Bars and the Queer Economy by Jeffrey Escoffier and Christopher Mitchel
First published on OutHistory June 19, 2017
“One wanders into the bar in the hope of finding the convivial spirit that comes from being with one’s own… From the gay street to the gay bar may be but a few steps, or several miles, but an aura of respectability is to be found at the latter that is lacking at the former. One does not hide one’s head as an acquaintance walks by; one does not deny encounters, but on the contrary makes appointments, utilizes the meeting-place for social convenience.”
––Edward Sagarin (aka Donald Webster Cory), The Homosexual in America (1951)
First published in 1951, The Homosexual in America, also known as the “Cory Report,” served as an unofficial gay bible in the immediate post-war years, continuously in print throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The pseudonymous author, Donald Webster Cory, pseudonym of sociologist Edward Sagarin, went on to be a major, if controversial figure in the homophile movement.
The Homosexual in America provided the definitive sociological account of queer life in the immediate post-war era, when queer bars—the central cultural, economic, and social institution of queer life—were all but criminalized by state liquor laws and local zoning and vice laws in the U.S. Few businesses or other economic institutions catering to sexual minorities existed before the 1960s, and most often they were bars. Although bars provided a “convivial spirit,” bar-goers frequently complained of the lack of alternatives. “Where to go?” The Homosexual in America asks, searching for alternatives to the bars. “Always the question—where can one go?”
In a formative, fragile community strung together by informal networks of friends socializing in private homes and strangers and acquaintances at cruising sites, gay bars were central in fostering a public (or quasi-public) culture with the potential for political action. For gay men, they were the only alternative to ephemeral spaces that were almost completely sexual and devoid of social interaction. For lesbians, bars represented vital gathering places, since women’s access to non-domestic space was often restricted by law and by custom. Furthermore, while gay men (but not women) adapted theaters and bathhouses as cruising zones, bars were the sole business marketed explicitly to queer consumers. Bars were also one of, if not the only institution shared by gay men and lesbians. (“[A] rarity in the larger cities but not unknown,” writes Cory, “is the bar where the Lesbians gather. But most of them are male hangouts where a few women stroll in…”)
Writing about queer bars and drag culture in the 1972 classic Mother Camp, Esther Newton observed that queer communities had “an economics but no economy... because gay life is not based on productive relationships…” If we reorient our view of economics from production to consumption, however, we can begin to see not only a queer economics but also—defined as “productive” activities—the emergence of a queer economy, and the institution at the center of it: the queer bar.
A Brief History of Queer Bars
Since at least the 1880s, the center of queer communal and economic life in the U.S. (and much earlier outside of the U.S.) was the drinking institution, whether it was bar, saloon, or dance hall. Public bathhouses, a staple of immigrant communities living in tenement housing without running water, also served men who had sex with men—including some of the first to identify themselves as “inverts,” “intermediates,” “androgynes,” or “homosexuals” (using the terminology of sexology), or “gay” or “fairies” (using the terminology of popular culture). By the 1920s, bars and cafes that catered exclusively to queer consumers began to appear in bohemian and “vice” districts throughout the U.S., like Greenwich Village, Harlem, North Beach, and Bronzeville. Interracial sociability and sexuality, which were socially forbidden if not totally illegal, was also a key feature of many of these bars and speakeasies.
For most of their history, queer bars were but one segment of larger red light districts—which included brothels, burlesque theaters, peep shows, and shops selling erotic literature and apparel—in large cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. But bars provided institutional contexts for socializing and the establishment of relationships that endured one-night stands. Neighborhoods with higher concentrations of gay bars often included a higher concentration of businesses and institutions adapted by queer consumers, like rooming houses, women’s boarding houses, single room occupancy hotels, and YMCAs. Queer consumers also congregated in cafeterias, coffee shops, and restaurants where they found other members of their social group, though in most cases they maintained their discretion. However, clientele at these businesses were frequently chased away and harassed by management, often at the spurring of indignant straight customers. Queer bars, on the other hand, were more often than not established to cater to a specific clientele, though often simply because they were willing to pay higher prices and represented easy marks for extortionists. The toleration of criminal activity during Prohibition helped grow queer communities and also established the cultural patterns and economic strategies that dominated queer life until the 1960s.
The Homosexual in America reveals the basic contradictions of everyday life in what was essentially a black market that represented equal parts relief and risk, where consumers “come to lay aside their masks, as many cannot do in their own homes, and to take relief as they are laid aside. Gay bars! In a sense, the description is fitting, for here is a gaiety, a vivacity, that is seldom seen in the other comparable taverns, nightclubs, bars, and inns.” However, the “gaiety” of some bars is “so gay that to be seen entering or leaving is to invite a ‘brand;’ others somewhat less stigmatized but nevertheless primarily a meeting-place for the homosexually inclined.”
The economic life of queer communities was and continues to be significantly affected by the character of their stigma as gender-nonconforming and/or sexually pathological (and even predatory). Stigmatization was structured by the dynamics of visibility, a feature noted by famed sociologist Erving Goffman, who developed his theory of visible and invisible “stigma”—“an attribute that is deeply discrediting”—in part by observing the culture of queer bars. Indeed, queer bars were the only economic institutions that linked those who bore the visible stigma—effeminate men, butch lesbians, and those whom today we would call transgender—and those who did not, those who “passed” as straight. The mixing of both of visible and discrete queers as often as not invited conflict as community. Though some bars may have invited a ‘brand’—not a corporate brand but a scarlet letter— most bars purposely avoided attracting the attention of the police and moral crusaders, attempting and often failing to maintain a balancing act between shunning the police and attracting customers, who advertised by word of mouth. Cory wrote that “seldom…are males permitted to dance together” and in the next chapter detailed “drag” parties, which had to be organized privately to avoid prosecution for violating masquerade laws. Butch lesbians, effeminate men, and people who today would identify as transgender—not to mention those who bore other stigmas like race and class—frequently experienced (and to some extent continue to experience) discrimination in gay bars for supposedly causing or inviting “trouble.”
The pressures of stigmatization and criminalization meant that queer economic life took on the secretive and duplicitous characteristics of an illicit market, particularly with regard to information about customers, locations of bars, or even the number of bars in a particular area. These distortions and dissimulations helped create a culture steeped in secret codes and gossip, not to mention a perfect environment for price gouging and extortion. Though central to the making of queer communities, queer bars prior to the 1960s were rarely owned by gay men or lesbians. The ownership of businesses selling alcohol to illegal consumers would have made queer owners even more vulnerable to both legal and illegal pressures, like police raids and extortion. While bars were frequently raided they also afforded their customers some protection against entrapment, physical assaults, and blackmail, which posed the most significant risks when cruising outside the confines of a bar or restaurant. Owners were frequently under pressure to pay the police and/or organized crime for “protection.” Bar owners frequently cited “protection” as a reason to recover the costs from customers by inflating prices for refreshments and food, although consumers, uncomfortable in “straight” bars, frequently complained that they were being exploited because they were essentially a captive market. And while risky, queer bars were also a good business bet for owners, since they supplied a service that was in high demand. Cory described gay bars as “crowded and smoke-filled,” “scattered…in the theatrical districts, the bohemian areas, [and] the rather poor or slum sections.” Bars often were often located in neighborhoods that were segregated from everyday business and residential activities—industrial areas, red light districts, among bars catering to sailors, or on isolated roads in rural areas. The desire to avoid public identification often meant that gay and lesbian bars, bathhouses or other businesses sought to be as inconspicuous as possible—their outside appearances were often muted, their signs cryptic or insignificant. Bouncers often “screened” customers in order to minimize the intrusions of hostile outsiders or undercover police.
Customers, like bar owners, had a vested interest in discretion, since raids inevitably meant arrest and the eventual exposure of its customers to the local press and the courts. As a result, information about potential customers—their gender, age, income, and needs as customers—were not easily available to businesses to provide goods and services. Communications between and among such businesses and their customers were heavily coded or completely inhibited by the fear of revealing personal information. While this meant that bar owners could not reach their customers through conventional advertising, they could count on the ways in which queer consumers used word of mouth to bring friends and lovers to bars. Even so, the necessary secretiveness of much of queer life limited the information necessary for economic markets to operate efficiently, and most customers distrusted bar owners because of the over-priced drink and cover charges, extortion, and indignity they foisted on their captive consumers.
By the 1960s, discretion was not only a strategy but increasingly the defining feature of queer culture, and one that largely inhibited its growth or development beyond the bar. The necessity of secrecy fostered strong social norms among lesbians and gay men against revealing names and identities of others, a set of strategies to which Gay Liberation activists referred as “the closet.” Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the norm frequently broke down under the pressure of arrests, raids, and STD contact tracing. In the 1950s and 1960s, a combination of media intrigue and moral panic led to more spectacular if not more frequent bar raids and arrests, even as Homophile activists realized that invisibility was no longer possible or effective as a means of avoiding anti-queer stigma.
Before Gay Liberation, the large and mostly invisible population of queer people made it difficult for many businesses to survive openly without legal reform—which gay bar owners in San Francisco accomplished in the early 1960s by forming the Tavern Guild—or support from organized crime—which managed and influenced most if not all of the gay bars in New York City. (This also accounts for the differences in Gay Liberation in San Francisco, which occurred largely through legal reform, and Gay Liberation in New York City, which began with a violent, three-day riot at the mob-run Stonewall Inn.) Once legal reform and attitudinal changes led to a reversal of this stigma—a process that began in the 1960s and continues well into 2017—businesses developed around more visible queer consumers. The persistence and importance of bars from the era of the closet to today suggests the centrality of business and economic strategies—especially consumer strategies—to the history of queer politics and culture. And, of course, the most famous if not important incident in the queer history of the United States were the three-day riots at the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969. The Stonewall Riots led both directly and indirectly to the politics of Gay Liberation, which included strategies for queer self-sufficiency like economic alternatives to exploitative bars and, perhaps most importantly, support for queer-owned businesses. In the 1970s, queer neighborhoods signaled the end of an “economics without an economy” and the emergence of a distinctly queer economy—a queer market—as business organizations like the Greater Gotham Business Council and the Golden Gate Business Association included not only openly queer bar owners and restauranteurs, but bankers, accountants, lawyers, florists, boutique owners, electronics and camera shop owners, physicians and psychotherapists, and travel agents.
Even so, this historic moment is not without its trade-offs. As Krista Burton recently lamented about her hometown of Chicago in the New York Times, “Where are the queer hangouts to set my inner homing device to… [A]s queer people become normalized, have these tight-knit families and communities once found in lesbian and gay bars just melted away into a puddle of casual societal acceptance? I think that’s what is going on. Dedicated queer bars, especially spaces for lesbians, female-identified queers and trans and genderqueer people, are vanishing. It makes me feel out of place…We’re mostly accepted. But I feel like I’m losing something small but precious.”
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About the authors
Jeffrey Escoffier is a co-founder of The Gay Alternative (1972-1976), a gay and lesbian cultural magazine, and OUT/LOOK: A National Lesbian and Gay Quarterly (1988), and was on the board of CLAGS at the City University of New York from 1992-1995.