Sanctuary: The inside story of the nation’s oldest gay bar,
Oakland and Berkeley’s White Horse Inn.
1942: Attracted by the neon sign, you walk into the white clapboard building, grab a stool at the wood-trimmed bar, and nurse your martini as the Andrews Sisters play in the background. Men talk among themselves in the red leather chairs around the fireplace toward the back, and a group of women sits at a large table in the back corner. This isn’t unusual; since the war began last December, women who work at the plants in Richmond and Oakland often go out with their roommates after a long day. Likewise, pairs of men and women leave together, but they probably came together.
Yet there is something different about this place, something you can’t pin down. Even though people are friendly, the men and women don’t seem to be flirting with each other. And why are there no windows?
Why did that guy sitting next to you, tapping nervously on the Formica bar as he guzzled his two beers, flee without saying a word to anyone?
Why did none of the guys seem to chat about their wives or girlfriends or even how sexy Rita Hayworth looks in My Gal Sal? If you’re heterosexual, you probably won’t go back–it just doesn’t seem like a place for you.
The White Horse Inn still stands at the corner of 66th Street and Telegraph in Oakland. Operational since 1933 (or quite possibly before since records were not kept during Prohibition), it’s the oldest continuously operating gay and lesbian bar in the United States. But like so much of pre-1960s gay life, most of what we know about the bar is based upon rumors, conjecture, and fuzzy memories. If there are any old photographs of the tavern or its patrons, they were tucked away years ago in a photo album, hidden from family or neighbors.
Back then, few lesbians, gays, or bisexuals talked openly about their sexuality–most were ashamed of who they were and frightened of the severe consequences if they were found out. Same-gender sex was a felony, and being caught in a gay bar would land you in jail and lose you your job.
Even though bars could be dangerous, places like the White Horse served as a refuge where gays could meet and remove at least part of the facade they had so assiduously constructed. They still had to watch themselves–no touching, no flamboyance, no overt talk–and they looked nervously down Telegraph Avenue before they entered the swinging wooden doors to make sure no one they knew saw them go in. But in a society that viewed gays as barely human, the White Horse allowed a level of freedom that in the 1940s or 1950s was liberating. Although the people who secretly gathered in that simple white building didn’t realize it at the time, they were building the foundation for a lesbian and gay community that now lives with an unimaginable openness.
“I was terrified, absolutely terrified, yet at the same time I was drawn to it, overpowered by it,” Bill Jones says. “There were all these beautiful guys there–very attractive, clean-cut collegiate types–but I was looking at these guys and thought, ‘I don’t want to be like these guys.’ I wanted to have a wife and kids. I never thought it was possible to be a well-adjusted gay man. The only thing I ever heard was that if you were a homosexual, you were neurotic, you were not well-adjusted, you needed electric shock treatment, or you had to go to jail. I spent my entire four years in college on my knees in the chapel praying I would change.”
Jones is 72 now. In 1950, he was a college student from Stockton, spending the summer with his father in Oakland. He had regularly been having sex with men at a public park in Stockton–in fact, he went to the park because the sheriff warned students that “perverts” cruised there, looking for sex–and he started doing the same thing at Lake Merritt. It was one of the men from Lake Merritt who told him about the White Horse.
Jones was surprised when he walked in–in an era when being gay was seen as despicable, the White Horse was classy. “It was very khaki pants and cashmere sweaters and Frank Sinatra and Perry Como back then,” Jones says wistfully. “It was like a private club or lounge. There were paintings on the wall, and the bar would have beautiful bouquets of flowers. They played jazz, musical comedy, stuff like that. I remember it as being very warm, friendly, quiet.”
Still, he was “scared to death” each time he walked down Telegraph to go to the bar. The White Horse was only ten blocks from his father’s house. “I was terrified someone would find me out and tell my father,” he says. “It could ruin a person. If your family found out, they’d send you to a mental hospital.”
Jones was too scared to talk to anyone; all he did was watch: “Talking to somebody and opening yourself up to somebody was riskier than just unzipping your pants” at a place like Lake Merritt, he explains. Each of the four times he went to the White Horse that summer, he would have a quick drink and leave.
Jones eventually found out about all-male parties in Oakland where homosexuals could be freer than in bars like the White Horse. Until then, he had assumed that gay men never had romantic relationships with each other and that sex was limited to furtive encounters.
It was at one of those parties that he first saw gay men dancing together and met men in relationships. “I was grossed out,” he remembers. “It seemed so effeminate–to hold hands, to dance with other men, to declare your love. I didn’t know people had love affairs. That really surprised me.”
The White Horse had an enormous advantage over other Bay Area gay bars: the police didn’t raid it. Many lesbians and gays who went to bars before the ’70s vividly remember rushing in a panic toward the back door, pursued by police officers. Those who were caught recall the ignominy of being shoved into a police van and arrested simply for being gay or lesbian.
Such raids were common throughout the country. Until the ’50s, police in California used “public morals” charges to close down gay bars and arrest patrons; later, a more specific law prohibited bars from allowing “sexual perverts” to congregate–in those days, “sexual pervert” was a synonym for homosexual. The California Supreme Court invalidated both laws as being too vague, and it then ruled in 1959 that police must have evidence of activities like same-sex dancing, touching, or kissing to close a bar. In 1961 and 1962, San Francisco police shut down 24 of 49 gay bars in the city and continued raiding gay and lesbian bars until 1971.
Longtime White Horse customer Betty Boreen, 68, got swept up in a 1950s raid of the old Hilltop bar on Foothill Boulevard in Oakland. She narrowly escaped arrest only by plastering herself to a large softball teammate and rushing out the back door behind her. “She just wiped out the cops, and I was right behind her,” she says. “She went right through those cops.”
Boreen has been going to the White Horse for 46 years. As she tells the story of the raid, she keeps a weather eye on the bar’s entrance. “Whenever I’m in a gay bar, every time that door opens, I look to see if it’s a cop coming, because we were conditioned that this was a no-no, and Lord God, if a cop came in that door, I was going out the back,” she says. “That [raid] marked me. I still do not feel safe in this society.”
After her experience at the Hilltop, each time Boreen would enter a gay bar she did not know, she would scan the place to make sure she knew where the exits were.
No one knows for sure why the White Horse was left alone. It may have been because of police pay-offs, the primary way homosexual bars of the time avoided police harassment. Boreen says she felt nervous even at the White Horse, because, although she had never heard of any raids at the bar, she thought it was still possible that one might occur.
Bar raids reflected the intensely antigay attitudes of the time. The contempt with which most Americans viewed homosexuals “made you feel dirty,” Boreen says. “I felt that what I was doing was less than clean. During that day and age, we were lepers. You had that idea in the back of your mind that, ‘Society says I’m wrong. Maybe I am wrong. I know what I’m doing is right for me, but maybe I am wrong.’ You were constantly looking for validation of your being.”
While a student at UC Berkeley, Boreen played softball on a team that was part of an informal Bay Area league. Most of her teammates were lesbians, and she believes she heard about the White Horse from one of them.
Boreen’s social life was restricted to her softball team, an occasional night out at the bars, and parties at friends’ homes. “In the old days,” Boreen emphasizes, “your life was so compartmentalized.” After leaving the bar or the parties, Boreen and her friends went back into the closet. She recalls two women in a long-term relationship who were afraid to live together. They were so careful that they never entered each other’s front doors: “They had a gate in the back of their yards, so they’d run back and forth like that.”
Even at the parties or softball games, talk was discreet. Boreen doesn’t recall how she figured out which teammates were straight and which were gay. No one used words like “lesbian.”
“It’s just like you knew,” she says. Boreen rests her cheek in the cup of her right hand and looks puzzled. “I can’t think of any verbalization of it,” she says. “We just knew that the other one was gay. You just sensed it.”
There have been gay bars in the Bay Area for at least a hundred years. In 1908, San Francisco police closed down the first known gay bar, the Dash, which was downtown on Pacific Street. After Prohibition ended, other bars opened in San Francisco, but the big boom in the Bay Area’s gay life occurred during World War II, when thousands of sailors and other military men flooded into the region, creating a demand for gay gathering places.
“A gay bar was like a hothouse for nurturing and building a sense of community in a time when there were no gay newspapers or other social centers,” says Susan Stryker, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society and coauthor of Northern California’s Bay Area history Gay by the Bay. “The bars were the cornerstone of the community.”
This was in an age when the California Penal Code deemed same-gender sex a “crime against nature,” with penalties as harsh as twenty years in prison for anal intercourse and sixteen years for oral sex. That law was not repealed until 1975. There was never a law in California that specifically outlawed same-sex kissing or touching, but authorities used other statutes, like “keeping an orderly house,” to revoke liquor licenses.
With such severe antigay constraints in place, the complete history of places like the White Horse will never be known. What we do know is that the space now occupied by the White Horse was a Standard Oil Company gas station in the 1920s and early ’30s. In 1936, as the country remained mired in the Great Depression and Hitler was menacing Europe, A.C. Karski, who owned Oakland’s Leamington Hotel, constructed a one-story building on the property. Oakland and Berkeley city records indicate he also moved a one-floor, five-apartment building from Ashby and Telegraph avenues in Berkeley–where Wolf Camera is now located–down Telegraph and plopped it on top of the newly constructed building. The apartments, which still exist, date back at least to 1912. The White Horse first appeared in the Oakland telephone directory in 1937–on page 114 under “Liquors.” Whether the bar had a gay clientele from the start is unclear.
How a bar became gay at that time depended on who owned it. In some cases, gay men or lesbians bought bars and attracted gay customers by word-of-mouth. In cities like New York and Philadelphia–but apparently not in the Bay Area–organized crime members bought taverns and hired gay bartenders or managers to attract a gay clientele, who could be charged cover fees and higher drink prices.
But many bars gradually evolved from straight to gay, often to the surprise of their straight owners. Increasing numbers of gays and lesbians would begin patronizing a tavern and then encourage their friends to go. After a while, the bar would be known as a relatively safe place for gays to congregate, and the straight owners, enjoying the steady business, would not object. That may have been what happened to the White Horse.
We’ll probably never know for sure how and when the White Horse became a gay bar. Perry Wood, 79, says it was gay when he first went there in 1942. Wood was studying engineering at Cal when he discovered the White Horse, which was one of the closest bars to the university because of an old law that prohibited the sale of alcohol within a mile of campus. That may have been why straight students sometimes went to the bar.
Burt Gerrits, 78, says that when he started going in 1948, the bar became gay only after a certain hour at night. Even then, he says, customers were so discreet that nongay customers might not have realized the bar had a homosexual clientele.
Even the neighbors didn’t know what kind of bar it was. Daima Clark, 85, lived a few doors down 66th Street from the White Horse in the ’50s, and she says neither she nor anyone else she knew on the block had any idea that it was a gay bar. It just seemed like a regular corner tavern, she says.
For many years, the White Horse had a restaurant in the space where today there is a dance floor. Gerrits recalls it as being an Italian restaurant with red-and-white gingham tablecloths. Other White Horse patrons say it eventually turned into a Chinese restaurant. Tellingly, the restaurant had windows; the bar did not.
The current owner of the bar, Chuck Davis, 47, remembers going to the restaurant with his parents and not noticing anything out of the ordinary. “I was about seven,” he recalls. “My parents didn’t know it was a gay bar. We were just a family going out to dinner.”
Unlike many gay bars, the White Horse has always had a mix of men and women, although men have predominated throughout most of the bar’s history. Wood remembers seeing women in the bar in 1942; they and the men usually sat apart from each other, he says.
In the old days, some of the female patrons felt unwelcome. Nona Hungate, 60, went there sporadically starting in 1960, but “I really felt like an alien at the White Horse,” she says. “It was more of a men’s bar.” Still, she would sometimes go to the White Horse with other lesbians, because she was unaware of lesbian bars in the East Bay, and she preferred a predominantly male gay bar to a straight one.
Although women like Hungate felt unwelcome, others did not. “There was a tremendous amount of real love and affection between the gay men and women,” says Bear Rowell, 56, who went to the White Horse in the ’60s. “This was before gay liberation, and we were all in it together. As a result there was a feeling of fellowship. I never met anyone who did not feel at ease and at home.” By that time, there were a few lesbian bars in the East Bay, but Rowell preferred the atmosphere at the White Horse.
So did Betty Boreen, who chose the elegance of the White Horse, with its big red leather chairs surrounding the brick and brass-trimmed fireplace, over the rougher feel of lesbian bars like Oakland’s George’s. “I felt like I was in a big library,” she says.
Back then, the White Horse was less than half the size it is today. The glassed-off room that today has a pool table and two pinball machines was a walled-off package liquor store. Outside there was an overhanging sign with a martini glass and “WHITE HORSE” in neon and “Fireside Dining at Its Best” in black letters on an illuminated white background. The adjoining restaurant had its own fireplace.
There is no doubt why there was no dance floor in the bar at the time. Same-sex dancing was strictly prohibited, as was any sign of physical affection.
Onetime bar manager Dave Smearden heard that in the 1950s, a bartender who spoke English poorly walked around checking for body contact. “If two guys got too close to each other, he’d hit them with a ruler and say, ‘No touchy.’”
The straight couple who bought the White Horse in the late ’60s must have known that owning a gay bar would involve some hassles. But they had no idea they would become embroiled in the fledgling gay liberation movement.
Their names were Ruth and Joe Johansen. Ruth–everyone called her Ruthie–wore tight, low-cut blouses and walked around with a long ash hanging from the cigarette inevitably planted in her mouth. A 1970 photo of Joe shows a sullen, burly middle-aged man wearing a dark polo shirt with “Joe” stitched in white on the upper left.
At the beginning, the bar was as discreet as ever. When the taciturn Joe–who, according to several former patrons, was a retired police officer–tended bar, “you’d dump the change down on the wet bar, because he wouldn’t touch you,” recalls Michael, 58, then a graduate student at UC Berkeley.
“He didn’t want customers touching each other,” says Jim Roach, 50, who observed the goings-on of the bar as he played pool in the corner. “He didn’t say anything. He’d come up to you and hit you with a broom or something. When he came up and hit you, you knew you were too close.”
But things were starting to loosen. Ruthie was friendlier than her husband. She would joke around with the old-timers. “She always called people ‘honey, sweetheart, darling,’” Michael recalls. “She had this incredible body and starched blouses that showed off her big boobs and tiny waist. She was always very elegant.”
Ruthie didn’t talk much with younger patrons like Roach, but when she bantered with the old-timers, “she was outspoken,” Roach says. “I don’t remember specifics. I just remember she was just the character. I used to laugh at her a lot.”
Joe rarely interacted with customers, but he did allow them to “talk about whatever you wanted,” Roach recalls. “As long as other customers weren’t overhearing what you were saying, he never stopped conversations. He tried to keep a decorum in here that was sort of low-key, sort of old-fashioned. That’s what he knew. That’s what he thought a bar should be, I think. But the times overtook him.”
Antiwar demonstrations had already surged up and down Telegraph –the Berkeley line was just a block away, and the campus only a mile. But soon these radical sparks would find ready tinder inside the bar as well.
The first public protests in the United States by homosexuals took place in the 1950s, by members of the Mattachine Society, which was founded in Los Angeles and had chapters in San Francisco and Berkeley. Taking a cue from the African-American civil rights movement, several other groups formed in the ’50s and ’60s, and by the late ’60s, both the rhetoric and the demonstrations had become bolder. In San Francisco, a newly formed group called the Committee for Homosexual Freedom picketed in 1969 against alleged antigay discrimination at places such as Tower Records, Macy’s, and Safeway, and gays scuffled with police during a protest against the alleged bias of the San Francisco Examiner.
In June 1969 in New York City, police conducted a routine raid of the Stonewall Inn and, for the first time, patrons fought back. The raid led to a four-night riot in which protesters threw rocks and bottles at police, smashed windows, and set garbage cans afire. Gay progressives nationwide seized upon the event and by 1970 had already started commemorating it with demonstrations that later grew into today’s gay pride parades.
In the Bay Area, several militant groups formed, including the Gay Liberation Front and Students for Gay Power at UC Berkeley. Those militant groups found increasing support among the broader left; for instance, the Black Panther Party’s Huey Newton called for a coalition with gay liberation groups.
By 1970, Gay Liberation Front chapters were meeting in Berkeley and San Francisco, “gay rap” sessions were being held on Wednesdays in downtown Oakland, a gay church held services every Sunday in San Francisco, and a “study group on Marxist analysis of gay oppression” met in San Francisco on Tuesdays.
The turmoil lapping at the White Horse’s doors finally began seeping inside. Gradually, more and more young women with tie-dyes and men with long hair and sandals started going to the bar for a drink and a discussion about radical politics, startling some of the more conservatively dressed longtime customers. The new clientele also alarmed the Johansens. The couple refused to allow the Berkeley-based radical newspaper Gay Sunshine to be distributed in the bar. The paper complained in its inaugural August/September 1970 issue that patrons would receive “hassles with Ruthie, the bar’s chic hostess, if you touch or kick your shoes off. She doesn’t like freaks.”
Rather than go along with the rules, as more than three decades of White Horse customers had done, hippies “would come in and deliberately kiss and hug,” recalls the GLF’s Nick Benton, 57, at the time a Pacific School of Religion graduate student. “When they were asked to leave, somebody–I can’t remember his name–got the idea that because this was the only establishment in the immediate area of Berkeley, it would be a great place to raise a ruckus. But everyone knew that [the anti-gay rules] were not unique to this place.”
The “ruckus” turned into a full-fledged boycott of the bar. Protesters printed up leaflets containing eight demands, including distribution of Gay Sunshine and other publications, a repeal of the antitouching rule, and an end to ejections of Gay Liberation Front members from the bar. Soon, says Benton, up to three dozen protesters were marching under the martini glass sign each weekend, hoisting signs with slogans like “Gay Power” and “Let the Gay Sunshine In.”
One night, more than twenty GLF members took their protest inside the bar, conducting a “sit-in” by “just sitting [and] buying as little as possible,” according to an article in the Berkeley Barb. One protester recalls pulling out copies of Gay Sunshine. “We took all the big chairs,” she says, ourteen> “and started to read.”
Another GLFer member walked in the bar and started distributing the list of demands to customers. “Ruthpig,” as the Barb reporter described her, ejected the man and threw the leaflets in the garbage. “Tension inside the bar was rising rapidly,” the Barb said. “Especially after Ruthpig began to photograph everybody in the bar. ‘I know full well those pictures are either going to the Chronicle or the police,’ one nervous customer in a dark suit said.”
Meanwhile, outside the protesters were “chanting, shouting, and thoroughly freaking the ‘Man,’ the American Legion type running the place with Ruthpig,” the Barb’s reporter wrote. “‘Call the police! Call the police!’ he ranted on and on, as he sealed the front door with a huge wooden plank, trapping more than a hundred frightened customers inside. The White Horse finally emptied as the customers were forced (almost in a panic) through a tiny back door to freedom.”
Oakland police arrived but declined to make arrests. “A great shout of jubilation ran through the big crowd outside the White Horse. The people had won! The bar was closed!”
The boycott unnerved some of the more conservative patrons, who were stepping around protesters on the sidewalk so they could enter the bar to have their usual drink. A week after the night the bar temporarily closed, the Barb interviewed one of the patrons, who described other customers as “cynical and apolitical. They just huddled around wondering what to do.” Still, the Barb said, this “fellow [betrayed] his own closet queenery by withholding his name from print.”
As gay and lesbian newspapers and churches opened and gay discussion groups formed, more radical gays began to view bars like the White Horse as symbols of oppression, rather than as safe harbors. The rhetoric in the Barb and Gay Sunshine was as virulent against the centrality of bars to gay culture as it was against the Johansens themselves.
A gay writer for the Barb railed against the “repugnance of knowing that straight exploiters–like the owners of the White Horse–are getting rich exploiting gay fear. It’s the fear in homosexuals of exposure. And the myth that the only place a homosexual can be comfortable is in a gay bar. (Pure rot!) It’s the repugnance of seeing our gay brothers and sisters drooped over the bar stools every night pouring gallons of booze into their gut, seemingly oblivious to their own self-hate and self-destruction. It’s the anger in our gut when we realize that the White Horse owners call homosexuals ‘queers’ and tolerate only monied, well-dressed paying-queers at the bar, while 86ing the longhairs and the people who believe that Gay-is-Good.”
Gay radicals decided to create their own space. Just before the protest began, Benton had moved into a one-bedroom apartment across the street from the bar, and after the boycott began, he turned it into a “People’s Alternative” to the White Horse with, according to the Barb, “Pictures of Huey and Che. Loving vibes. Hugging, kissing, cuddling.”
According to Gay Sunshine, Benton’s apartment was crowded every weekend “with people dancing, talking, drinking the wine they bring, the coffee that’s served…. We need more room! We need the world!” Reflecting the radical tone of the movement against the White Horse, the paper called the People’s Alternative “a meaningful slam at the very basic capitalistic rip-off principles that underly [sic] our society.”
After several weeks, Benton’s landlord found out about the ad-hoc nightclub, and it was shut down. But the protest by that time had ended: the Johansens agreed to most of the demands. They lifted the no-touching rule, contributed money to the formation of a gay community center, allowed a hundred people who had been banned from the bar to return, erected a community bulletin board, and allowed the sale of Gay Sunshine. The White Horse became a symbol of what the drive for gay and lesbian visibility and self-respect could accomplish.
“The bars are ours!” trumpeted a headline in Gay Sunshine, just above a photo of several young people with clenched fists celebrating on the sidewalk outside the bar. “Victory!”
The Johansens owned the White Horse until 1980. No one involved with the bar knows where the Johansens are today–or whether they are still alive. So it’s impossible to know how this straight couple felt owning a gay bar that turned from a discreet place to a wide-open bar with wild dancing and people making out in the wooden booths or smoking marijuana in the bathrooms.
All over the country in the ’70s, the repression that pervaded gay bars in the pre-gay-liberation years gave way to a Dionysian frenzy. Nowhere was that sexual energy more intense than San Francisco, where many gay male bars became sexual playgrounds, with a grope as common a greeting as a handshake.
The White Horse was much more subdued. People who wanted a wild time generally went to San Francisco. The White Horse remained primarily a place for camaraderie.
Old-timers continued going to the bar in the ’70s, but they usually cleared out later at night, when the clientele became “predominantly gay hippies and drag queens,” recalls Jerry Cerkanowicz, 56, who arrived in Berkeley in 1970 with his boyfriend to escape drug charges in Texas. “It was mostly people with long hair and attitude–antigovernment, antiwar. I remember discussions around the fireplace and stuff that was more political.”
Cerkanowicz preferred the White Horse to the social scene in San Francisco. “I was more comfortable here,” he says. “It didn’t require putting on a show. It didn’t require flirting or putting up with flirting. You didn’t come here to meet people. You came here to sit around and talk to people.”
White Horse patrons were able to go to the bar “in regular clothes, jeans and T-shirts,” he explains. “There was none of this fighting for attention and posing and trying to be cute so people would see you and ask you home. The City was a whole different thing. It was a performance. I would dress more androgynous–sort of like Mick Jagger during his Jumpin’ Jack Flash stage: girlie shirts, platform shoes, a little makeup, frilly pants, jewelry.”
Then AIDS hit. An eerie pall fell over the White Horse as longtime customers became desperately ill. Jill Anderson, 47, says all thirteen of the gay men she had befriended at the bar in the ’70s died of AIDS complications. Most of the bar’s employees died from the disease, says Julian Clift, 38, who worked as a bartender and assistant manager during the ’80s; seven bartenders died in a twelve-month period in 1988 and 1989: “It just cut a huge swath through the population of the bar.”
When Graham Bell first went to the White Horse in 1978, he was struck by its charm. “In those days it was a fascinating old place with a lot of ambience,” says Bell, who immigrated here from Australia. Two years later, Bell bought the bar from the Johansens, and the White Horse has been gay-owned ever since. Today, the bar remains a down-to-earth alternative to San Francisco bars, a place where people usually come to talk or dance rather than pick someone up.
“This is kind of the gay Cheers,” says Dawn Hardin, 27, of Oakland, as she stands at the bar on a Thursday night wearing a flannel shirt and nose ring. It is 10:30 p.m., and the place is starting to get crowded. Patrons range in age from 21 to 70, with a good racial mix and about half men and half women. This blend is not common at Bay Area gay bars, which try to appeal to a specific crowd. Most people are dressed casually.
Pierce Gould, 31, of Oakland, is wearing sweatpants, a white T-shirt, a jogging jacket, and white sneakers. “I look like shit tonight,” he says. But he doesn’t feel self-conscious. “In the City, it’s more of an event to go out. Here you can kick back.”
During the late afternoon and early evening, the atmosphere is even more laid-back. Regulars talk about their day at work or the latest episode of ER as Creedence Clearwater Revival plays on the jukebox. After all these years, the bar has a homey, almost resolutely untrendy feel. The dance room looks straight out of the ’70s: a mirrored disco ball sits over the parquet dance floor, the ceiling is painted black, and dancers can stare at themselves in the mirrors mounted on the walls.
The White Horse’s older customers give the bar a less-than-stylish image. Many younger gays say they prefer places like ClubUniverse, a Saturday-only dance club in San Francisco where many in the mostly young, nearly all-male crowd dance shirtless to show off gym-toned bodies.
“Among my friends, it has a pretty bad reputation,” twenty-year-old Mike says of the White Horse. Mike has never been to the bar, but he says his friends told him that the bar’s customers are “scummy, nasty, gross.”
Irany, 19, who also declined to divulge his last name, says he once went to the White Horse but did not like the “older crowd,” and he says other gay men don’t like the bar because there are too many women there. He prefers bars “where people dress nice and have attitude.” When Irany is told that the White Horse is the oldest gay bar in California, he says, “No wonder it’s so small and shitty.”
Although Mike and Irany represent a generation of gay and lesbian people with unprecedented freedom and social acceptance, it is telling that they would not reveal their surnames; Mike’s face filled with fear when he was asked his last name. Yet the two don’t make a link to those who came before them; to Mike and Irany, the White Horse is no more than a plain white building with a boring clientele. Former manager Smearden says he is frustrated that so many young gay and lesbian people care so little about gay history. “They don’t realize what people had to go through, the fact that you couldn’t be open in the bar, that you could be arrested for touching each other, let alone kissing,” he says.
Gay culture is relentlessly youth-oriented, and young people have scant interest in hearing about bar raids or electric shock treatment or Perry Como playing on the stereo. Especially among gay men–but also to an extent among lesbians–older gays and lesbians are derided. An elderly gay man quietly having a drink is called a “troll,” and a Castro Street bar with an older clientele is ridiculed as a “wrinkle bar.” For some older people, that rejection must sting at least as much as the hatred they’d endured from straight society.
The White Horse today is both a monument to the lesbian and gay past and one of the only bars where gays can feel a true sense of community, where younger and older gays can enjoy each other’s company. If you go there on a late afternoon and run into Betty, ask her to tell you a story. But don’t be surprised if she pauses to look when the front door opens, and her mind flashes back to a time when she and her friends had no one to turn to except each other.
By David Olson