This is a kossified version of the paper I presented at "Radically Gay: The Life & Visionary Legacy of Harry Hay," a conference held at the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center last Friday afternoon. I'm getting too old to make cross-country trips for a two-day stay, but this was very worth it, and I made a startling discovery in the process of writing the paper. It was well-received, and the trip was worth it.
Below the squiggly thing, please, for yet another recovery effort, this one of a fairly startling nature. No, nothing that's really frightening, but it seems that gay Los Angeles has been gay Los Angeles for longer than anyone who has written about it realizes.
The homophile movement did not occur in a vacuum in Los Angeles. There were gay bars in Santa Monica Canyon during the 1920s, and the biographical work on Harry Hay confirms that there was no absence of gay life in Los Angeles during the 1930s. After World War II, however, the details on gay and lesbian life in Southern California become somewhat more sketchy, as the historiography has concentrated on the formation of the homophile and lesbian movements of the 1950s as a precursor to the events directly leading up to the Stonewall Riots.
My inquiry is based on evidence provided in John D’Emilio’s groundbreaking and category- establishing book, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. (The link is to the second and substantially revised edition of the book, which includes a chapter about why San Francisco is different.)
Attempting to determine the contours of these areas has turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated because of an absence of primary material. This REALLY surprised me, given all the information about those community institutions I found in my reading of the works of James McCourt. I think that's why the historiography has concentrated on the institutions that promoted homophile and lesbian causes. Apparently, bars and cruising areas were aspects of life that gay men and women in Los Angeles during the 1950s did not care to write about, especially not in the material that they were saving for posterity.
We have some oral histories, notably the interviews Stuart Timmons did for Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, And Lipstick Lesbians, we have a pioneering book by the proprietor of a bar for gay men called the Windup, published in 1957, and we have the earliest Address Books published by Bob Damron in 1965 and 1966 (in Los Angeles, I didn’t have access to anything earlier, and this is a later edition than the ones I looked at), so we can extrapolate. First, we’ll look at the bar as an institution, and then we’ll look at the neighborhoods where significant numbers of homosexual men and lesbians lived to see how the bars and restaurants served them.
Why look at bars? Scholars of this period are in general agreement that, as the writer and critic John Loughery observes in The Other Side of Silence, “the gay bar [was] an important focus of homosexual life in America, for the practical purposes of seeing new faces and old friends and as an emblem of cultural survival.” The sociologist Edward Sagarin, writing as Donald Webster Cory in 1951, understood this as well. In a section of his ground-breaking book, The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach, devoted to discussing the patterns of gay life that the larger world is generally unaware of, he describes the gay bar as a place to meet friends that is significantly more respectable than street cruising.
He observes that there are all kinds of gay bars in an average city; in fashionable areas, in the theater district, in bohemian neighborhoods and in slum districts, because this is where gay men “come to lay aside their masks, as many cannot do in their own homes, and to take relief as they are laid aside.” He warns the reader that the language, especially the changing of pronouns, might sound strange to the uninitiated and that any changes in the bars have to do with the absence of the men in uniform who used to frequent them while World War II was going on.
Sagarin also notes that some proprietors understand it’s good business to cater to a gay clientele. Helen P. Branson, the straight woman who owned the Windup at 5124 Melrose Avenue, wrote a book about her experience as the owner of a gay bar in 1957.
Alfred Kinsey visited the bar, and soon after, a group of Mattachine members did too. This resulted in an article for the Mattachine Review, “Homosexuals – As I See Them,” in the February 1958 issue, only that wasn't the title used on the cover.
We know that there was a significant gay and lesbian community in Los Angeles when Mattachine came into existence. World War II fostered the building of a permanent homosexual community in Los Angeles, more so than in any other major port in part because of the city’s size and potential for anonymity and in part because of their fascination with the California Dream. In general, men settled downtown in neighborhoods like Bunker Hill, Edendale and Westlake to be near Pershing Square and the downtown bars, while women settled in communities near the aerospace plants where they worked, in Burbank, North Hollywood, and Long Beach. This was not without interference from the police and politicians; the Los Angeles Times reported in 1948 that the Los Angeles Police Department had gathered records on 10,000 “known sex offenders.”
By 1965, Damron’s Address Book listed 84 bars, restaurants, and coffee shops that catered to the gay and lesbian community in the greater Los Angeles area.
Damron’s Address Book provides an eye-opener, because it points out a decided gay and lesbian presence in an area within the city limits of Los Angeles that none of the books on gay and lesbian history cover in any depth. The Address Book divided Los Angeles into four segments: Hollywood, Metropolitan Area (which included Downtown, Edendale, Silver Lake, and Westlake Park), West and Southwest (Including West Hollywood), and the San Fernando Valley. 20% of all the gay bars, restaurants and coffeeshops in greater Los Angeles listed in The Address Book are in the Valley: two lesbian bars, one in Studio City and one in North Hollywood, and fifteen bars that catered to men –- most of which were on Ventura Boulevard from Studio City to Tarzana. The one mention I found of anything having to do with gay and lesbian bars in the San Fernando Valley referred to a nameless bar that catered to lesbians and charged men a $5 cover to keep them out. So much of our history consists of a recovery effort, and this is a prime example. There may be a guide NOW (and it's linked above in this paragraph), but the history of gay and lesbian experience in the San Fernando Valley is a subject that seriously needs further investigation and study.
The earliest concentration of these institutions was downtown, on Bunker Hill and extending south on Hill Street to Pershing Square and then east to Main Street, specifically between Hill and Main. Bunker Hill and Pershing Square have great significance for early gay life in Los Angeles.
(View of City Hall from Bunker Hill, circa 1960s. Photo by George Mann, courtesy of On Bunker Hill; www.kcet.org)
Bunker Hill was a bohemian neighborhood that was already known to gay men by the 1910s, and it persisted as a haven for gay men through the 1950s: Jim Kepner reported that Morris Kight, who would be one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front in the late 1960s, arrived in Los Angeles in 1958 and took up residence at 143 N. Hope along with Gina Vezina who did camp operas in gay bars “rather like” Jose Sarria at the Black Cat in San Francisco. Pershing Square became the area’s living room, both as a cruising area and as a more general meeting place; Kepner reports that the Square contained an area like the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park in London where people gathered to discuss issues, and that homophile issues were being discussed there in the mid-1950s. The gay community on Bunker Hill was driven out by urban renewal between 1960 and 1964, when all the residential buildings were torn down for future development.
The area was called “The Run” because it contained a circuit of cruising areas. It contained more than 30 establishments declared out of bounds for servicemen during World War II. The bars there ran the gamut from seedy to businessman respectable. Scholars have identified Maxwell’s at 3rd and Hill as one of the seedier bars and the Crown Jewel six blocks south of it on Hill Street as more elegant. According to Damron’s guide, the Crown Jewel had relocated to the 700 block of Olive Street to serve the gay businessmen who worked downtown by 1965; by then, it was one of only seven gay bars listed in the area.
Just west of downtown, there were concentrations of gay men in two neighborhoods: Edendale/Echo Park and Westlake Park, renamed McArthur Park in honor of General Douglas McArthur in May 1942. Edendale, which also includes Silver Lake,
The Westlake Park neighborhood is south of Edendale, along Wilshire Boulevard and Seventh Street. It housed art galleries and other projects connected with the cultural life of Los Angeles and thus attracted creative people. It was also the site of the events that led to Mattachine’s earliest successes, the acquittal via hung jury of Dale Jennings, one of the founders of Mattachine, for charges that were the result of police entrapment. Here, Damron listed six bars on Sixth and Seventh Street and Western Avenue.
Homosexuals have been associated with Hollywood, both the neighborhood and the industry, since the beginnings of the motion picture business. Much has been written about homosexuality and lesbianism in the industry but that is outside the purview of this inquiry. Still, the industry’s craft services and associated businesses both within and outside the studios employed a significant number of homophile men and lesbians. It is probably not surprising that Damron lists nineteen bars and restaurants in Hollywood proper, including two of the only three in the Address Book that are still operating under the same names they used in 1966:
West Hollywood, which until 1984 was an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, attracted speakeasies and bootleggers during the 1920s, and some of these speakeasies had become respectable gay bars by the end of World War II. Gay men moved to West Hollywood for some of the same reasons, since the area was outside the control of the Los Angeles Police Department. Jim Kepner found a hangout for bohemians in West Hollywood –
Barney’s Beanery, which became famous for a sign that said “Fagots Stay Out.” This would be the Gay Liberation Front’s first project in 1970 and the sign stayed up with some minor interruptions until West Hollywood became an incorporated city in 1984; the sign is now in the Smithsonian. Kepner didn’t feel discriminated against when he and a group of men went there after a meeting but he eventually moved these after-meetings to his house in Silver Lake. Damron lists nine bars and restaurants, one of which, the Four Star, is now doing business as Micky’s.
Finally, we come to Santa Monica, where Harry Hay was drumming up interest in the gay movement at the gay beaches as early as 1950. The beach was as far away as it was possible to get from anyplace people returning to the United States after World War II were from. Jim Kepner remembers the gay beach at the end of Olympic Boulevard “being free like nowhere else I’d seen” and writes about gay bars on the boardwalk, but he also remembers an attempt to close the bars. In 1955, he reported that Gordon Macker, a columnist for the local paper demanded “Close Queer Alley,” a beachfront block in Santa Monica between a bathhouse and two gay bars. Three candidates for City Council joined Macker in his demands, but the police said couldn’t close the block just “because homos gather there” although they made 200 arrests in ten months. When Macker investigated the situation he was surprised to learn the bars weren’t dope dens or sites for seduction of local youths and concluded that the “boys” weren’t sick but they shouldn’t “parade around outside” the bars. The situation eventually died down, but by 1966, Damron was listing only two bars in Santa Monica, both on Channel Road on the border with Pacific Palisades and relatively out of sight of the city;
Michael Bronski is correct in his claim that the bars served a larger community than the homophile movements did, but the claim is not really surprising. Coming out in public was risky during this period, although as the decades progressed it became incrementally less so, and more study of this larger community can only help to illuminate the struggles of the movement and the importance of coming out. Certainly, more study of the gay and lesbian community in the San Fernando Valley is advisable, if only to complicate the link with gentrification by an equally strong link to suburbanization. Gays and suburbanization? Now, it's not a big surprise, but in the 1950s? Yep!