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  • Dr. Lauren D. Costine

Gay Bars and Their Importance to LGBTQ History

Gay Bars and Their Importance to LGBTQ History

The LGBTQ community has grown in strength and numbers today and support has blossomed across the globe like never before but it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t that long ago that people who identified with a sexuality that fell outside the cultural norm were outsiders, often unwelcome or shunned in public establishments including entertainment establishments. Lesbian love, gay love– it didn’t matter. Gay and lesbian bars were either shut down or their patrons routinely arrested. However, LGBTQ bars through the years have been one of the few safe havens available for the LGBTQ community to gather, make friends, be ourselves, laugh, have fun, create community and even find some company.

With such a hostile attitude towards a segment of the human population, it was up to our community to create a place where we could feel free once inside. The bars are where we found those spaces. While LGBTQ bars have not been known by the dominant culture (except by allies) the bar scene has been and remains today one of the key touchstones of the LGBTQ community.

With June being LGBTQ Pride Month and the recent horrific shootings in Orlando, it seems that LGBT bars and hate crimes against individuals who identify as queer are receiving well-needed attention. Forty-nine people were shot dead in the wee hours of June 12, 2016, by a man who allegedly was set off months earlier by the sight of two men kissing in the city, at least according to his father. The incident left many devastated, particularly the friends, lovers, and families of the deceased. The incident went on for hours and was akin to the school shootings that had swept the country. But this was different; this was a deliberate act intended to hurt and ultimately kill LGBTQ people exclusively. It was a targeted, well thought out plan. To this man, gay love was not something to be celebrated or respected—but something is seen as so disturbing that it had to be violently cut out.

This was done by Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old male from Fort Pierce, Florida. The young man had been previously interviewed by the FBI twice — in 2013 and 2014, but not found to be a threat. On top of it, the shooter called 9-1-1 just hours before the shooting to apparently pledge his allegiance to ISIS. Mateen was well armed, prepared and well organized– he had an assault rifle and a pistol on him as he entered Pulse at two in the morning and started shooting. By the end 49 people were dead and the wounded were estimated to be 53. There was a standoff that lasted three hours, during which the people who were trapped inside with the shooter texted and called their friends and family to let them know they loved them. Many of the people on the receiving ends of those messages would never hear from their loved one again.

The police eventually were able to break into the building using an armored car and stun grenades where they were able to shoot and kill Matee finally stopping his reign of terror. The shooting is the deadliest mass murder in the history of the United States. The act was not random; it was an act of premeditated violence against an all too unprepared community out for a night of fun. And it turns out this man may have been gay himself which begs the conversation about internalized homophobia.

If he was gay, and the investigation is ongoing, then his hatred of himself as gay set off his night of terror. And where does that originate from – our heterocentric society that has been condemning same-sex love for thousands of years –it is a toxic message and gets inside people’s psyches. It is dangerous and can lead to acts of violence if not dealt with. I will be discussing this more in my next article. Stay tuned.

It’s a desperately sad incident and ultimately preventable. The average person may have thought that the gay community would have used this as a reason to bury their head and stay inside. Instead, they are coming out loud and proud, and gaining more support than ever before– from everyday people who want to show that they support love, not hate.

Gay and lesbian bars have also served an important place in the history of LGBTQ culture. They have traditionally been places where people who were lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans and attracted to the same sex, or identified somewhere outside the so-called normal sexual spectrum could not only go and feel safe, but find a place they belonged—with their people who understood precisely what it was like to be marginalized, to be on the fringe, to be hated. There was a feeling of community in these bars that were very rarely accessible anywhere else, and one of the only places that they could be together in public. Perhaps that is why LGBTQ watering holes are still so beloved and such a gathering place in the community to this day.

The alleged first gay bar in Europe and the world was in Cannes on the French Riviera– the Zanzibar. Opened in 1885 and only closed in 2010, the bar drew thousands over the years. In fact, Paris itself was a center for gay culture in the 1800s, becoming something of a “queer capital”. Among other early pioneers of gay culture was the Slide at 157 Bleecker Street in New York, a bar for gay men that opened in 1890 and called the wickedest place in New York by the press at the time. Paris entered a period of toleration for gays in the fifties and sixties, but raids on gay bars were frequent.

Gay club Eldorado opened in Berlin in 1932 as well. Berlin became an attractive destination for gay and lesbian nightlife as early as 1900, and by 1920, the scene was swinging. The Schöneberg district near Nollendorfplatz hosted many cafes as well as bars and clubs, an attractive destination for gay people who had fled their countries out of fear of being persecuted. The club was known around the world for its transvestite shows, however, when the Nazis took over in 1933, many of the popular gay establishments were closed. The gay scene revived again after homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969, and West Berlin became a gay and lesbian-friendly district once more.

Another famous bar was The Cave of the Golden Calf, a London nightclub at 9 Heddon Street that opened up underground in 1912. The establishment quickly became popular among the artistic as well as the wealthy, thanks to Frida Strindberg’s avant-garde vision for the club. It would become an influence on later nightclub models as well. Gay bar culture became more openly visible once homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967 in the UK, and Soho became the new nexus of the LGBTQ community with endless bars, restaurants, clubs, and cafes popping up. The area was considered established by the nineties, although other UK cities became known for their queer bars, such as Manchester’s Canal Street, Liverpool’s Stanley Street Quarter, and the gay village in Birmingham.

There have been others, from The Empire (1911 in Amsterdam to the 1930s) to the Café t Mandje, a gay bar opened by Bet van Beeren, a lesbian (1927-1982 and then opened again in 2008). Still more have been found in Copenhagen’s bar Centralhhjørnet (opened 1917), the Atlantic House in Provincetown (1798), San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar (1906), The Double Header in Seattle (1933), Julius Bar in NYC, Webster Hall on 125 East 11th street in New York and Rockland Palace on 280 W. 155th Street were famous for their drag balls. Eve’s Hangout was a speakeasy run out of West Village by Eva Kotchever at 129 MacDougal Street. She was arrested and later deported after an undercover officer found out she was writing a short story collection called Lesbian Love. And let’s not forget Stonewall of NYC – one of the most important bars of all – that catapulted the LGBTQ rights into our social justice movement in June of 1969.

There can be no doubt that the LGBTQ community has been through horrible things. Instead of this event forcing everyone to live in fear, we are determined to not let one deranged person keep us down. We are coming out stronger and louder and prouder than ever before, with cities all over the world banding together to support us. Our pride parades are going on uninterrupted and vigils are happening everywhere. By now it is certain: we will NOT be kept silent, and we will not cower in fear.

Pulse was not the first gay bar that was targeted in history but hopefully it will be the last. Here’s hoping that the rest of the world catches on to what the gay community is really about; the beauty in diversity and sensitivity, self-actualization and love. One act of hate will NOT bring down an entire community. The past few days of pride, courage, kindness, outrage, love, and support have shown that all too clearly. Here’s to the LGBTQ bars; long may she reign.


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