A Gay Bar Is Not "Just" a Bar

posted by Madame Bubby


Lately there's been much talk about safe spaces (mostly for psychosocial reasons) on college campuses, but the gay bar, as far as I am concerned, was always a “identity” safe space for LGBTQ persons long before the days of mainstream acceptance of a diverse sexual identity spectrum. And for many years, a precarious safe space, always at risk for being raided, and often depending for suvival on some rather “unsafe” connections (the Mob).

As a young gayling (in and then out of the closet) in the 1980s, I knew about the existence of gay bars, but not much else. Right after graduate school, living sparsely in a studio apartment in a liberal suburb, I knew about the existence of a gay bar in the adjacent suburb (the suburb I lived in was surprisingly dry given its overall liberal college-town focus, no bars or liquor stores, but one could obtain booze in a restaurant).

I was not out, but I wanted to go somewhere where I could totally be myself. I hung out with some friends from college, including one who lived down the street, and I was chummy with the neighbors, but I was never totally myself. I am sure the more sophisticated friends had figured it out (I fit the stereotypes at that time, especially cowboy boots and opera), but my gay “life” was jacking off to John Rechy's The Sexual Outlaw (my first gay book; bought it at Barbara's Bookstore close to my place) and assorted jack off books. Even in a place where being gay did not necessarily mean persecution, I was afraid.
 

The Sexual Outlaw book cover

Barbara's Bookstore logo

On several Saturday nights, usually alone, I would say to myself, I'll just walk down the street to the adjacent suburb and go to that bar. The name of the bar was Nutbush. The innuendo escaped me at that time. I never went. My motivation for not going: how would I get home, what would happen to me sexually if I went, and what if someone saw me there. But the pull was there, because I both knew and felt that I could go there and let all inhibitions down. I had danced at straight discos, I had smoked pot at mixed parties, but I couldn't interact with a guy the way I wanted and needed to.
 

Vintage Nutbus bar ad

By the way, many years later I went to that Nutbush place with a couple of friends who lived in the liberal suburb, now an LGBTQ mecca. One of them said, “This place has always been a toilet.” Yes, it was one of those gay dive bars, a stale, nondescript place smelling of cheap beer and cigarette smoke. A safe space in some ways, perhaps, but not a social space where I could embrace the identity I was looking for.

Fast forward about four years, and I was sitting in one of the oldest gay bars in Chicago, many miles north in Rogers Park. It was called Charmers (it has since closed). This place was off the beaten gay neighborhood track at that time (most of the bars were further south in Lakeview). I made out with a guy, I sang opera in falsetto, and I got drunk. Note the getting drunk is last on the list. But I had arrived. And I knew by that time there was no going back.
 

Decor in Charmers' interior
Charmers interior

Now one doesn't have to go a bar to embrace one's identity. In fact, one doesn't have to necessarily go outside. That's a paradox. But why explore and embrace one's sexual identity primarily on a phone screen? We fought to be able to go outside. Without those bars, we wouldn't be holding hands on the street. Without the social structures those bars created, we wouldn't have survived AIDS. A gay bar is not “just” a bar.

Check out this moving documentary on the history of gay bars in San Diego.

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Bisexual Boxer Emile Griffith and a Deadly Fight

Emile Griffith

On March 24, 1962, bisexual (or gay) boxer Emile Griffith knocked out his opponent, Benny Paret, at Madison Square Garden. In round 12, Griffith trapped Paret in a corner; by that time, his opponent had stopped punching back. Griffith held his opponent's shoulder to keep him in position while using his free hand to hit Paret.
 

Griffith knocks out Paret

The audience was shocked; the famous author Norman Mailer, who wrote about it in his essay, “The Death of Benny Paret,” claimed it was the hardest he had ever seen a man hit another man. At this point, the referee, Ruby Goldstein, stepped in, an awarded Griffith a win by a “technical knockout.” Paret slid to the floor; he was carried out on a stretcher and died ten days later in a hospital.

There's a back story here to this admittedly brutal incident, and it ties into the intense homophobia of the time, and the double life Emile Griffith had to lead. He visited the gay bars during that period, and he even hung out in the then-seedy Times Square where, the time before the fight, according to Donald McRae's book A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith, he “laughed and danced with the Hispanic gay crowd and the old drag queens.”

Before this fight, Emile was able to live this life: be a man's man in the hypermasculine world of boxing, and apparently hold court with the queens of the period on women's hat styles (in fact, he started out working in a women's hat factory, and his shirtless physique (he requested permission to work that way in the heat) caught the attention of the owner, who got him involved in the world of boxing).
 

Emile Griffith news clipping

But, in the weigh-in before the fight, Paret called Griffith a maricón, which means faggot. Members of the press and officials from the New York Boxing Commission witnessed this exchange. And, in pre-fight interviews with the press, Paret's manager portrayed Griffith as effeminate and thus an unworthy opponent for the hypermasculine Paret. Paret also touched Griffith's ass when he called him the slur, apparently enraging him.

The consequences of this homophobia were indeed deadly. Even though Griffith told a television interviewer that he was proud to be the welterweight champion again, and expressed hopes for Paret's recovery, Paret's death resulted in insults and hate mail. And many sources claim that even though Griffith continued to box for 15 more years, he lost his enthusiasm for the sport. Emile blamed himself for the incident; it always haunted him.

Griffith married a woman in 1971 by the name of Mercedes Donastorg. After retiring from boxing in 1977, he worked as a corrections officer at juvenile detention facility in New Jersey.

But Griffith was still struggling with his overall identity. In 1992, he was viciously beaten in New York City after leaving a gay bar. He was in the hospital for four months with serious kidney damage, and under the care of his adoptive son, began a slow mental and physical decline, but also some serious soul-searching.

He told Sports Illustrated in 2005, “I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better … I like women.”

Yet, another reporter for the New York Times, Bob Hebert, about that time, asked him if he was gay, and Griffith struggled to answer. He said he no longer wanted to hide, and he wanted to ride that year in the New York Gay Pride Parade.
 

Emile Griffith older

Other interviews with him do emphasize that he did not like labels about his identity.

Yet the one label everyone remembers him by I think should not just be that deadly fight, but his place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame; no other boxer in boxing history had fought more championship rounds, not even the great Muhammad Ali.

Emile Griffith died on July 23, 2013 at the age of 75.

There's a complex legacy here in Griffith's struggles and triumphs, and documentaries and plays and books and even an opera have struggled to understand and express a turbulent double life that exploded savagely in a literal arena which glorifies a violence it claims to sublimate.
 

Ring of Fire, a film about Emile Griffith
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LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ONE'S GAY TWENTIES

“His friends decided that Ken had fallen into the trap that had snared so many beautiful gay men. In his twenties, he had searched for a husband instead of a career. When he did not find a husband, he took the next best thing – sex – and sex became something of a career. It wasn't love but at least it felt good; for all his time at the Cinderella ball, the prince had never arrived.” – Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On

I've heard about (and read about) that adolescence for males especially extends until one's late twenties these days. Now, these days is kind of vague, so maybe I am thinking more about millenials, but the reasons for this extended adolescence aren't just psychological stereotypes (guys take longer to grow up than girls, and some never do), but also economic. The rising cost of living and increased compeition for jobs that can launch one into a secure middle-class income are factors that often keep the guys living in their parents' basement playing video games.

The game many guys played in their twenties in the 1970s was the sex game (not that guys haven't done it since time immemorial). Guys had been playing it more brazenly in the 1960s, and many women played along, and as they did so, started to make their own rules, and the win did not always have to occur before an altar.

Gays and lesbians, who for so long had to play in the closet, emerged militantly in the heady days of the seventies, especially in urban meccas. Some lesbians found a home (spiritually and physically) in various waves of feminism, but many gay men fled their tastefully decorated homes and entered palaces – sex palaces, bathhouses, movie theaters, back rooms of bars. I am not saying that no one was looking for love, but the love that used to dare not speak its name was more often than not during that time more like a moan in an orgy room. It was as if men became fertile, and multiplied (not in the procreative sense).
 

Gay men in the 1970s dancing

Steamworks, Chicago bathhouse poster

In the quote above, men like Ken (one of the first victims of AIDS), certainly grew from strength to strength, but for many men at that time, coming out still mean choosing between one's sexuality and a career. Thus the gay life became for many guys a sex life in specific, segregated milieu. Their Land of Goshen was ironically a release from bondage. Until the plague …

When AIDS started smiting these men down like that last plague of Egypt, gay men rallied together, but there was no singular Moses like Harvey Milk to guide them. They survived united, and survived divided. For a while the sex palaces remained open, despite an uncaring Pharaoh like Reagan and his Moral Majority priests with their rhetoric of sin and punishment. Yet that plague, with its relentless physical linkage of sex and death, changed everything.
 

AIDS activists hodling banner that says Fighting for Our Lives

Ken's generation saw death daily; the succeeding generation (in their twenties during the height of the plague) saw death, but many of them survived to explore and enjoy if not a cure, then a way to live, not die. The life was not just medical, but eventually legal, climaxing when Love Won in 2015. 2015 brought out the monogamous couples who had found their princes even before the days of liberation and the plague.
 

Person holding gay pride flag at protest in D.C.

Did the plague in some way make many gay men grow up? Not that gay sex, or any sex for that matter, is in itself an immature, irresponsible act? By its very nature it breaks boundaries, liberates, and orgasm is “the little death.” Growing up is experiencing sex, but maturing is understanding sex and the wisdom to know when sex and love intersect, and when they don't.

For gay men, this process was always more fraught because it did not conform to the social norms that heterosexual men and women usually conform to: in one's twenties, one finds a mate and a career, not always in that order, and it's no longer an either/or proposition. One produces children. One's career climaxes as one's children grow up. The cycle continues. Within that norm, one can usually choose.

Yet gay men who lived in the 1970s, who had lacked so many choices, plunged into a world with a bewildering variety of choices. Now with other freedoms (and in this day and age, still endangered) available beyond sexual choice, are gay men in their twenties at another crossroads?

I just hope many of them realize their prince is not an image on Grindr, and that even the image of a prince doesn't last. But if you are lucky, your prince may grow up to be a king.
 

Grindr profile image
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Come to the Cabaret

Come to the Cabaret

“Come to the cabaret ...”

I watched the movie Cabaret when I was in high school under adult supervision (I guess it was beyond my parents to figure out that Sally Bowles was not at all judgmental about her gay friends).
 

The I graduated in college to the gender bending Victor, Victoria, much of which takes place in nightclubs/gay bars which seem to be pretty much be synonymous with cabarets.

Live entertainment … torchy songs around the piano … lamps with shades on the tables … people smoking … all dressed up in evening gowns and tuxedos …. scenes that were also commonplace in mainstream Hollywood movies of the 30s and 40s, except in those movies, they were pretty much heterosexual, though the usual sultry contralto (low, almost masculine) voice of the lead female singer singing songs usually about elusive romance and hidden passions and perhaps a “sissy” waiter hinted at gender bending.
 

When I first came out in the eighties, there was a big gay bar that I guess you could also call a cabaret in Chicago, called Gentry. It was rumored to be the place to pick up a rich husband. Now, apparently, such places were not at all uncommon in Chicago, strictly gay cabarets often featuring drag performers, as far back as the 1930s.

According to Lucinda Fleeson in an article called “The Gay 30s,” there was place called Diamond Lil's, at 909 North Rush Street (get the reference to Mae West?), that was so popular people ended up being turned away. And the high society people flocked to those places; the Chicago Gray Line Sightseeing Company included gay pick up venues such as Bughouse Square in front of the Newberry Library as part of its package, appealing to the allure of what is strange, different, “queer.”


Yes, Chicago was Sin City, until mayor Edward Kelly decided to “clean up” the nightlife, and the moral panic of 1936 (everyone was a potential sex predator; remember the 1980s Satanic day care crisis? Same mentality) pretty much ended what was called “The Pansy Craze.”

Tastes have changed, and cabaret seems to have become a more specialized entertainment, not because of its audience, but because of its musical appeal. Some claim that piano bars/cabarets in general declined by the late eighties because of the popularity of electronic music, disc jockeys, bands, and even live karaoke.

In fact, I can't think of a specifically gay cabaret in Chicago since the closing of Gentry (it tried to revive itself in Boystown after leaving the Rush Street area, but it has since closed). There's a place called Davenports in the hipster area Wicker Park which is a piano bar not specifically gay (I noticed on its schedule a gay tribute for Pride Month, focusing on gay icons of the past, but no drag acts), and Mary's Attic, a gay venue in the now heavily gay area of Andersonville often puts on cabaret acts.

 

Perhaps the fascination with retro for these demographics might have something to do with the popularity of these venues … but tastes (and gay icons) have changed, or one might even claim, they've become more eclectic, especially for millenials who can stream practically anything in a millisecond.

Still, it's awesome to be able to find places in Chicago that keep cabaret, now taking on the status of a tradition, alive in the Chicago area.

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What Exactly Is A "Dive" Bar?

What Exactly Is A "Dive" Bar?

 

I've seen them on television and the movies, and I've even been in them (well, when you're from Cicero, Illinois, you've got to do something), but what exactly is a dive bar? Or more specifically, a gay dive bar?

The ones I have seen on television and the movies sometimes seem like parodies of these places which in some cases are identical with what used to be called neighborhood taverns. You know, the place where working class guys like Archie Bunker and Ralph Cramden would hang out at; remember Kelsey's on All in the Family?
 

All in the Family

Or the one in Valley of the Dolls that Neely O'Hara (on a booze and pills binge in San Francisco) gets kicked out of; this scene (starting at 1:17:16) pretty much parodies the “dive;” tacky or nonexistent décor, which sometimes involves dark wood paneling; aggressive, bawling customers who begin with beer and end up doing shots; lots of smoking; and a jukebox, all as a backdrop for the inevitable fight.

In some neighborhoods of Chicago, in the early part of the last century, there were often three of these places on every block to accommodate thirsty workers from various manufacturing jobs who wanted in to delay going home to overcrowded two- and three-flats filled with screaming children and nagging wives. They weren't necessarily dives, but they weren't doing a high-class clientele, but the local “average Joe.”

Now gay bars, of course, for the greater part of the last century, had to take often extraordinary measures to just survive. The couldn't exactly be open watering holes for Mr. and Mrs. Bunker. (Well, other open holes existed there, but that's another blog.) And to survive often meant being a dive (or pay off the police or the Mafia), because that's all you could afford being, plus looking “rough,” though it could attract a less “classy” clientele, often kept away bigots.Leather Bar, 1978


Early leather bars like the Gold Coast certainly were dives physically, but in cases like that, the “dive” look was a deliberate part of their appeal: rough sex, rugged guys, bikers. The old Touche bar in Chicago on Lincoln Avenue perhaps was more strictly kink and leather (think piss trough), but the beers stacked up by the entrance and the generally seedy surroundings (I remember the floor was dirty, and it was caked in; no comment on how I would know such detail) certainly proclaimed “dive.”


Wells Street, Chicago, 1970s

The Glory Hole on Wells Street when that street was the gayborhood was perhaps more of the pure “dive:” not only the totally rough, thrown-together look, but the backroom (and bathroom) for quickies and more. Perhaps some of the bars that used to bill themselves as “leather and levi” rather than strictly leather (with a dress code) could be defined as more strictly dive, like the now-closed Rawhide in Chelsea, or still thriving, the Second Story Bar right off the Magnificent Mile (yes, it is still there!) and the Granville Anvil on the Far North Side of Chicago, somewhat distant from the trendy, touristy Boystown.

In fact, the Granville Anvil bills itself as a dive bar. From what I gather, based on their Yelp reviews and Facebook page, they've “spruced up” the décor. Did the owners take out the paneling and the plastic flowers covered with dust hanging in baskets from the ceiling, I wonder? I know, because I was there in the nineties, and yes, there was a jukebox playing Cher's song “Half-Breed,” and also, there was a fight in the bathroom. I was indirectly involved. The friend I went with was in the fight. I found out he was pissed because some guy would not leave me alone (those were the days), and then started bugging my friend as well. That night, I also won some lottery tickets as a prize for getting Bingo. I didn't win the lottery.
 

The Granville Anvil

I wonder, in these days when other “divey” places like 24-hour grills and diners have disappeared and were replaced by big box stores and chain restaurants, if the authentic dive bar can survive. Neighborhood taverns evolved into sports bars, and hipsters have set up “divey” places as part their deconstruction of retro; but what will happen to the gay dive bar? I have a feeling it's been replaced by the seedy underbelly of craigslist, minus, so sadly, the both fun and dangerous social interaction in a place where ultimately, a gay man could both hide from and enjoy himself. And share that identity struggle with others over a shot of whiskey while listening to Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away” on jukebox that still played vinyl.

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