Party Politics: The Gay Bar as Revelry and Resistance

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It’s Pride month in New York, and people are taking to beaches, bars, and parks to gather, celebrate, and—of course—dance. It’s a weeks-long party, yes, but it’s also a political act: reclaiming public space for both revelry and resistance. This overlap between the public and the political has been a vital feature of the LGBTQ movement since its inception, from the women’s tea rooms that gave lesbians (and women in general) a place to meet outside their homes, to the offices of early gay rights groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, to black-owned gay-friendly bars like Starlite Lounge in Brooklyn and Julius’ in Manhattan.

Shunned or scorned by their families, schools, and neighborhoods, the public became the surrogate personal, a place where LGBTQ people could find what other people could find closer to home.

At the same time, LGBTQ public space has always been contested, threatened by landlords, neighbors, police and government officials who recognized—if subconsciously—the political power of the street, the bar, and the park. From 1926-1917, New York enforced the Cabaret Law, a draconian rule banned more than three people from dancing in any establishment that didn’t have a cabaret license. Of course, cabaret licenses were extremely difficult to come by, making the law an easy cover for police who wanted to bust jazz clubs in Harlem, Latinx bars, or LGBTQ bars around the city. Even when dancing was allowed, there were strict dress codes for men and women; gay men could be arrested if found with less than three items of “gender-appropriate” clothing. When it came to booze, the laws were just as frank and just as discriminatory: bars could lose their licenses for selling alcohol to gay people. Of course, there were other violent laws and actions that targeted LGBTQ folks, from anti-sodomy laws (still on the books in 49 states at the time of the Stonewall uprising) to assaults by police and vigilante groups. But while those laws and attacks focused largely on private space or individuals, the targeting of social and public space seemed particularly designed to take the power out of the movement.

Faced with losing some of its only gathering and organizing spaces, the LGBTQ community fought back. In 1996, before the first shoe was thrown at Stonewall, members of Mattachine linked New York’s laws that punished bars for serving drinks to LGBTQ patrons with threats to freedom of assembly, and organized a “sip-in” to call attention to the injustice. Four of the organizers, Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, John Timmons, and Randy Wicker, went into Julius’—a bar frequented by gay men—and ordered a drink. When they told the bartender they were gay, he refused to serve them. The photos from this event sparked an outcry and eventually led to changes in the law. In one of the organizers words, they had entrapped the very institutions that entrapped them for being gay and looking for sex.

The mere existence of the Bonnie and Clyde bar was a form of resistance. Popular with lesbians, it was an after-hours, informal organizing hub and club that was one of the few places in the city where LGBTQ folks of different classes and races could interact.

And just a year after the Stonewall Rebellion, a raid at the illegal, after-hours Snake Pit bar prompted the newly-formed Gay Activist Alliance and Gay Liberation Front to organize a 500-person march to the jail where 160 of the bar’s LGBTQ patrons were being held. The event is seen by historians as a major catalyst for the gay rights movement, inspiring people who did not join up after Stonewall to get involved in the fight for liberation.

Not bad for a night at the bar.

Decades later, the LGBTQ movement owes much of its success to the early fights for public and social spaces. Thanks to a culture of militant organizing and social celebration, the movement has not only changed politics, but has changed culture, as well. But, as always, queer spaces pose a threat to the establishment and are still under threat. This time, the culprit is less often a cop with a bully club and more often the slow forces of capital and gentrification, as many historic bars and gathering spots are being replaced by condos and upscale retail. A former meetingplace of the Gay Liberation Front has been purchased for $50 million by luxury realtor Extell, and is slated for demolition. The site was the hub of social and political life for the group, but also served as the studio for Merce Cunningham and the Living Theater, making it an epicenter for queer and other marginalized artists. The city’s lesbian bars have been especially hard hit. As of 2018, there are only four left. Critics blame closures on rising rents, women-based salary discrimination, and—ironically—the mainstreaming of the movement itself. And in Brooklyn, the Starlite Lounge, a black-owned LGBT friendly bar opened in 1962 by openly gay Harold “Mackie” Harris, closed in 2010 after the building sold and the owners were evicted.

It’s up to a new generation of activists and allies to defend the public spaces we have left, to make new ones, and to preserve the histories of the ones we’ve lost. After all, individuality is an indoor sport, while culture and politics happen on street.

Ash Sanders