'The Bars Are Ours' — Celebrating the spirit of bars and community spaces

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Tuesday December 5, 2023
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Author Lucas Hilderbrand<br>(photo: UC Irvine)
Author Lucas Hilderbrand
(photo: UC Irvine)

"For many of us, which bars we go to likely changes over time as do we, whether we are trying out different clubs while we are figuring out who we are, or we must find a new place when a favorite closes, or we age out of one scene and settle into another. More likely we are nonmonogamous and go to more than one bar during any given period in our lives." writes Lucas Hilderbrand in his book, "The Bars Are Ours: Histories and Cultures of Gay Bars in America,1960 and After."

José Sarria performing at The Black Cat bar, circa early 1960s. (photo: Courtesy One Archives at USC Libraries)  

Was the real revolution at Stonewall that a community had gathered there before the first brick was thrown or window smashed? Had people we now think of as LGBTQ been doing that for a long time at that point?

Lucas Hilderbrand, a Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine and the author of "Paris Is Burning: A Queer Film Classic," has written a new book that seeks to answer these questions and more in a stunning new work of research.

The book seeks to redress the notion that in the early days, queer culture only happened at places like The Black Cat in North Beach and the Stonewall Bar in New York by introducing us to bars throughout the country. The author addresses this in the introduction:

"Although Gotham and Frisco loom large in the queer cultural imaginary and have set many historical precedents, I deliberately start this book's case-study chapters in the heartland to insist that queer cultures did not flourish only on the coasts."

The Gold Coast leather bar's basement bar The Pit, circa 1980s. (photo: Chuck Renslow Collection, courtesy of Leather Archives & Museum)  

Pre-Stonewall history
Hilderbrand is also pushing back on the centrality of Stonewall as the start of the gay movement and therefore the mention of 1960 in the title, as he says here:

"History, for LGBTQ+ communities, is often periodized as before and after Stonewall: the riots that erupted at the New York City gay bar in late June 1969. By beginning in 1960, this book deliberately moves away from Stonewall as the pivot of bar history."

Structurally the book focuses on different cities in each chapter. It is not arranged chronologically. Boston, which is covered in chapter 3, has a gay bar history that goes back to 1946. Here is how the author describes the structure of the book:

"Schematically, the chapters proceed two-by-two in pairs that address cultures (leather in Chicago and drag in Kansas City, chapters 1 and 2), politics (gentrification in Boston and racism in Atlanta, chapters 3 and 4), institutions (iconic gay clubs in New York City and Houston, chapters 5 and 6), and reinventions (queer parties in San Francisco and Latinx spaces in Los Angeles, chapters 7 and 8)."

Interspersed between the chapters are shorter pieces called "Interludes" in the book that focus on institutions and cities such as "Safe Spaces in Detroit" (Interlude 2), "The Main Club in Superior, WI" (Interlude 6) and my favorite "Mable Peabody's Beauty Parlor and Chainsaw Repair in Denton, TX" (Interlude 8). The book closes with "Epilogue: After Hours: Pulse in Orlando," which is just as heart-wrenching as you might imagine.

Club Uranus flyer in 1990 (photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society)  

One thing that stands out about the book is how howlingly funny some of the passages are, and this makes what could otherwise be a dry academic text both enchanting and engaging. In the chapter on the Jewel Box Lounge and drag in Kansas City the author addresses the reader this way:

"Mary, indulge your auntie, won't you, in an exegesis of camp?" And in that discussion of camp he uses examples like this to illustrate:

"When a gay piano bar named Camp opened in St. Paul in the 2000s, it featured an absolutely divine large-scale Madonna-and-child portrait of (Judy) Garland as Mary and a baby Liza Minnelli in her 'Cabaret' costume as the Christ child. Camp sensibility and references sometimes transcend cultures, languages, and borders; for instance, I saw a fabulous drag queen in Guadalajara, Mexico, who called herself Ariana Grindr."

Ggreg Taylor's iconic candle wax drag, at Club Uranus' Halloween party 1990 (photo: Melissa Hawkins)  

Midwest scenes
The first chapter is an in depth discussion of Chuck Renslow, and the Gold Coast's leather bar scene in Chicago beginning in the 1950s. Hilderbrand's book adds to the knowledge of the Chicago scene already written about in Justin Spring's biography of Sam Steward, "Secret Historian," and is a welcome addition to Chicago's leather history.

In the second chapter on the Jewel Box Lounge and the Colony Bar in Kansas City, Hilderbrand offers an informative comment about the terms female impersonation and drag and what can be confusing when reading histories which describe both.

"The terms female impersonation and drag have historically been used interchangeably, but in this chapter I use them differentially to distinguish between acts performed for predominantly straight audiences (for which I use female impersonation) and those for predominantly gay ones (for which I use drag)."

The third chapter features a discussion of class and gentrification in Boston's Bay Village neighborhood and the conflict between gay immigrants to the neighborhood and the already established bars Jacque's and the Other Side, which served a mixed clientele that included sex workers and gender non-conforming patrons.

The fourth chapter discusses the racist policies at bars in Atlanta and the efforts of groups including Black and White Men Together to desegregate the bars and tells the stories of Black gay clubs in Atlanta like the Marquette, Loretta's and Traxx.

I-Beam's Boy Club ad in the San Francisco Sentinel, 1988 (courtesy GLBT Historical Society)  

The "institutions" chapters feature the Paradise Garage and the Saint and along the way the Mineshaft, the St. Marks Baths, and the Continental Baths in the New York chapter and Mary's in the Houston chapter. Mary's is a particularly interesting chapter as it includes political organizing, controversies over racism and the devastation that community institutions faced during AIDS. It's a loving portrait, warts and all, and Hilderbrand summarizes this chapter as follows:

"Gay bars have long functioned as de facto institutions, but Mary's stands out as the closest a bar can come to actually manifesting community in all its messy and generative forms. Mary's fostered sexual free-for-alls and political organizing, out-and-proud visibility, and public mourning. Wild men and domesticated beasts converged at the corner of Westheimer and Waugh to forge what for some was the greatest gay bar of all time."

Bars by the Bay
Of particular interest to San Francisco readers will be chapter 7, "Further Tales of the City: Queer Parties in Post-disco San Francisco." It's a wonderful retelling of the explosion of clubs like The Box, Chaos, Screw, Club Uranus and BOY in the city in the 1990s. I went to both The Box and Club Uranus (not BOY, as I wasn't the target audience) and I can tell you that Hilderbrand does an outstanding job of chronicling that era, of which he says.

Ad for The Box's 1991 Pride party  

"The Box and Club Uranus parties feel to me like a cool older sibling's or friend's world," he writes, "proximate, aspirational, and what I imagined being a few years older would be like. These parties offer the most immediate reimaginations of queer life that I inherited. Encountering so many references to a generational divide from this period was an 'aha' moment for me."

The crowning achievement of the book is chapter 8, "Donde Todo es Diferente: Queer Latinx Nightlife in Los Angeles." The chapter includes Latinx bars like Circus Disco, Frat House, Club Tempo, Chico and New Jalisco Bar in Los Angeles and Orange County. Here Hilderbrand introduces the reader to a group of bars that serve the Latinx communities. It is clearly a labor of love.

In discussing Club Tempo he says, "Lucas was introduced to Club Tempo through word of mouth and queer social bonds, and his first visit was one of those nights out that felt special, even perfect — that exemplified why we go out at all. He felt uneasy about being a tourist in this space, but he loved that it existed. His return visits for research have perhaps been less heady, but his gratitude has not diminished. This is the bar that made Lucas want to write this chapter."

Flyer for the opening of Club Skirts in 1989  

That passage, incidentally, exemplifies one of two criticisms I have of the book. In chapter 8 alone, Hilderbrand begins referring to himself in the third person. This was somewhat disconcerting and as a reader as I found myself wondering who this Lucas is that he refers to. This seems to be due to the fact that there is a second author, Dan Bustillo, assisting with the writing of this chapter, but it was initially confusing.

The other criticism is that the notes in the book at times read like a discography instead of footnotes. Every song that's mentioned has its publishing information included. This might be expected from a professor of media studies, but I did not find it helpful.

Overall, this is ultimately an uplifting and hopeful book. It shows how LGBTQ communities have evolved bars to meet their particular needs from before 1960 to today. I was particularly impressed with how much Hilderbrand liked the Detroit bars, mentioned in interlude 2. As a former Michigan resident, I witnessed racist and sexist door policies when visiting Detroit bars with women and Black friends in the 1970s. It was particularly nice to read that bars there have evolved and become more inclusive.

The book leaves the reader feeling that the era of gay bars is not over and they will evolve to meet the needs of our diverse communities in the future.

'The Bars Are Ours: Histories and Cultures of Gay Bars in America,1960 and After,' by Lucas Hilderbrand. $33. 464 pages, Duke University Press

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