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
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. Built in 1936, it's the oldest continuously
operating gay and lesbian bar in the Bay Area and possibly the second
oldest in the United States (the Doubleheader in Seattle, opened in
1934, is likely the oldest). 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
Reprinted with permission from the East Bay Express
Originally published: June 22, 2001
©2001 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.