In celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month, we want to spotlight one of the community’s most significant cornerstones: the gay bar. Not only have gay bars historically served as an establishment where LGBTQ people can be safe to be themselves, but they have also been used to build culture and civil rights for the queer community. As a beverage formulation company, it is inspiring to know that an establishment for beverages can serve a vital role in the history of civil rights. We want to highlight how and why gay bars play a massive role in LGBTQ nightlife and the liberation of the LGBTQ community.
In the early 1900s, clubs specifically for LGBTQ gatherings were primarily located in small “bohemian” or counterculture communities in places like New Orleans’ French Quarter, New York’s Greenwich Village, and San Francisco’s Barbary coast before the first world war. Many were small and low-key establishments, as not to draw too much attention to themselves and avoid discrimination. After the first world war, gay bars began to fade into the background due to a new public perception of homosexuality and cross-dressing as a mental disorder. It wasn’t until 1948 when Dr. Alfred Kinsey, a biologist, and professor who founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, developed a “Heterosexual–Homosexual Rating Scale” (the “Kinsey Scale”) that homosexual attraction was scientifically established as a natural human phenomenon. Gay bars began to flourish across the United States.
World War II was especially a turning point, as more women joined the workforce and closeted gay men returned from the war. Despite how many gay bars there were at this time, they were forced to stay somewhat discreet. For many people with same-sex attraction and transgender or gender non-conforming individuals, gay bars were a safe space for both closeted and “out” people to be themselves, find romantic partners, and seek community.
Despite many scientific studies and academic research proving homosexuality as natural human behavior, LGBTQ establishments still face discrimination on all fronts. During the ’50s, Joseph McCarthy, a Republican US Senator, ignited the “Lavender” scare, which alienated gay people as “enemies of the nation.” Due to this scare, many gay bars were investigated by police and, in some cases, raided by undercover cops. This caused many to attempt to rid themselves of a police presence by aligning with criminals for added security. Eventually, tensions peaked, and many gay bars began defending themselves. One of the most notable historical events in these episodes of raids was the Stonewall Inn riots in 1969 San Francisco.
The riots lasted six days and sparked people with same-sex attraction and transgender or gender non-conforming individuals to fight back against the police. During the Stonewall Inn riots and other bar raids, many people targeted were trans women. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are two trans women of color credited as significant figures during the riots at Stonewall. The publicity and attention that the Stonewall riots received was the beginning of the major gay and lesbian liberation movements that helped establish LGBTQ rights within the United States today.
Gay bars have endured many struggles and have stood the test of time with riots and the HIV/AIDs epidemic of the ‘80s. Gay bars may be considered less essential to the LGBTQ community now, as society has become more accepting, and the community has more options regarding where they can socialize. However, now, especially during pride month, the gay bar remains a respected establishment and monument of LGBTQ history for being a beacon of hope for an oppressed group of people. While most beverage establishments are merely seen as a place for social events and leisure, we proudly acknowledge how essential bars are to the LGBTQ community.