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Gay and Lesbian Bars  
 
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The social composition of "gay and lesbian" bars of this period varied widely. Some catered exclusively to either lesbians or gay men; these were often styled along the lines of a private club, to which membership could be purchased. Some, more open bars were frequented by both men and women.

Many other bars were not exclusively gay but rather "straight" locales with a gay following. Among these were hotel bars, as well as establishments in which a bartender, manager, or owner known to be gay offered gay patrons a tacit welcome.

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In mixed settings, the disposition of the patrons would be signaled by either formal or informal seating arrangements. Sometimes, gay men and lesbians would be served only at the bar; other times they were served only at tables, often in an adjoining back room.

Other allegedly "gay" bars, notably clubs with drag shows, catered to a principally heterosexual clientele, even if gay men and lesbians provided the entertainment. These bars were trumpeted to the middle-class public in special guidebooks to these cities' working-class and sexual underworlds; "slumming" in the bars that lined the Bowery or the Friedrichstrasse became a fashionable pastime.

Such prurient attentions inevitably also drew the attention of police. The decades before World War I saw the unfolding of high-profile homosexual scandals on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of these centered on bars, hotels, parks, or other meeting places where officials and public figures solicited companionship and sexual contacts with working-class men, or with one another. Bars were frequently closed by order of the police, only to reopen weeks or months later at a different address under a different name.

Even in the face of the most aggressive forms of state repression, gay male bars were particularly resilient. While most of Berlin's estimated 100 gay and lesbian establishments were closed by executive fiat and street thuggery within weeks of the Nazis' coming to power in 1933, a few locales--perennially raided and forced to move-- nonetheless doggedly remained open through the end of World War II. At the same time as tens of thousands of men and women were being imprisoned and worked to death in Nazi concentration camps for being , a public queer culture still existed, if only barely, on the streets of Hitler's capital.

Prohibition and the Transformation of Bars in the United States

A very different kind of state intervention transformed the culture of public drinking as well as gay and lesbian life in the United States between the world wars. Prohibition, in effect from 1918 to 1933, dismantled the domain of the saloon, which offered male laborers a free lunch with their beer in a space where, whether by custom or regulation, women were frequently not permitted. As social drinking was relegated to the private sphere of house parties or the quasi-public sphere of speakeasies, opportunities expanded for men and women to gather together exclusively around alcohol.

As the new social spaces that Prohibition created altered the conventions of heterosexual interaction, they similarly offered gay men and lesbians additional, more secluded places to meet. Since no speakeasy could be regarded as a respectable enterprise in the eyes of the law, many proprietors had no interest in barring queer customers from the premises. In neighborhoods like New York's Harlem and Greenwich Village, gay speakeasies flourished. In regional urban centers around the country, speakeasies became the primary sites for interactions among gay men and lesbians.

The institution of the speakeasy had an important legacy for gay and lesbian bars in the decades following the repeal of Prohibition in 1932. As states tightened their grip on the regulation of taverns, they passed injunctions against persons gathering in bars for "immoral purposes" in an effort to eradicate both prostitution and homosexuality. (In some areas of the United States, laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to homosexuals were on the books as late as the 1970s.) As a result, bars that catered to gay and lesbian customers continued to operate under many of the same strictures that Prohibition had enforced on speakeasies.

Some post-Prohibition gay and lesbian bars were even housed in the same physical spaces that had housed speakeasies. These were often difficult for newcomers or strangers to the community to locate and access without the assistance of a sympathetic local in the know. Bar owners, meanwhile, were enjoined to pay protection money to the police or, in cities like New York, organized crime syndicates, in order to avoid all but the occasional police raid. In addition to raiding the bars, undercover police often infiltrated them, ready to arrest patrons who solicited them or who engaged in same-sex dancing or other "inappropriate" behavior, including dressing in the "wrong" attire, especially women who wore pants.

During World War II, which brought increased freedom for women to defy conventions of all kinds, many lesbian bars opened, and bar hopping became a favorite weekend activity, especially for working-class lesbians.

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