River Queen, Castaways, Circus-Circus, The Factory — these were the names of bars I went to when I first started socializing as a gay young adult. They were not the first gay bars I went to, however. Oddly, my first encounter with one of these was with my mother who was naive to the fact that among her favorite get-aways was a gay bar. Perhaps even more bizarre is that my father’s favorite haunt later became a lesbian bar, Kathy’s Nut Hut.
The Seaway Inn (seriously) was a small restaurant and bar not too far from the bank at which my other worked. The place boasted a great Friday fish fry, so my mother loved to go there after work every month or so and would sometimes have me meet her there. We’d have an early dinner and go to a movie or shop downtown. During the day and immediately after work, the crowd at the bar was fairly mixed, but by 7:00 the crew there was definitely openly gay. When I was 10 years old or so, I just thought the clients were well-dressed. By 14 or 15, I knew something very different was going on. Several years ago I asked my mother, then nearly 90, if she remembered our times there. She did, and she recalled that I seemed to like the place. She did not, however, recall it as particularly gay. She also didn’t remember buying me a Brandy Manhattan there on my 18th birthday.
Before I was 21, I’d also sometimes slip into the bar at the Astor Hotel. While definitely not a gay bar, their usual late-night bartender would be joined by his girlfriend and the two could not have been more accepting and open about me being a gay young adult. Ralph would even say that he didn’t care who I had sex with as long as I didn’t tell him I was under 21. There was also the Brass Rail, a downtown straight strip club, where gay white men and Black lesbians mingled with the bouncers and the strippers, all friends living on the not-too-distant edges of respectable Milwaukee working class communities. Later, I also went to a couple of Black and Tan bars where on a given night during the week, the clients would extend their then progressive views on race to embrace queers, too.
There were also the beer bars in Madison that a carload of us would visit on a Friday or Saturday night. For a relatively brief period Milwaukee County had a 21-year-old drinking age and Dane County an 18-year-old one. The bars we visited were not gay bars until we showed up by the carload. Showing affection to one another or any of the UW students would have prompted a fight, but just hanging out being ourselves only raised an eyebrow now and then.
Thus, by the time I legally went to a gay bar in Milwaukee, I was skilled at taking the pulse of these hangouts. Each of them made a big deal out of checking IDs at the door, but this show of interest in age and identification seemed more to do with weeding out undesirables than with complying with alcohol control laws. I was sometimes surprised by who failed to make it into the places and wondered why they were excluded. Some people were thought to have run up unpaid bar tabs. Others were known to have had fights on the street after closing. Still others were known to be straight people hustling gay men. Those of us who made it in were white, Black, Latino, young and old. We were uneducated, undereducated, and well-educated. There were among us alcoholics, activists, choir directors, drug users, pimps, teachers, accountants, business owners, detectives, Johns, felons, priests, florists, actors, designers, and dads. One night I infuriated a friend of mine by merely dancing with an African and Japanese American business executive from New York with a foot fetish and the face of a god.
There were also drag queens and drag kings, transsexuals, and gender queer people. From Levis to leather to lace to khaki and madras, they all came to these bars. There were a couple of clubs that hosted local entertainers who were performance artists that could rival any in New York today. I recall one particular performance in which a group young of men in loin cloths danced, wearing gas masks over their faces. They were led by a nearly nude drag queen who ascended and descended a ladder that was propped up inside a Lucite cylinder filled with smoke and which crackled with electricity whenever she climbed out of it. While I have absolutely no idea what the hell that show was about, the image of the performance has stayed with me for more than four decades.
These venues always felt dangerous to me, not because of who was there, but rather because of what we were doing. Our very coming together was subversive. We were congregating and that was both unacceptable and illegal. Stonewall had happened in New York, but the same mobs and payoffs were active in Milwaukee for years after the revolution had started.
All of the local bars had regular visits from police, both to socialize and to raid the places. I recall sitting at a bar at a quieter time and feeling surprised by a couple of officers in uniform who ordered beers or coffee on their break. They struck up conversations with some of us, and we all laughed and joked with them. Days later, the same pair was joined by a half-dozen more who rounded guys up, putting them in police vans to be photographed later and booked for congregating. I found it pretty easy to just walk out the back door of the bar to avoid arrest, but others felt a need to grab a coat, check on a friend, or finish a drink. They got hauled away because of their delay. After that, whenever I saw more than two officers near a bar, I sized things up quickly as a raid. I also more than once witnessed money being passed over the bar to officers before 10 o’clock in the evening and was confident there would be no raids on those nights.
I recall a few times when there were undercover police in a bar. Of course, there may have been many more times than those that I remember because the episodes I witnessed were laughable. These involved very awkward officers in brand new casual clothes that still smelled of fabric sizing. Their flannel shirts were still creased and their jeans stiff. Everyone gave them a wide berth, but sometimes someone would go in for the kill, loud voice, big gestures and all, asking for a name, and then passing a matchbook to him with a number scribbled in it for the local precinct. On one occasion the bar erupted when one of these guys left, calling after him, “Bye, Officer Mary!”
My memories of these bars and clubs may seem romantic in the sepia hue of time. I can think of at least a dozen times when I have listened to people tearfully reminiscing about these old days when bars were the community. I hold no such view. These bars were businesses that sought to make money in exchange for alcohol and a place to drink it, sometimes while dancing. They were generally not the sort of places you’d want to see once the lights went on; they were dirty, worn, and tawdry. Bad things happened to good people in these places and on their way to and from them. But, we found each other in spaces that were only safe in contrast to the terrifying places where we worked and lived and prayed. These bars were venues where some aspects of community could happen, but they were not community itself. Community was happening in print shops and coffee shops and church basements with gay AA meetings. It was happening on Astor Street and Knapp Street and in our apartments and rehearsal spaces.
I cannot remember the last time I went to a gay bar that was not for a fundraiser. Therefore, I cannot accurately comment on what people seek in gay bars today, but I imagine it has not changed so much. We wanted to congregate, see each other, and put our masks down. We wanted the people there to judge us for how gay we were, not for being gay at all. We wanted to share culture in a way that is neither in the rare air of a gallery or in the sanctimonious ways of motion pictures.
If Hillary Clinton is not our next president, I am predicting a big growth in business for gay bars. We will be seeking shelter more and more again as zealots find ways to extend even further our persecution and limit our rights. One of The Donald’s children will likely be a big investor in these clubs. Pence will promote his backlog of hate legislation to keep us on our toes.