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social sciences

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Gay and Lesbian Bars  
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Gay and Lesbian Bars at Mid-Twentieth Century

During the McCarthy era, when homosexuals were vilified and terrorized, the threshold to enter gay and lesbian bars was high, and the situation of the patrons frequently grim. Any number of them stood to lose livelihoods and the support of family if an arrest as a result of a raid or an undercover policeman's charge landed their names in the morning newspaper. In addition, they might be blackmailed by a casual pickup or bashed by someone intent on "rolling" queers. But the bars nonetheless remained a vital social world for many; indeed, a visit to a gay or lesbian bar was a rite-of-passage in the coming out process. Inside the walls of these bars an increasingly diversified culture of gendered and sexualized self-presentation was shaped.

Some gay men adopted the trappings of the nascent motorcycle culture, while a smaller number combined it with a passion for sadomasochistic sex. They founded their own bike clubs, which established their home turf in what became the first leather bars.

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Female and male impersonators began to find gay and lesbian audiences in mid-twentieth-century bars. The circuit of gay bars that featured drag performers in the 1940s and 1950s is surprisingly far-flung, and includes venues in medium-sized towns as well as large cities. Indeed, the long list of gay clubs that sprouted up after World War II, and their impressive geographic diversity, indicates that after the war gay culture flowered not merely in such cities as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but also in medium-sized cities throughout the United States, from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Lesbian bars seem to have been crucial in the development of butch-femme culture, especially among working-class lesbians. Key to butch-femme culture was a particular style and a dress code as well as a code of conduct, which included the imperative for butches to defend the femmes they consorted with and the bars they all shared.

In addition, however, a smaller and more affluent lesbian bar culture also developed in the 1940s and 1950s in which butch-femme roles were not mandatory.

Historians have suggested that the formation of in-group solidarity, centered on bar life, in the face of social hostility encouraged the formation of a political consciousness around sexual difference during the 1950s and 1960s. Some bar owners of the time, such as Dixie Fasnacht, owner of Dixie's Bar of Music in New Orleans, were known for their support of their patrons, frequently dispatching attorneys and bail money when they were harassed by police during periodic "clean up" campaigns.

It is, thus, not coincidental that one of the first stirrings of gay and lesbian political activity in San Francisco was sparked by police harassment of gay bars. In response to such harassment, the San Francisco Tavern Guild was formed in 1959. In 1961, José Sarria, a drag performer at the Black Cat Cafe in North Beach, ran, with the Guild's endorsement, for a seat on the city's Board of Supervisors, thus becoming the first openly gay political candidate.

The emerging glbtq political consciousness that was fostered by gay and lesbian bars saw its most pointed manifestation in patrons' response to the police raid on New York's Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969. After having been herded out onto the street, customers began to hurl bricks and bottles at police officers, who barricaded themselves inside the vacant bar in order to avoid being assaulted. This riot was followed by three successive days of conflict between police and neighborhood residents. Within weeks the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) had been formed, and "Stonewall" went up as a rallying cry across the United States and around the world.

Gay and Lesbian Bars in the Period of Gay Liberation

Ironically, the Stonewall rebellion and its political consequences signaled the gradual decline of bars as the central institutional prop of gay and lesbian life, even as it also provided the impetus for a large explosion of gay and lesbian visibility and a large increase in the actual number of bars.

At the time of the gay liberation movement, many bars, including the Stonewall, were straight-owned and mob-controlled. The leaders of the movement of the 1950s and 1960s had often criticized gay and (especially) lesbian bar culture for creating an unwholesome image of the homosexual as bar fly or alcoholic. In the wake of Stonewall, a new generation of gay activists also urged their fellows not to patronize bars, but for different reasons.

The early gay liberation movement placed a tremendous premium on creating safer, friendlier, non-commercial spaces for queer people. In New York, GLF held dances in community-controlled space above a storefront. Efforts were made in cities across North America and Europe to create lesbian and gay community centers, which became both inspiration and locus for a new generation of volunteer-based organizations centered on common interests. Awareness of the ravages of alcoholism within the gay and lesbian community also prompted an attempt to create alcohol-free venues in which glbtq people could socialize.

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