Gay Bars 101: The History of Gay Bars

4.12.2021
Mike Givens

Gay bars play a vital role in the LGBTQ2S+ community. These spaces not only affirm but also celebrate diverse sexual and gender identities by helping LGBTQ2S+ people:

  • explore their identities
  • build relationships
  • engage in social pastimes that focus on their happiness, joy, and personhood

While gay bars are much more prevalent than they were a century ago, the road to building—and maintaining—these spaces as safe and joyous is paved with turmoil, advocacy, and social progress. 

Building Community Through Criminality

The recorded and known presence of gay bars dates back to the 17th Century in Europe. 

They’ve always been a taboo space, a place where people could put aside their fears of persecution, socialize freely, and escape the prying, judgmental eyes of a public that understands little about the nuances of sexual orientation and gender identity and accepts those differences even less. 

History has taught us that people with diverse sexual and gender identities have always looked for spaces where their “kind” can congregate and enjoy each others’ company. 

Queer and trans people have existed for time immemorial, but religious fervour, bigotry, and ignorance have—throughout history—imposed binary ideas on sex, love, romance, and gender that we’re still wedded to, even in 2021.  

History also tells us that these spaces, while liberating, have consistently been under threat. In 1810, London’s White Swan, a bar that was (in)famously known to cater to “sodomites,” was raided by police. Twenty-five men were arrested; six were charged with sodomy. 

Shockingly, two people were hanged for the “crime” they committed. Even more shocking was that they were not at the White Swan when it was raided, but their names were given to police by an informant who told authorities that they frequented the bar regularly. One of them was just 16. 

The dangerous intersection where religious fervour meets ignorance has seen homosexuality treated as a sickness, perversity, and an object of ridicule. 

In places like South Africa and China, the first gay bars were “officially” recognized in the 21st Century, but one can only imagine that unofficial spaces existed where LGBTQ2S+ people could congregate well before the 1900s. 

Queerness & the search for gender euphoria have been a part of the human experience for as long as humanity has existed. It’s hard to believe that social spaces catering to this community just popped up within the last 100 years! 

Gay bars, of course, have historically been associated with criminality. If homosexuality is a perverse preference, then it only makes sense that other vices were associated with it, right? Early on, drug use, sex work, and thievery were associated with gay establishments. In the same way homosexuality became linked with disease, sin, and filth, it also became synonymous with crime. 

And, yes, while sex workers, those who regularly used drugs, and others who may have been involved with the criminal legal system may have congregated in those establishments, it was less about there being a link between homosexuality and crime, but more about the safety of being in a place that mainstream society considers reproachful. 

The bigotry and ignorance that kept so many people in the closet would also be the same weapons used to perpetuate notions of deviance and criminality commonly associated with queer people. 

Regardless of the criminality or debauchery ascribed to gay establishments, gay subculture—indiscreetly—flourished. 

For example, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a language known as polari developed in England. This form of slang was a means for gay men to identify themselves in public. Being able to signal to another man that you were gay through this slang helped build relationships, whether for casual sexual encounters or more. For example, the use of the word “cottaging” meant that a man was looking for sex in public restrooms. 

Polari is pretty much a dead language nowadays. At its height, it was a critical form of communication that helped build trust, understanding, and connection between a group of people who faced imprisonment, torture, death, and disgrace if their sexual orientation was exposed. 

A more recent example is the handkerchief code that evolved within the queer community on America’s east coast in the 1970s. Wearing certain colour handkerchiefs signalled what type of sex you were looking for. 

For example:

  • An orange handkerchief would signal that a man was interested in any kind of sex. 
  • Light blue signified oral sex. 
  • Wearing a handkerchief in the left pocket meant that the wearer was looking to top or be the penetrating partner in a sexual encounter involving anal sex. 
  • A green handkerchief signified a man as a sex worker. 
  • And a dark blue handkerchief signalled that a man was looking for anal sex. 

You could literally determine what a man was looking for in a sexual encounter by looking at the colours of the bandanas he wore and where they were located on his body. 

Despite raids, public outings of gay men caught in a scandal, death and prison sentences, and mockery within the media, gay subculture continued in its own discreet ways. People could carve out precious spaces to live out their identities, channel their inner resilience, and pass on wisdom to subsequent generations coming out of the closet and into the community. 

The Stonewall Riots

On June 28, 1969, New York City’s Greenwich Village would become the home to an uprising that sparked the modern-day Western LGBTQ2S+ rights movement. The neighbourhood’s Stonewall Inn was a gay bar that——was often the subject of unnecessary police raids. 

In the years leading up to that fateful evening, gay bars had become more prevalent in cities around the United States—and North America. 

But with the surge of new gay establishments, there was also a rise in harmful law enforcement interactions—raids and acts of bullying and harassment of gay men, drag queens, lesbians, and anyone else who dared congregate at a gay bar. 

That warm June evening would explode when police officers raided the Stonewall Inn and proceeded to make arrests, attack bar patrons, and harass anyone who dared to intervene. Several bars in the neighbourhood were owned by well-known crime syndicates, and the police took no hesitation in disrupting the lives of bar patrons in the name of “community safety.” 

The Stonewall Inn was known to welcome those at the margins of society—Black and Latinx people, crossdressers, drag queens, effeminate gay men, trans people, and lesbians. Many of these LGBTQ2S+ members were the target of not only social prejudice but also criminal investigations. 

Police liked to spend their time arresting people for acts such as “same-sex solicitation” or gathering in “disorderly” crowds. 

That night, however, was enough. A violent riot broke out in those early morning hours. Bar patrons fought back, resisted arrest, and vocally protested their treatment at the hands of the police.

The leaders of this revolutionary act were Black and trans individuals who were completely fed up with the harassment, racism, bigotry, transphobia and abuse heaped upon them for years. What followed was six days of powerful public protest and palpable rage from the LGBTQ2S+ community, whose members were fed up with being criminalized, harassed, and jailed. 

It was a crucial event in LGBTQ2S+ history. People worldwide saw reports of people fighting back against a law enforcement system that actively sought to oppress, repress, and denigrate an entire group of people. 

On the one-year mark of the uprising, a celebration was held in Manhattan by members of the LGBTQ2S+ community. Over the years, that celebration would expand to the entire month of June. In the following years, the Human Rights CampaignPFLAG, and GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAAD) would be founded and serve as powerful voices for the rights of LGBTQ2S+ people. 

The Stonewall Riots were not the start of the movement in North America.  However, it was a memorable event in the larger fight for the rights of LGBTQ2S+ people, a prominent display of anger, frustration, and the inherent desire for fair treatment. 

The creation of LGBTQ2S+ organizations, yearly Pride parades and celebrations, and the tireless legislative battles for equality would fill the decades after that night in 1969.

The riots were an important event that set the tone for uprisings across the nation and the world.

For example, Canada in October 1977 would see two gay bathhouses raided in Montreal. The fallout from the arrests of more than 140 men would cause a massive protest in downtown Montreal the day after the raids. 

Activists kept applying pressure, and by December of that year, the Quebec National Assembly would amend its human rights law to provide legal protections based on sexual orientation. It was a huge victory for gay men. 

Operation Soap was a covert police investigation that raided four Toronto gay bathhouses in early February of 1981. Nearly 300 men were arrested during the operation. While the charges were dropped against most of them, the anger and frustration caused by the raids sparked protests around Canada. 

Stonewall was by no means the only seminal event in LGBTQ rights history. Most countries have their own respective riots, rebellions, and civil protests that played a role in winning legal protections for LGBTQS+ people. 

Gay Bars and Pride

Many members of the LGBTQ2S+ community celebrate Pride month every June. However, this isn’t a universal practice. In Canada, Pride is usually celebrated based on the practice of the province you live in. 

Regardless of when it’s celebrated, Pride is a time of year when community members publicly celebrate their identities and the hard-won social and legislative victories that have been realized over the years. 

Pride parades happen in both major cities and smaller towns. Large and small businesses hang rainbow-coloured Pride flags from windows. Activists report back on the campaigns that are still being waged. Festivals see thousands of people coming together to eat, drink, socialize, listen to music, and educate the larger public on LGBTQ2S+ issues. 

It’s not unusual to see gay bars packed with people during the evenings and weekends of June. They host trivia and game nights, drag shows, community forums, and contests to mark the occasion, draw customers, and demonstrate the power of Pride. 

Whether you drink or not, these bars are great places to socialize, meet new people, make new friends, and reflect on what the prior leaders accomplished in giving us these spaces. 

Though gay bars are slowly being eclipsed by apps like Grindr and Tinder, there will never be a substitute for these spaces and the opportunities they provide. Though they may evolve in the coming years and decades, they will still serve an essential role in the community.

Written by:
Mike Givens

Mike Givens received his bachelor’s degrees in Marketing and English Literature from Virginia Tech. He has a master’s degree in investigative journalism from Boston University. He is a social justice advocate and is the full-time communications director for an international human rights organization in New England. He spends his spare time writing on a range of issues, from LGBTQ+ rights and income inequality to sexual health and politics. He is also a freelance copyeditor.