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LGBT History Month: Novel to explore '50s bar life in San Francisco

by Seth Hemmelgarn

A queer writer is planning a novel about LGBT tavern culture and the bar raids of the 1950s in San Francisco.

Katie Gilmartin, who lives in Oakland, and the San Francisco nonprofit Openhouse, which works with LGBT seniors, are getting $40,000 from the Creative Work Fund for the novel, set to be called "Vice Academy."

Gilmartin, 52, said one of the things that inspired her to do the book was "realizing what a risk it took to simply go out to a bar if you wanted to get together with friends for a drink," or "meet someone to fall in love with" in the 1950s, when getting "caught in a bar raid" could mean losing one's home, employment, family, or other trouble.

Gilmartin's working with Openhouse to find LGBT elders to interview for the book, which she said should be coming out in 2020. It will be Gilmartin's second novel.

Along with the novel, readings, and walking tours are also planned.

"It's really important to recognize what LGBT elders did, the risks they took for it to be possible for us to be where we are today, where we can just go out to a bar if we want to," she said.

Gilmartin noted that for many, the dangers still exist.

"This is not so far away, and that's why I feel like we really need to know about and hold on to this history," she said.

She added, "One of the reasons this grant is so important and critical right now" is that "there are elders still alive whose stories are going to be lost when they pass. It's critical to honor their memories and experiences" and how "they paved the path for all of us."

Two nightspots that interest Gilmartin are the former North Beach bars Tommy's Place and 12 Adler, which she said were shut down after police raids in 1954. A newspaper headline referred to the bars as a "vice academy."

Kelly Harris, who works in mission engagement for Openhouse, wrote in an email that the nonprofit "is excited to work with Katie Gilmartin in preserving the history and culture of LGBT taverns. These establishments provided a place for the LGBT community to mingle and connect, but also served as the beginnings of long-standing protest groups. Katie's project reminds us all about our community's responsibility in preserving the legacies and memories of our LGBT seniors. ... These stories of sacrifice and courage will inspire us to be grateful for the freedoms we experience each day."

The Creative Work Fund is a program of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and is also by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The fund recently announced $600,000 in grants to 15 Bay Area literary and traditional artists, including Gilmartin.

Anyone wishing to be part of the interview process for Gilmartin's novel can contact Harris at kharris@openhouse-sf.org .

Contact the author at s.hemmelgarn@ebar.com .

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