Where Else Can We Go? The Black Gay Bar in the Urban Mid-Atlantic

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:20 AM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Eric Nolan Gonzaba, George Mason University
While recent histories document the importance of street culture and house parties as alternative sites of resistance against racist gay policies at white bars and clubs, this paper examines the role of commercial black gay bars to urban culture of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in the later twentieth century. Prospective business owners in these cities eyed an African American queer market unhappy with carding segregation and the “whiteness” (or lack of diversity) of popular mainstream gay bars. As one African American club goer explained in 1981 “[White gays] have good restaurants, happy hours at their bars and places to congregate and talk. We, on the other hand, have limited opportunities to express ourselves. Black gays are limited to a cruise bar or a disco bar. I’m sick of both.”

This paper examines the liberating promise of black specific bars to African American gay patrons. These bars proved more communal than typical white gay nightlife; that is, while black bars served as places of leisure and enjoyment, they also served as formal community centers, fundraising operations, and educational support groups to black patrons often ignored by the wider gay rights movement. Furthermore, this paper examines the limitations of these sites, especially along the gendered lines. Some African American bar patrons hoped their gay bar space to be free of unwanted femininity they felt was found too often in white gay bars. Other yearned to make their spaces “macho,” free of drag performances or “sissys,” a gay black identity based on overt masculinity. Therefore, this paper seeks to add the urban black gay bar as a crucial site to understanding dynamic African American LGBT experience.