The White Horse Bar's gay 90th, and a new owner

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Tuesday April 25, 2023
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A group of friends enjoying a warm spring day at The White Horse Bar's T-dance in Oakland in early April. (photo: Heather Cassell)
A group of friends enjoying a warm spring day at The White Horse Bar's T-dance in Oakland in early April. (photo: Heather Cassell)

The longest-running LGBTQ bar in the United States is under new queer ownership.

Patty Nishimura Dingle took over Oakland's White Horse Bar from longtime gay owner, Chuck Davis, who owned the bar for more than 20 years, on July 4, 2022. Dingle, a 50-year-old "futch Blasian" lesbian, didn't announce the change in ownership until March 30 in a news release.

Futch is a term blending femme and butch. Blasian is a term blending Black and Asian, referencing Dingles Japanese and Black heritage.

"The previous owner was retiring, and I wanted to be very, very respectful of that," Dingle told the Bay Area Reporter, chatting at a table while sipping cocktails and beer at the opening of The White Horse Bar's first T-dance of the spring season April 1.

The White Horse Bar's new owner, Patty Nishimura Dingle, left, and longtime bartender, Catherine "Captain" Ficcardi, right, behind the bar during its first T-dance of the season in April. (photo: Heather Cassell)  

Dingle talked about her being a part of the wave of queer women of color opening lesbian bars after the pandemic, fulfilling her longtime dream of owning a queer bar, and her vision for The White Horse Bar's future.

Oakland's longstanding queer bar through the pandemic and recovery, the Bench and Bar and Club 21 closed in 2019 just before the pandemic.

Dingle has taken a slow approach to her ownership of the 90-year-old gay bar demarked by a rainbow crosswalk on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood.

Opened in 1933 right after Prohibition ended, the LGBTQ bar still stands nine decades later. It survived the Depression, World War II, gay bar raids (somehow the bar was never raided), the HIV/AIDS crisis, the pandemic, and multiple economic downturns.

The bar's history isn't lost on Dingle. She is working to preserve as many of the stories as possible and unravel some mysteries, such as how it's possible the bar never got raided by police when being gay was illegal and only had one protest, its hidden safe, and the red light over the bathroom. A 99-year-old patron told her was used to signal when the bathroom was in use or ready for a friendly encounter.

"There are all these little nooks and crannies that are so interesting," Dingle said.

Friends at the White Horse Bar in 2022 (photo: Instagram)  

Dingle said she came across some history that suggested the bar was patronized by members of the police force, which could explain why the bar escaped being raided.

"I stumbled upon something where allegedly, the patrons of the bar were from the law enforcement community," Dingle said. She pointed out other reasons why the bar might have gone under the radar as it did, noting The White Horse's location, the fact that it has always been a low-key neighborhood bar. A Chinese restaurant once fronted the bar that provided secrecy and opportunities to duck into the restaurant if it was raided.

Her wife of 14 years, Robin Rico, a 56-year-old Latinx queer woman, provides supportive help by handling the bar's marketing and can be found mingling with guests while Dingle works to keep the bar operating smoothly. She wants to create a timeline for the White Horse, Dingle said. Rico isn't officially a co-owner of the bar.

The White Horse Bar's new owner, Patty Nishimura Dingle, standing outside the historic East Bay LGBTQ bar. (photo: Heather Cassell)  

A dream come true
Dingle was born and raised in Seaside, California in Monterey County, the youngest of four brothers and one sister, but she's called the San Francisco Bay Area home for more than 30 years. Rico, a San Jose native, and she have lived in Oakland since 2006.

Dingle landed in San Francisco in the 1990s for college at San Francisco State University and hit the gay mecca's thriving club scene. She worked at some of the city's most popular queer bars and nightclubs, including, Club Universe, Pleasuredome, The End Up, Mezzanine, and Page Hodel's popular lesbian clubs — The Box and Club Q — where she danced and bartended. Dingle fell in love with the gay nightlife and started dreaming of owning her own queer bar someday, she said.

"This was a dream of mine to own a bar," Dingle said. But it couldn't be just any bar. It had to be the right one.

It just so happened that when she was ready and looking, her real estate agent, who shared an office with Davis's agent, mentioned that The White Horse was going on the market.

"I got an email from him that literally just said, 'Oh my god, call me,'" Dingle said. She called him immediately. "I was like, 'Yes! Let's do it.'"

A game of pool at the White Horse Bar in 2022 (photo: Instagram)  

The Bay Area's LGBTQ nightlife has come out to support Dingle in her new venture, she said while getting a bit emotional as she pointed out improvements that have been made and changes she plans to make.

"I am calling it lucky. I'm gonna call it fate," Dingle said. "If you're a good person, you just you get that. I pride myself on the way my parents raised me."

Dingle is taking over The White Horse Bar at a significant period. Prior to the pandemic, lesbian bars were closing left and right. The Lesbian Bar Project documented that there were 21 lesbian bars across the U.S., down from more than 200 at its peak, when COVID-19 shut the world down. After the pandemic, lesbian and lesbian-owned bars have gotten a bump up due to people craving community.

There are now nearly 30 lesbian and lesbian-owned bars in the U.S., with six bars that have opened in the past few years. Many of the bars that have opened are owned by queer women of color. More queer bars are on the verge of opening in the U.S.

"Even more reason to be inspired and to work hard and to keep it going," Dingle said. "COVID showed us how vulnerable businesses are."

On the dance floor at the White Horse Bar (photo: Instagram)  

Absolute intention
"The White Horse has always been something that has been there. There's always been a consistently stable queer space on the border of Oakland and Berkeley," said DJ Olga T, a trans masculine lesbian. "What's nice about Patty owning it is that I feel like there is absolute intention around inclusion in a way that did not feel like before she owned it.

"The minute you walk in, it feels warm," said Olga. "People are nice. There are all kinds of different people and women younger, older, and that's what I like."

Asked about the significance of The White Horse and other queer bars being opened by lesbian women of color in the Bay Area and across the country, Dingle responded, "It's important because I think people like me who are not as seasoned as I am need to see this, to see that they're part of this community. I think women of color, particularly Black women, have faced so much inequity in the world," she said. "The way the world was designed was to not create equity for Black people.

"For me, women of color, in particular, being owners has really sent a strong signal that there can be power there," she continued. "And the majority may not have as much opportunity to block that because socioeconomically we're doing better. I think that acceptance of women of color, frankly, is doing better. If you're just a kind nice person, it goes a long freakin' way."

DJ Olga T, who brought her popular Good Times queer party to the White Horse Bar, expressed excitement about the bar being taken over by a queer woman of color and her friend, Dingle.

"It's the best news I've heard in years," she said. "It was very exciting. I feel like everybody I tell has the same reaction. It's just really wonderful."

Everybody, everybody
Dingle's goal is to break down the ways the Bay Area's LGBTQ community segregates itself. Everyone is welcome at The White Horse Bar, which is why she doesn't want to call the bar a "lesbian bar."

"If you come here on any given night — and this is a lot about Oakland — you will see folks who are a little bit older. We have straight people that come in here because they love the music. We have trans kids, trans women of color; everybody is here," she said, even the kink community. "What's the common denominator? I feel like it's about just feeling safe."

Dingle, who is the global head of diversity and inclusion at Riot Games, a video game developer, isn't giving up her day job. The White Horse Bar is also not a side hustle for her either.

"I just feel so strongly about that and then my staff is super diverse," she said, noting that the bar is all about community and hiring people who take ownership to create community. That is her business model.

Gal pals at the White Horse Bar in 2022 (photo: Instagram)  

Newer, better
Patrons old and new are noticing a bigger dance and performance space and a better sound system. Dingle recognizes that Temescal has become Oakland's epicenter of foodie culture. Her 15-member staff, including longtime bartender, Catherine "Captain" Ficcardi, are serving up high-quality cocktails, mocktails, beer and wine to enjoy with Temescal's culinary offerings. Patrons can bring food in from neighboring restaurants or the food truck parked in front of the bar next to its parklet.

Dingle kept the cheerful, Acio, the beloved 42-year-old queer woman, who managed the bar under Davis, on when she took over, she said.

"I want the flow to be indoor/outdoor because we're also in a neighborhood and I want people in the neighborhood to feel like they can come and hang out. Have a drink. People can bring food if they want," Dingle said.

The bar and nightclub will feature drag and karaoke nights and some of the community's longtime favorite DJs Lady Ryan, Olga T, and Page Hodel spinning the hits on the dance floor on designated nights.

Dingle is proud to bring back Hodel with a new women's dance party, JOYride, starting May 20. Hodel spent the pandemic in Sebastopol working on and teaching carpentry at Page's Carpentry School. Patrons can see Hodel's work as they walk into The White Horse when they pay for their cover at the stand, Dingle patted proudly, cheerfully saying it was built by Hodel.

DJ Lady Ryan's dance party, LVR Girl, is every second Friday of the month. DJ Olga T's parties Good Times are every Thursday and Tribe every third Sunday.

"I think the community's gonna be really excited, said Hodel. "They're already excited. They're ready for it." Hodel described the crowd as having "really good energy. She's bringing in boys, girls, everybody."

Hodel is ready to return to the DJ booth, especially for her longtime friend at the historic White Horse Bar.

"It feels so good, and the time is so right for so many reasons," she said about returning to DJing after three years focused on her carpentry business and school in Sebastopol. "I'm absolutely ready."

White Horse Bar's stained glass window (photo: Instagram)  

Old timers & younguns
Most patrons new and old appreciated the changes, while some other old-timers were still warming up to Dingle's changes and management style.

Longtime patron Kelvin Chang said he appreciated the diversity of ownership, staff, and patrons, but said he wanted a little bit more appreciation of the regulars and friendliness from the bar's management.

"A little bit friendlier," he said. "There might be a little bit of misunderstanding from the very beginning," the gay Singaporean man said about the change of the old bartenders who would greet him regularly. He said that was the only issue. He expressed hope that the bar will stay mixed for the community.

Younger crowds in their 20s and 30s appreciated the fact that the bar was owned by a queer woman of color and the diversity of events now offered at the bar.

Andrea Wang, 26, a bisexual woman, and Margie Norrin, 77, a proud old queer lesbian, were hanging out talking as they sipped their drinks.

Wang appreciated the diversity of the people coming to The White Horse Bar now as opposed to when she first moved to Oakland from San Jose, where she was born and raised. The bar used to be filled with college students from UC Berkeley, she said.

The crowd signaled a significant change at the bar filled with a diverse range of queer people in their 20s to their late 70s and from different ethnicities.

"I love to dance," said Norrin, who moved to Oakland two years ago and has been coming to The White Horse Bar to dance.

Both women said they plan on coming to The White Horse Bar more regularly.

"I think like there's something so special about The White Horse that people come," Dingle said, recognizing that the bar is a destination club located off the beaten path.

The White Horse Bar is open Tuesday through Friday, 5pm to midnight, and Saturday and Sunday, 3pm to midnight. 6551 Telegraph Ave., Oakland.

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