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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LGBTQ HISTORY IN 1978: THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES

1978 was a seminal year in LGBTQ history, mostly because it was the year Harvey Milk was elected in San Francisco to the Board of Supervisors, one of the first openly gay political candidates in United States history. He was elected on January 8, but he was assassinated 10 months later by Dan White, on November 27.
 

Harvey Milk being sworn into office

An article in Gay Life, a Chicago gay periodical of that period, reacts:

"Gay people all over the United States reacted with shock, dismay and outrage to the murders Monday of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Before their deaths both men have proven themselves to be strong advocates of equal rights for gay men and lesbians. Milk, the first open homosexual elected to citywide office in San Francisco, was widely regarded as one of the most visible and influential leaders in the American gay community. Moscone during his term as mayor had been an active supporter of gay rights ..."

Some other news in this volatile year, showing both progress and regression, with a focus on Chicago:

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected an application by Gaysweek magazine to register its name, claiming that it is “immoral.”

The Chicago Gay Pride Parade, according to a statistics compiled by its now iconic mover and shaker, Rich Pfeiffer, boasted an attendance of 10,000. The increase in numbers built on the previous year's increase, mostly because of the anti-Anita Bryant protests that took place at Medinah Temple.
 

Te'Jay's Adult Books sign


Gay porn movies (and probably playing at the Bijou Theater) released that year included El Paso Wrecking Corp. (the famous Joe Gage movie) with Fred Halsted and Richard Locke and Hot Truckin' featuring Nick Rodgers and the muscle god Gordon Grant. Also released were A Night at the Adonis with Jack Wrangler and Malo show us the inside of the gay sex palaces of that time period, and Dune Buddies (also starring Malo). Jack Deveau of Hand in Hand Films was producing some of his best work this year!
 

Dune Buddies poster

We are always researching LGBTQ history and culture. Check out the blogs on our website, and we always welcome your comments and feedback!

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