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Gay and Lesbian Bars  
 
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For more than three hundred years, public places where people could gather and socialize over drink have been central features of urban community life. For gay men and lesbians, the centrality of bars to community life has probably been truer than it has for any other group.

In addition to providing opportunities for glbtq people to socialize and to meet potential partners, gay and lesbian bars have offered members of a stigmatized social minority, often isolated from one another, an opportunity to inhabit space with like-minded folk. Until recently, they were often the only venues in which glbtq people could feel free to be openly gay.

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Moreover, gay and lesbian bars occupy a significant place in gay literature and film. Many of the classic gay and lesbian novels--such as Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948), James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956), Ann Bannon's I Am a Woman (1959), and Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973)--feature scenes set in gay bars. In literary works, especially those before the 1980s, the gay bar is often depicted as decidedly unappetizing, sometimes frightening--even demonic--and nearly always depressing. Such depictions may reflect a certain reality, but in real life these bars also often provided much needed shelter to people who faced ostracism in the larger community.

Historically, gay and lesbian bars have served as sites for the development of gay culture and for political foment. Though their centrality has been reduced in recent years, they continue to fulfill important functions; and, in many areas, they remain the most visible manifestation of glbtq presence.

Beginnings: Where Men Met

Social networks of men who sought out male sexual contacts have been documented for Italian cities (notably Florence) as early as the fifteenth century. Such networks appeared later in northern Europe, developing over the course of the seventeenth century and achieving a level of public recognition in Britain and the Netherlands at the outset of the eighteenth century.

The growth of such networks in urban centers, especially in Britain, is generally attributed to sea-changes in agriculture and industry. The aggregation of smaller land parcels into larger, more efficient farms displaced many rural laborers. They in turn came to work in the mercantile economies of major cities, which burgeoned as a result of advances in technology and the growth of overseas empires.

As cities grew, new institutions evolved to support an urban culture that revolved around expanded industry and trade. In Britain, public houses came into use as meeting places and places of resort for working people. Coffee houses, which became increasingly popular as a result of overseas trade, filled a similar role for middle-class men. As such, these institutions displaced the church, the marketplace, and the street as the locus of erotic contacts between men.

Economic change was probably not the only force that drove men from public spaces into quasi-private, consumer ones. Often frequented by single, itinerant male laborers, some saloons became places where prostitution (male and female) could be plied in relative security.

The public's increasing recognition of brothels and same-sex sexual networks (by the 1720s, the names and locations of such "bawdy houses" were being listed in London newspapers) prompted a spike in the number of prosecutions across northern Europe in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. While bars and coffeehouses did not remain unscathed by the inquiries of police and moral reformers, they provided a degree of shelter from scrutiny and intervention that more public spaces could not.

In Britain, particularly, this shelter afforded an opportunity for the elaboration of a particular subculture. "Mollies," as they were popularly known, were men who adopted effeminate mannerisms, modes of speech, and even dress, mimicking the female prostitutes who were a part of their social world. "Molly houses" were saloons in which these men congregated; they were often equipped with upstairs bedrooms, so that men could have sex on the premises in relative security.

While not all of London's men-loving men were mollies, this subculture came to epitomize men who had sex with men in the popular mind, and drew down upon it the greatest indignation of the moral reformers of the day.

The Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Bars

The further development of such establishments from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century is little documented. It is clear, however, that a new efflorescence of gay and lesbian meeting places in European and North American urban centers began around 1880. This may in part be due to the intensification of industrial commerce during this period; it may also be due to a growing consciousness around homosexuality as a shared social identity. By 1900, London, Paris, Berlin, and New York could each count literally dozens of locales, many of them bars, where gay men and lesbians could meet.

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