This History of Gay Bars Is Also a Tale of LGBTQ Liberation

San Diego Gay Bars

The new documentary San Diego's Gay Bar History surveys some of the 135 bars that have existed in the city and chronicles the various aspects of the LGBTQ community that have grown within them. Directed and produced by Paul Detwiler, the film has been released on the city's PBS station, KPBS.  

The earliest example of a gay bar in San Diego came in the 1957, when straight ally Lou Arko bought the popular lunch club of the 1930's, the Brass Rail, and extended it into a meeting spot for gay people at night.

The post-World War II era heralded the opening of many more bars, catering to the independent men and women who had moved to the bustling port city for military jobs. During this time, when homosexuality was criminalized and it was even against the law for two men to dance together, the bars provided a meeting place for LGBTQ people who were otherwise isolated. 

Visiting these bars was a high-risk activity. Raids were frequent, and patrons faced jail time and public humiliation when their name, occupation, and address appeared in newspapers the next day. “Our lives could have been ruined," says Jill McCall, a lesbian who was arrested at The Club in 1966 while celebrating with friends. She was booked for "lewd and lascivious conduct," but luckily her case was dismissed. She went back to The Club the next night. "We were popular then," she quips with a laugh. Despite police harassment, the bars persisted, and the patrons returned. Despite being hotbeds for arrests, the bars were also places where resistance grew. 

The Gay Center

During the '70s the muscled, mustachioed, surfer look took hold along with disco fever. The Ball Express, a massive club housed in an airplane hangar, drew crowds of a thousand people gathered for acts such as Barbara Cook, Gloria Gaynor, and Eartha Kitt. Bars like the WCPC (West Coast Production Company) encouraged self-expression through events including amateur strip contests and Jell-O wrestling with drag tag teams. WCPC also hosted some of San Diego's first Pride events, but they quickly outgrew the space.

When AIDS began devastating the gay community in the ’80s, the bars became the places for folks to gather, grieve, and raise money for men dying from the disease. Interviewees credit lesbians for stepping up to care for gay men when nurses wouldn't touch or feed their patients and for donating blood because gay men weren't allowed to do so. They also point out how many drag queens did shows for no pay and donated their tips to those suffering from AIDS. "I don't know where we'd be without drag queens and the lesbians," says David Coppini, manager of WCPC. 

The film also takes us inside the spaces carved out for lesbians, Latinx people, and leather enthusiasts. Additonally, it showcases the story of Norman Braxton, who was one of the first drag queens of color in any of the San Diego bars. Braxton's performances at the Show Biz Supper Club drew celebrities including Lily Tomlin, Carol Channing, and Bob Hope. "Whenever Bob Hope would come we'd be excited," Braxton recalls. "Because he would take us to the Butcher Shop in Hotel Circle and treat us to a steak and lobster dinner. He was a very kind man.” 

Norman Braxton

One of the final scenes shows the last night at Numbers, where patrons toast amid tears. "Numbers was my home. And I feel lost ... but I'll figure it out," Travis Neill, who worked as a bartender at Numbers for 16 years, says through a pained smile. "I don't think losing gay bars across America is progress. Gay bars provide a sanctuary for people to really be themselves, people who didn't identify as male or female, or were still questioning." 

In an app-saturated world with a growing list of dying gay bars, the film doesn’t draw a simple conclusion about the trend. Journalist and activist Morgan Hurley muses that there are so few lesbian bars because “when we get together, we kind of cocoon at home, and we only want to go out once in a while." Young genderqueer entrepreneur Lucia Napolez seems confident that "if we do lose one of those old queer spaces, a new one will be created in its place or somewhere else." Whereas Benny Cartwright of the San Diego LGBT Center says that "whenever we lose a queer space, it really just is chipping away at our culture and a piece of who we are.” 

"At the end of the day there weren't enough customers anymore," says Nick Moede, owner of the recently closed Numbers. "It's important for us to have our own spaces, but not as important as it was 25 years ago, and that's progress, and that's really good."  

The film's finale offers a heartwarming reunion of all the subjects coming together in one space, offering the idea that our community is greater than any single establisment and will continue to thrive. Professor Marie Cartier concludes that the gay bar is "the ground from which we grow together as a people." Whatever your orientation or location, San Diego's Gay Bar History will make you want to run out to your nearest gay bar and connect with our community like never before. 

Watch the documentary below. 

San Diego's Gay Bar History from Paul Detwiler on Vimeo.

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