It is the perfect storm unfortunately. Before Covid even appeared, the concept of a gay bar was disappearing around the world as its elevated status as a safe place slowly diminished with more societal acceptance and more LGBTQ legal protections. Patrons no longer felt the need to meet and mix exclusively at bars in gayborhoods. The trend accelerated with the wide spread adoption of smart phone apps to meet people virtually and to set up dates without ever leaving one’s bed. Now with the immense economic pressure from a year of Covid restrictions, gay bars are beginning to close permanently.
In Los Angeles while Lance Bass is hoping to revitalize nights in West Hollywood by taking over the former Rage nightclub from its landlord Monte Overstreet, that same landlord has been intransigent with the owners of such long-standing landmarks as Oil Can Harry’s and The Gold Coast. One by one, these cherished addresses are being lost to history because of the greed of a few landlords coupled with the inadequate help from the government due to the pandemic.
Now, in New York City, one of the few bars that remains from prior to 1969’s Stonewall riots is similarly at risk of permanently closing.
Julius’ Bar on West 10th Street in New York’s Greenwich Village has been in existence since the 1860s as a tavern, and prior to that as a dry goods store. Over the years it gradually began attracting local residents of the Village: writers, artists, Broadway actors, singers, and dancers. In short, gay men. Such stars as Rudolf Nureyev and Truman Capote were among the reputed regulars in its heyday.
An NBC News article states that in the 1950s “New York State Liquor Authority regulations at that time prohibited serving drinks to “known or suspected homosexuals,” whose very presence was considered disorderly behavior.”
“This law was used to prevent the existence of gay bars, so the ones that did exist were under the control of the criminal underworld,” Randy Wicker, a member of the New York chapter of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights groups, said. Either the mob ran the establishment or bar owners would pay for protection to avoid being raided.
“It forced gay people into that underworld,” Wicker, 83, said. “It led to exploitation, blackmail, people being brutalized.”
Taking a cue from the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Mattachine Society decided they wanted to fight this discriminatory environment which forbade serving homosexuals, so in 1966 four members of this gay liberation movement informed the local press that they were going to stage a “Sip In” at various bars in Manhattan. They would walk in and announce they were homosexuals, and ask to be served a drink. If the establishment refused, they were going to formally file a complaint with the New York Commission on Civil Rights.
The first bar they went to was tipped off that they were coming and closed early. When the activists arrived at the Howard Johnson’s Hotel bar, the waitress said “no problem” and served them, much to their chagrin. Finally, the group with press in tow went to Julius’, which everyone knew was a gay bar but which preferred to keep its reputation on the “down low.”
For a fantastic photo of the bartender putting his hand over a just prepared cocktail upon hearing that the newly arrived customers were homosexuals, check it out here on the NYC LGBT Historic Site. The bar’s refusal to sell to someone who was openly gay led to a legal battle that went all the way up to the New York State Supreme Court. The Mattachine Society won and the landmark ruling decriminalized being gay.
Today the bar is deeply in debt due to the pandemic. The owner has launched a GoFundMe with a goal of raising $200,000 and has received considerable community support in her efforts to keep the business afloat.
If you have a favorite gay bar, tell us about it! Let’s all support our local LGBTQ institutions, and preserve our history.