One of the highlights of the 1985 documentary Before Stonewall was a reunion of the staff members and patrons of San Francisco's Black Cat Café, "the most famous Bohemian bar in the world." Today the Black Cat, located at 710 Montgomery Street in San Francisco's North Beach, is best-remembered as the place where drag entertainer José Sarría became famous.
Sarría, who was an activist as well as a performer - in 1961 he was the first openly gay person to run for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors - often spiced his routines with gay rights messages and always ended his shows by leading his audiences in vivid renditions of "God Save Us Nelly Queens." At the reunion, Sarría and other Black Cat veterans - female and male; black, white and Latino; middle-class and working-class - reminisced about how the Black Cat served as a home away from home, a support group, and a family of choice.
"The Black Cat was not a bar," one woman recalled. "It was a family. They were my friends. They took me in. They took care of me. They fed me when I was unemployed. They patted my hand when I was hurting from a love affair."
According to freelance writer Joel Pomerantz, the Black Cat Cafe "launched gay San Francisco. It was a bar, a dance hall, and a revolutionary seed in the lumpy cultural soils of San Francisco."
The Black Cat officially opened in 1933, right after the fall of Prohibition, and flourished for three decades. It survived World War II and early police efforts to close the bar as "a disorderly house." The owner took the case to the California Supreme Court, which ruled (1951) in favor of the Black Cat. This did not stop the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) from repeatedly trying to shut down this "resort for sexual perverts."
In late October 1963, just before the Black Cat's annual Halloween party, ABC finally revoked the Bar's liquor license, and the Black Cat closed for good in February, 1964.
Though the Black Cat Café was the best-known queer bar of its day, it was by no means the only one of its kind. At a time when LGBT community groups were few and far between, bars often served as community centers.
"For Gay men and Lesbians, the centrality of bars to community life has probably been truer than it has for any other group," wrote Matthew D. Johnson and Claude J. Summers in glbtq.com. "In addition to providing opportunities for glbtq people to socialize and to meet potential partners, Gay and Lesbian bars have offered members of a stigmatized social minority, often isolated from one another, an opportunity to inhabit space with like-minded folk. Until recently, they were often the only venues in which glbtq people could feel free to be openly Gay."
There is hardly a gay memoir of the 1940s or 1950's who does not recall a favored watering hole, as the late Ricardo J. Brown did in his book The Evening Crowd at Kirmser's, a bar that flourished in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1940's. Brown's fond memories are echoed by those of other queer members of "the greatest generation."
Even today, bars play an important role in the lives of many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This is especially true in small towns and rural areas that lack community centers and other supportive groups.
In the 2007 documentary Small Town Gay Bar, gay pubs and clubs play an important role in the lives of LGBT people who live in rural Mississippi . To the folks who frequented Rumors in Shannon and Crossroads in Meridian, bars were more than just places to drink, dance or cruise. They were havens for persecuted minorities and unique opportunities to be open and honest within an oppressive social climate. The brutal hate crime death of Scotty Weaver, an event that was featured in Small Town Gay Bar, only reminds us of the dangers of being a queer person living in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
Much has been written recently about the decline of LGBT bars. But we must never underestimate the impact gay pubs and clubs have in our communities. We don't have to go to rural Mississippi to find a bar where, like TV's Cheers, everyone knows your name.
To many of us, a beloved neighborhood bar is a second home and the people who work or play there form the family that we never had. Because of this, the closing of a popular watering hole - which happens every day, especially in today's economic climate - is rarely pure and never simple. To many of us, it is as if a loved one has passed away.
There is still a need in our community for places where we can relax and be ourselves; and this is a service that our bars do so well. Almost fifty years after the fall of the Black Cat Café, its children continue to do what they do well, and we are better for it.
(Photo credit: SF Public Library photo collection)