Seidman in his book Beyond the Closet. At the same time, he continued, popular culture was "polluting homosexuality" by labeling gays cultural subversives, child molesters, predators, and disease spreaders.

It was a climate where safe spaces and escapes were necessary, and in short supply. In the documentary Before Stonewall, Native American activist Dorothy Hillaire puts it bluntly: "I was myself in the ‘50s, and I had to use violence to defend myself. You have to develop a tough hide to take care of the soft interior." Ann Bannon, writer of the famous Beebo Brinker chronicles, recalls reading The Well of Loneliness, an early example of lesbian fiction, alone in the library stacks, desperate for the connection with the characters, but too afraid to check the book out, lest it raise suspicions.

Across the country, LGBTQ Americans turned to bars and nightlife to provide an escape from pervasive prejudice, and to carve out spaces of their own.

"Gay bars were our community center, our meet and greet, our place for organizing," Scott Gunkel, President of PrideFest in Milwaukee, told the local Journal-Sentinel. "That was the bars. That was the bloodline of the community."

In Provincetown, Massachusetts, the A-House, a gay hangout, became one of the landmarks of the northeastern vacation community, famous for a nude photo of Tennessee Williams strolling a local beach hanging on the wall.  The Lighthouse, later called Fran’s Place, catered to lesbian clientele in Lynn, Massachusetts, a working-class city near military bases. The Cabin Inn, opened by Nat "Big" Ivy in Chicago’s South Side Bronzeville neighborhood, put on regular drag shows featuring a chorus line of black men, while Esta Noche, a pioneering Mission District gay bar, opened for a predominantly Hispanic clientele in 1979.

While the mere existence of these spaces was a huge deal, Iife was far from easy. Marginalized much like their clientele, gay bars were often forced to set root in underdeveloped, or industrial sections of town, or well off the beaten path in rural areas. Often veiled behind tinted glass, with narrow entrances to allow doormen to screen patrons, they needed to hide the goings-on within from the general public, and the police, as a matter of survival.

Stonewall Archival Image
Window of the Stonewall Bar N.Y. 1969. The other half of the graffiti was erased by the time it was photographed.
Diana Davies/New York Public Library

During the ‘50s and ‘60s, cops constantly harassed LGBTQ establishments, pulling cruisers up near the entrance to discourage anyone from going inside, parking police wagons in front of the door during frequent raids, and even sending in undercover cops to try and get someone to hit on them—a daily occurrence in every bar, gay or straight—which would trigger a lewd conduct charge. In 1958 alone, one gay bar in the traditionally tolerant city of New Orleans was raided 78 times, part of a wider "drive against the deviates." Lesbians could be arrested for "impersonating a man" if caught with the "wrong" outfit. Crossdressers or transgender individuals were persecuted.

At Stonewall Inn, which had its fair share of police visits, employees and regulars were so accustomed to raids, they referred to police as Betty Badge or Lily Law. Even the slightest push back from LGTBQ folks demanding their rights might lead to accusations of resisting arrest. Even worse, anyone arrested would likely be listed in the next day’s newspaper, a public outing that in many cases could lead to a loss of employment.

The 1977 Save Our Children campaign, led by singer Anita Bryant, the celebrity face of the movement and orange juice spokesmodel, successfully overturned a local ban on housing discrimination against LGBTQ people. The community never stopped pushing back.

In Eric Marcus’s book, Making History, Shirley Willer, a gay civil rights activist, recalls a night she spent trying to find a bar called Seven Seas on Chicago’s Rush Street. A cop saw the way she dressed, in a tailored, traditionally masculine fashion, made assumptions, and promptly beat her, calling her a "pervert," a "queer," and an "SOB."

Not surprisingly, many of these early bars had a short lifespan. Those that endured often had to pay regular fines, which lead to massive overhead and more expensive drinks. In the northeast, the Mafia saw this situation as one ripe for exploitation; they controlled bars, overcharged customers, and took a nice cut (minus what they paid the police to look the other way). At the time of the famous riot in 1969, the Stonewall Inn in New York was run by three members of the Genovese crime family, Mario, Zucchi, and "Fat Tony" Lauria.

These bars also didn’t necessarily cater to the entire LGBTQ community. Many also reflected the prejudices of the culture at large. In Jackson, Mississippi, the gay bar catering to whites and the one serving African-Americans were located across the street from each other. Lesbians and gays of color often sought out and created their own venues, and members of the transgender community were forced to strike out on their own. (Two venues in California, Cooper’s Donuts and Compton’s Cafeteria, became known as sites for transgender protests.)

Mainstream culture had no serious insight into the growing subculture. By 1964, when Bob Damron’s Address Book, a self-published gay travel guide, was first issued, it contained more than 750 bars, restaurants, and clubs across the country, all personally visited by the author, a businessman who was frequently on the road. Outside of the work of early gay civil rights activists, LGBTQ culture was marginalized and often ignored, and rarely entering the political debate outside of calls for a crackdown. In 1959, San Francisco Mayoral candidate Russell Wolden, a Democrat, attacked incumbent George Christopher, claiming he made "homosexuals" feel so welcome they moved their national organization into town. He pointed to the then "astounding" number of bars, bath houses, nightclubs, theaters and hotels that served these patrons: 27. Wolden was criticized, lost the election, and as was often the case when critics or moralizers attacked the LGBTQ community, merely broadcast to others that San Francisco was a great place to meet fellow gay and lesbian people.

One of the first attempts at an evenhanded, nondiscriminatory look at gay life was a 1964 Life magazine photo shoot featuring two San Francisco gay bars, the Tool Box and Jumping Frog. Even this groundbreaking reporting had to cow to the realities of contemporary prejudice: No names were mentioned, and one photo of the Tool Box took advantage of dark lighting and the smoky haze to blur out the faces of everyone inside (the two visible faces were airbrushed before print).

By the end of the decade, that anonymity would be replaced with demands for rights and recognition, as the gay rights movement began to achieve velocity, especially in the wake of larger calls for civil rights. While numerous organizations, publications, and early protests had helped provide direction and momentum, bars and clubs often served as a gathering place, as well as the stage, for action.

Mattachine Sipin
After pouring their drinks, a bartender in Julius's Bar refuses to serve John Timmins, Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, and Randy Wicker, members of the Mattachine Society, an early American gay rights group, who were protesting New York liquor laws that prevented serving gay customers, New York, New York, April 21, 1966.
Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

In 1962, a group of gay bar owners in San Francisco formed the Tavern Guild, a pioneering gay business association, setting up a phone line to warn each other of police raids, and establishing a bail fund. The Mattachine Society held a "sip-in" in 1966 at Julius’s in New York to bring attention to laws banning restaurants from serving gay patrons. In 1967, customers at the Black Cat Tavern in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles staged a multi-day protest against police brutality, rallying hundreds of demonstrators. Lawyers even took the case of two men charged with lewd behavior for kissing at the bar (and subsequently deemed sex offenders) all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. In 1968, the North American Congress of Homophile Organizations (NACHO) met in Chicago and passed a Homosexual Bill of Rights and the slogan "Gay is Good."

It all set the stage for the Stonewall Riots, which began on the morning of June 28, 1969. When the bar was raided around 1 a.m., the scene progressed as usual; men were led off into a police van, with drag queens striking poses for the quickly assembling crowds. But soon, the crowd became a mob; according to Richard Goldstein’s account in New York magazine, they started tossing anything they could at the cops: coins, bottles, even dog feces. Chorus lines of drag queens shouted "We are the Stonewall girls/We wear our hair in curls/We wear no underwear/We show our pubic hair."

The police eventually called in the Tactical Patrol Force to handle the crowd. A deputy inspector said the fierceness of the resistance took him and everyone else—who, of course, weren’t completely aware of the decades of discrimination and harassment that may have informed the crowd’s anger—by surprise. "I had been in combat situations, but there was never any more time that I felt more scared."

Gay rights, radical protests, and the demand for equality gained incredible traction after the Stonewall Riots. As LGBTQ people gained political and economic power, bars and clubs remained centers of culture. During the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s, they became key sites for fundraising, community building, and awareness.

By the early ‘90s, success had led to unique challenges. Cultural critics and analysts began to consider  gay culture mainstream, and remark on the chase of the "gay dollar." Writer Daniel Harris noted that  "assimilation … has profound ramifications for the country’s cultural life, which will be deprived of a major source of artistic and intellectual energy as homosexuals are finally integrated."

This increased acceptance also changed the composition of LGBTQ nightlife. Once shrouded and hidden for reasons of safety, gay bars and clubs began to open their doors, and become more outwardly welcome beacons of the community. In New York, G Lounge on 19th Street earned considerable press when it opened in 1997 with an open window facing the street, a stark contrast to the more secretive spaces of the past.

At the same time, old fixtures are changing, or even disappearing, as the evolving, and more accepted, LGBTQ community wants and requires something different from nightlife, and the prevalence of apps and online dating make it increasingly easy to meet outside bars and clubs. Even in historically gay neighborhoods, such as the Castro in San Francisco, things are going upscale. As Hank Cancél told The Guardian, the gentrification of gay neighborhoods has shifted the composition of local nightlife. "The neighborhood is more professional gay now. Not that it’s less gay, but you gotta have money to move in," he says. "So now it’s Apple gay. Airbnb gay."

That sense of openness, pride, and freedom, and the welcoming nature of places that allow everyone, especially the gay community, to express themselves, was one of the reasons police believe that Pulse was targeted earlier this week. Even in the midst of a profound cultural shift, bigots still conspire to discriminate against and harm the LGBTQ community. The modern gay bar will continue to evolve and change, and may only bear a passing resemblance to the clandestine meeting spots of decades past. But it will always symbolize the long struggle for self-definition and acceptance. As actor Tituss Burgess sang at the rally at Sheridan Square on Monday night, "There’s a place for us."

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