Raising the Bar: A Brief History of Gay Bars

I know it’s been like a really long time — sorry about that! My real life job got absolutely crazy and hasn’t calmed down at all. May not ever calm down but I’m handling the craziness better now that I’m kind of getting used to it. So….we’re back with even more queer history!

Chances are pretty good, if you’re an LGBTQIA+ person you’ve been to a gay bar. Even if you’re just someone who loves an LGBTQIA+ person, there’s still a good chance you’ve been to a gay bar. I’m not saying you’re doing queerness wrong if you haven’t been to a gay bar, I’m just saying it’s a pretty common shared experience. It’s true that bars being basically the central gathering place for our community isn’t without drawbacks — although, personally, I love them. But I’m not here to weigh the pros and cons of gay bars — we can all do that on Twitter (and we do) — I just want to talk briefly about the history of gay bars, talk a teeny bit about some of the first ones to exist, and some of the oldest ones that we still have today. A lot of these places will hopefully get posts of their own further down the line.

We have previously talked a little about molly houses before — specifically Mother Clap’s and the White Swan, which were both pretty historically significant. Gay bars were not, at least initially, all that different from molly houses and, in terms of their purpose, still aren’t. They’re a place for gathering socially with similar “deviants” and “sodomites,” to feel safe among those who have a shared lived experience. To separate molly houses from gay bars, we have to kind of look at the history of bars themselves. For a lot of (at least Western) history, bars weren’t really a thing — you had inns and taverns, which served alcohol but also offered lodging or food. Even pubs at the time served food and were intended as a place to have gatherings or meetings. The sale of alcohol was considered sort of a “side hustle” (even though it was probably where most of the profit came from.) Even saloons in the American western frontier were entertainment sites — where people could play games or see performances. Molly houses were typically fronted by taverns, inns or coffee houses, and usually also made money off prostitution. They were also places where fake weddings and mock birth rituals took place. So, to separate molly houses from gay bars — and I’m not going to claim this is the official definition, it’s just what I’m working with here — I’m going to define gay bars as legitimate, legal businesses focused entirely (or almost entirely) on the sale of alcohol to queer customers.

It wasn’t really until towards the end of the 19th century when there started to be bars as we know them today — places that really just served alcohol. I’d guess the invention of machines like the phonograph, which let places play music without having performers present, was probably a big part of that shift. So, of course, as mainstream society started socializing in these places, the queer community followed suit. And so gay bars began to pop up — the first, as far as we can tell was in Cannes, France (where homosexuality had been decriminalized since 1791.) That bar was Zanzibar, which was founded in 1885 and lasted 125 years — eventually closing in December of 2010.

Eldorado in 1932

Meanwhile, Berlin had also become a hotspot of gay and lesbian nightlife by 1900, thanks largely to the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee‘s presence there, though a lot of the specific records about these spots were lost thanks to the Nazis. Within weeks of the Nazi party taking power in Germany in 1933, fourteen gay and lesbian nightclubs were closed, including an internationally renowned drag bar called Eldorado.

The other issue for gay bars at the beginning of the 20th century was Prohibition. Several countries tried their hand at banning the sale of alcohol including Russia, Iceland, Finland, Canada, Norway and the United States. At least in the USA, the fact that everyone‘s bars became illegal and everyone’s drinking had to go underground — where we were already partying — had a pretty profound impact on the queer community. But the most lasting effect of Prohibition, at least for gay bars in the USA, was that alcohol sales became part of the world of organized crime. Even after Prohibition ended in the USA, most gay bars were run by the mafia for the next few decades. In fact, more than thirty years later, this was one of the issues that was raised and fought against during the Stonewall riots and their immediate aftermath.

Over the early decades of the 20th century, gay nightlife spread throughout Western culture. Here’s a few other highlights:

  • The Black Cat Bar (not to be confused with the Black Cat Tavern) was founded in San Francisco, California in 1906, and stayed open until 1921. It reopened in 1933 when Prohibition ended, and continued operating until 1963. It might be the first gay bar in the United States.
  • The first recorded mention of the then-popular Amsterdam gay club The Empire was in 1911, but it seems to have already been established several years prior. It closed in the 1930’s.
  • The Cave of the Golden Calf, founded in 1912, was the first “official” gay bar in England, though it went bankrupt and closed in 1914. Still, it made a reputation for its wild parties and influenced a lot of gay bars afterwards.
  • Eve’s Hangout in New York City was one of the first, if not the first, lesbian bar in the United States, opening in 1925 and closing at the end of 1926 due to police raids. This raid more or less led directly to owner Eva Kotchever‘s death at the Auschwitz concentration camp. (Which is definitely getting its own piece, don’t worry, I’m not just leaving you all with no details on that!)
  • Social reforms brought about by President Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico brought about the creation of roughly a dozen gay bars in Mexico after he came into office in 1934, including El Triunfo and El África in Mexico City. All of Mexico City’s gay bars were closed in 1959 and even though there are gay bars in the city now, none of the original ones reopened.
  • The first gay bar in South Africa opened in the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg in the late 1940’s — catering to wealthy white gay men. No women were permitted, and, you know keep in mind there’s Apartheid going on, so definitely no people of color, who were forced to create and use increasingly underground bars and clubs — unfortunately, there’s not too much available about those clubs at the time. However, some of these bars, such as the Butterfly Bar (now the Skyline) began to integrate in the mid-1980’s.
  • The American occupation of Japan following World War II brought gay bars to the country — New Sazae opened in Tokyo during this period, in 1966, and is still open now.
  • In the 1970’s, a lot of clubs in Singapore began having gay nights but no actual gay bars opened until the lesbian bar Crocodile Rock opened in the 1980’s. It is still open, and is the oldest gay bar in that country.

If you want to experience some history for yourself, here’s some of the oldest gay bars still around today:

  • Atlantic House (or “A-House”) in Provincetown, Massachusetts was opened as a tavern in 1798, but mostly served whalers until the beginning of the 20th century, when it became a popular hangout for artists and writers like Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. They “officially” became a gay bar in 1950 (despite already being popular with gay men like, y’know, Tennessee Williams) and it still operates as one today. (And I’ll vouch that it’s still a fun place to go!)
  • Café ‘t Mandje opened was opened in Amsterdam by a lesbian named Bet van Bereen in 1927, and continued to operate until the death of her sister Greet (who took it over after Bet passed away) in 1982. Her niece Diana reopened it on April 27, 2008 and it remains open today, still in the same family that started it!
Café Lafitte in Exile
  • In 1933, both White Horse Inn in Oakland, California and Café Lafitte in New Orleans, Louisiana opened (now called Café Lafitte in Exile after they were forced to move to a new spot in the city in 1953). I don’t know the exact months or days they were founded, so I can’t tell you which is actually older (and of course, they both claim to the be the oldest.) I’m trying to solve the mystery, and rest assured, I will even if it means I have to take a cross country road trip to both of them.
  • The Double Header in Seattle, Washington opened up the next year and Korner Lounge in Shreveport, Louisiana opened sometime in the late 1930’s as well. Both are still open today.
  • Mirabar opened in Woonsocket, RI in 1947. It’s moved around to number of different locations (it’s in Providence now, for starters), and is still open today. (And they have a great trivia game on Wednesday nights!)
  • The Half-and-Half in Beijing is the oldest still-operating gay bar in China, having opened some time before 1994.

Some honorable mentions that aren’t really the “oldest gay bars” in their countries but are still historically important and that you can still visit today:

  • Julius’ – Julius’ opened in Manhattan in 1864 but it was decidedly not a gay bar but by the late 1950’s, gay men started frequenting it but were often thrown out or simply refused service because it was illegal to serve homosexuals in New York City at the time. In 1966, Dick Leitsch and Craig Rodwell, president and vice president of the Mattachine Society at the time, organized a sip-in protest. By most accounts I’ve, the bartender refused them service to help them with the protest not because they were gay. Laws were changed and Julius’ has been serving gay customers ever since.
  • Stonewall – the famous Stonewall Inn, which originally opened in 1967, has been through a lot since our riots — renovations, closing, reopening, closing again, hosting several other businesses, reopening again, closing again, reopening again…..they’ve dropped the word “inn” from their name, and have been open on Christopher Street in Manhattan since 2007.
  • The Eagle – Eagles can be found in cities all over the world. They’re not franchises, they’re not a chain, they’re just connected by the community they serve. After the Stonewall riots, the owners of the the Eagle’s Nest (which had been open since 1931, and is now Eagle NYC) made their club a gay bar and it became a very popular spot for more masculine gay men, and especially the leather scene, to hang out. Other Eagles opened elsewhere, even in other countries, and “the Eagle” became a sort of code for gay men looking to connect to their community in a new city. Not every Eagle is historic, but they are all part of that legacy.

I know this breezes past a lot of fascinating details and there’s an awful lot of countries that didn’t get a mention — I simply haven’t found what their oldest gay bars were yet. But rest assured, I’m going to keep the “Raising the Bar” series going intermittently, so there will be lots more coming on this topic!

Heroes of Stonewall: Danny Garvin

Danny-GarvinAn important fact about the Stonewall uprising is that things were pretty chaotic. There were things going on inside the bar, outside the bar, and more than a few participants — at least initially — were intoxicated. Despite Craig Rodwell‘s best efforts, the riots were pretty much ignored by the press. So a lot of what we know has had to be cobbled together from a handful of eyewitness accounts. One of the most knowledgeable of those accounts comes from Danny Garvin.

Danny Garvin was born on March 1, 1949. He grew up in New York, raised as a Roman Catholic by his two Irish immigrant parents — Michael Joseph Garvin and Mary Theresa Kelly Garvin. In his youth, like all of the boys of his neighborhood, he was a member of a gang — the Ramrods. Garvin’s mother died while he was very young, and he was mostly raised by his father — who returned to Ireland when Garvin was 17 years old, after enlisting his son in the United States Navy.

5bafd3182100006401c70aa1Working as a Navy cook, stationed in Brooklyn, Garvin began coming out of the closet. Coming out proved quite difficult, especially given his religious upbringing. Drunk and off the base one night, Garvin sought out the only other gay man his age that he knew of — but he was soundly rejected. Reeling, Garvin attempted suicide and then called a psychiatrist who told him to admit himself to Bellevue Hospital. The Navy transferred him to St. Albans Naval Medical Hospital.

This presented a very serious dilemma — if he talked about his actual problems with the Navy, he’d be dishonorably discharged and would make him unemployable to most reputable businesses. Finally, Garvin signed a document stating that his psychological breakdown was rooted in his mother’s early death, and he was honorably discharged. He was discharged on St. Patrick’s Day, 1967 — roughly two weeks after he had turned 18. Deciding he needed to celebrate, he ventured to the only gay bar he knew off — Julius’. When he was there, he was told about a new bar opening up around the corner: the Stonewall Inn.

5bafd3182400003100969a2fAlthough on his first visit, Garvin was mostly shocked to see men dancing together, he became a regular and even dated the main doorman (“Blonde Frankie“) for a time. Though he was initially living on the streets and hustling for a living — an experience he would carry with him the rest of his life — he ultimately found his way into living in what David Carter describes in his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution as a “gay hippie commune.” Garvin began smoking pot, and started selling LSD at Stonewall.

On the actual evening of the Stonewall riots, however, Garvin was not inside the bar. He’d planned to spend the night at a new gay club called Danny’s. (Like we wouldn’t all always be at any bar we could pretend was named after us, right?) He bumped into Keith Murdoch and the two went back to the commune to smoke weed and get it on. After that, they decided the night was still young and they wanted to go out dancing — and that’s when they found the riot.

By the time they got there, the crowd was attacking the police wagon and the police had barricaded themselves inside the bar. A group had ripped a parking meter out of the ground and were using it as a battering ram to get inside. Garvin jumped in, egging on the crowd, jeering at the cops, and generally protesting — but he avoided partaking in any of the violent action, partly because he considered himself a pacifist but also largely so he could avoid going to jail and thereby publicly outing himself — and ruining any chances he had at a career. He watched the infamous chorus line that had mocked the cops trying to clear the streets — and the brutality with which the police broke it up.

Like virtually everyone else involved in the riots, Garvin was changed by the experience. He became a proud activist, marching in the Christopher Street Liberation Day parades (which would later become the Pride parades we now know and love). He was a roommate to activist Morty Manford, and encouraged Manford to come out to his parents — who would then found PFLAG. In the early 80’s, Garvin gathered together a group of gays from AA to march in the Pride parade as a group called Sober Together.

Always an advocate for homeless queer youth because of his experiences on the street, Garvin became a very involved volunteer for the Ali Forney Center in New York City after it opened in 2002. But perhaps his most important role in these later years was as a witness to history — he was interviewed by David Carter for his book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution — which was released in 2004. He began appearing in documentaries, especially about Stonewall and the gay rights movement, in 2008. Most famously he appeared in the 2010 documentary Stonewall Uprising where he summarized the importance of the riots:

We became a people. We didn’t necessarily know where we were going yet, you know, what organizations we were going to be or how things would go, but we became something I, as a person, could all of a sudden grab onto, that I couldn’t grab onto when I’d go to a subway T-room as a kid, or a 42nd Street movie theater, you know, or being picked up by some dirty old man. You know, all of a sudden, I had brothers and sisters, you know, which I didn’t have before. There was no going back now…. We had discovered a power that we weren’t even aware that we had.

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Michelle Obama, Danny Garvin, Martin Boyce, and Barack Obama

Throughout his work as a witness to Stonewall, Garvin befriended several other “Stonewall veterans” including Martin Boyce and Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. When President Barack Obama mentioned Stonewall, Garvin began a correspondence with him — impressing upon him the need to continue fighting for equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. In his initial letter he wrote, “I still have not gotten to dance that dance I started 44 years ago. The big joyous ‘I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance’ yet.” Obama invited Garvin as a special guest to the White House’s Pride celebration on June 30, 2014.

However, Danny’s final years were plagued by health problems. He suffered from COPD, caused by years of smoking, and also developed liver cancer. He passed away on December 9, 2014 at 65 years old. While he may not have gotten to finish that “I Am A Completely Free Gay American Dance” that he dreamed of, his work for our community helped get all of us that much closer to it.

Heroes of Stonewall: Craig Rodwell

1-portrait-of-craig-rodwell-fred-w-mcdarrahMost of the people who were at the Stonewall uprising in 1969 are primarily known for their involvement with the riot — even though most of them went on to be heavily involved in activism in the following decades. Craig Rodwell is another story. Craig was so heavily involved in activism both before and after the riots that his presence there is basically a footnote.

Rodwell was born October 31, 1940 in Chicago. His parents separated before his first birthday, and for the beginning of his life he was sent away to for “day care” — this day care, however, made him start doing laundry and working in the kitchen as soon as he was old enough. When he was six, his mother realized that maybe this wasn’t the best arrangement if she wanted to keep custody of him and so she sent him to a Christian Science school for “problem boys” called Chicago Junior School. He attended that school for seven years, where he got a reputation for being rebellious — but also for being a “sissy.”

By all accounts, the “problem boys” there frequently fooled around sexually — though with nothing serious behind it. At fourteen, Rodwell pursued a relationship with an adult man. When the two were caught by police, who refused to believe Rodwell when he insisted he’d started the relationship and was at fault, the man was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for having sex with a minor. The police tried to encourage him to lie in his testimony, asking him to say that the man had paid him money. Rodwell refused, and was threatened with juvenile detention — ultimately he was just ordered by the court to see a psychiatrist, but the experience colored his view of the legal system for the rest of his life.

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Rodwell also fully believed the Christian Science teachings he was learning — particularly the idea that “truth is power and that truth is the greatest good.” As a result, after he graduated and began attending Sullivan High School, he enrolled himself in a Christian science Sunday school. It was in these classes he learned that Christian Science didn’t approve of homosexuality — something Rodwell determined he was going to have to change. After high school, Rodwell relocated to Boston to study ballet before moving to New York City in 1958 — intentionally moving to Greenwich Village, where he’d heard there was a large queer community. Rodwell was hoping to become involved in the Mattachine Society.

Unfortunately, the Mattachine Society required its members to be 21 or older. Rodwell also couldn’t get into any of the gay bars yet — so he spent his time in parks, connecting with the gay community on the streets. This made him pretty vulnerable to the police, and he was involved in more than one scrape with them. But this only made him more radical.

In 1962, Rodwell was dating Harvey Milk — who was still in the closet (and just, generally, had a lot of growing to do before he becomes the Milk we all know and love). This was Rodwell’s first serious relationship. Rodwell’s outspoken activism was unsettling for Milk, and he also blamed Rodwell for an STD that he contracted. (Not unreasonable, really.) In September, Rodwell was arrested for resisting the police when they swept through a popular cruising area of Jacob Riis Park. While in jail, Rodwell was physically abused by one of the guards. When he was released from jail, Milk dumped him. His self-confidence rattled, Rodwell tried to end his own life. Fortunately for the entire queer community, the attempt failed. He left New York to travel for a couple of years.

craig-rodwell-and-randy-wicker-at-u.s.-armys-whitehall-induction-center-september-1964In 1964, Rodwell returned to New York and devoted himself to activism for the “homophile” community (as we called ourselves then — I am so glad we don’t use that term anymore). He was volunteering with the Mattachine Society — using his legal name, which was a rarity in that time — and even serving as their vice president. He founded the Mattachine Young Adults organization, and was an early member of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) — which coordinated various homophile groups from around the eastern seaboard. On September 19, he and several other notable activists including Randy Wicker, Jefferson Poland, and Renee Cafiero staged a protest against the military’s exclusion of gay service members — and the practice of dishonorably discharging those who were found out. This is officially recognized as the first organized LGBTQ+ protest in United States history (though I suspect there were some before that we just don’t acknowledge).

In a coordinated protest with ECHO, Rodwell and Wicker led a protest at the United Nations Plaza in New York on April 18, 1965 — joined by Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and roughly 25 other protesters. Days after this protest, the sit-in protest at Dewey’s began in Philadelphia. With the other leaders of ECHO, including Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, it was decided they needed regular protests to remind the nation about the plight of the queer community — they could not afford to only protest when there was a crisis happening in Cuba or in Philadelphia. And so, on July 4, 1965, the first of the Annual Reminders was held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

juliusIn 1966, Rodwell was ejected from a bar called Julius’ for wearing a pin that read “Equality for Homosexuals.” On April 21, with the help of John Timmons and Mattachine president Dick Leitsch, Rodwell held a “sip-in” at the bar. This was specifically to protest a rule by State Liquor Authority that prohibited homosexuals from gathering in places that served alcohol. Rodwell and his cohorts held that the rule encouraged bribery and corruption amongst the police. The publicity from this sit-in led directly to that particular rule ending.

ep1-4-rodwell-1969-craig-rodwell-standing-in-front-of-mercer-street-storeIn order to try make the Mattachine Society more accessible, Rodwell proposed they open a storefront. When the idea was rejected, he cut his ties with the organization. In November of 1967, Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop — the country’s first store that focused on queer authors. The store was so named because Oscar Wilde was the most notable homosexual he could think of and he wanted absolutely not confusion about what the store was all about. The place functioned as more than just a store — Rodwell also envisioned it as a community center that didn’t have age restrictions and didn’t rely on alcohol (or the organized crime families that owned most of the gay bars in the city). To that end, he found the Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN) out of the bookshop, and led their rallies in that year. In 1968, he started publishing their periodical HYMNAL. Harvey Milk — now friends with Rodwell — was a frequent customer of the store, and it would later be the inspiration his own shop/community center/campaign headquarters Castro Camera in San Francisco. Rodwell also met Fred Sargeant at his store. Sargeant became heavily involved in HYMN and a romantic relationship blossomed.

On June 28, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn. (Did you forget, in all of this, that this was coming up too?) Rodwell and Sargeant were walking through Greenwich Village when they happened to see a crowd gathering outside the bar — and caught the beginning of the riots. Rodwell was a leader in fighting back, and led the crowd in various “gay power” chants. He also had a camera with him, and tried to take pictures to document the event. Unfortunately, none of the pictures were successfully developed — which is extra sad because we have hardly any pictures from the first night of riots (even though Rodwell also used a pay phone to call the press and let them know what was happening). Nevertheless, he did share his account of the night — which he described as “one of those moments in history that, if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”

rodwellThe next day, Rodwell created a flyer — which HYMN helped him to disseminate through Greenwich Village — that read “Get the Mafia and the Cops Out of Gay Bars.” The flyers helped encourage further protests the next several nights — protests Rodwell participated in as well.

After the annual reminder of that year — which took place a week after Stonewall — Rodwell decided that the needs of the community had been changed after the riots. He began writing a resolution in his store. In November, Rodwell, Sargeant, Ellen Broidy, and Linda Rhodes proposed the resolution at a Philadelphia meeting of ECHO to change the annual reminders. Instead of happening on July 4 in Philadelphia, they proposed, there would be simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the country on June 28. This would be called Christopher Street Liberation Day, and there would be no dress code (as the annual reminders had had) or age limitations. And so Pride began.

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Craig Rodwell and his mother in the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop

Despite he tremendous work so far, Rodwell found he’d never really been able to address the homophobia in Christian Science. In 1970, he placed a biography of Mary Baker Eddy in a very visible place in his store in order to meet other gay Christian Scientists. Meanwhile, he was continuing to work on advocating for queer rights. He is often credited with inventing the word “heterosexism” in January of 1971, when he wrote “After a few years of this kind of ‘liberated’ existence such people become oblivious and completely unseeing of straight predjudice and – to coin a phrase – the ‘hetero-sexism’ surrounding them virtually 24 hours a day.” In 1973, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop moved from its address on Mercer Street to the corner of Christopher Street and Gay Street.

craig-rodwellIn 1978 Rodwell formed Gay People in Christian Science (GPICS) with Ray SpitaleBob McCullogh, and Bob Mackenroth. While they were not the only gay Christian Science organization in the country, they were the only one actively challenging the church’s policies — actively challenging the excommunication of three of their members. This quickly became Rodwell’s primary focus for his activism. GPICS created an eight-page pamphlet entitled “Gay People in Christian Science?” which they proceeded to mail to every Christian Science church, college organization, and practitioner that they could find. Overall, they mailed out 8,000 copies. They then made plans to hand out the pamphlets at the 1980 Annual Meeting of the Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston. To organize this in the least offensive way possible, Rodwell alerted security for the event of their intentions.

When they arrived, they discovered extremely heightened security and police presence. Undeterred, they set up their table and began distributing flyers. They were quickly informed that the booth was illegal and that they needed to leave. The group obeyed, though Rodwell and a handful of others remained on the premises and handed out their pamphlets more discreetly. Unfortunately, the pamphlet wasn’t enough to change the church’s minds and in 1981, the church fired Chris Madsen from the Christian Science Monitor for being a lesbian. GPICS returned to the annual meeting that year, this time fired up. Instead of simply handing out pamphlets, they engaged in loud and disruptive protests.

In the years that followed, queer activism within Christian Science moved to become primarily focused to areas in the Midwest. Although Rodwell remained involved, he took on a much less significant leadership role. He remained heavily involved in queer activism for the remainder of his life.

In 1992, Rodwell received the Lambda Literary Award for Publisher’s Service. In May of that year, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In March of 1993, he sold the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop to Bill Offenbaker. He passed away on June 18 that year. It was not until 1999 that the Christian Science Church finally began to allow gay and lesbian members.

It’s honestly hard to think of anyone who, in our history, has been so devoted to our community and done so much for us. I find his name crop up in almost everything that happened for our community in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and for some reason I’m always surprised. And given his influence on Harvey Milk, what he accomplished for us actually extended all the way to San Francisco.