A pair of UW professors are collecting stories about the good ol' days of Seattle's gay bar scene. You know, like when lesbians were required to wear at least three articles of "feminine" clothing, or risk getting kicked out for being too butch.
"We have stories about people being terrified walking from their car into a bar for fear of being seen," Brown says. "It was a big deal for a gay person to be in a gay bar because they could lose their job and housing."
Needless to say, gay bars back then weren't yet a popular destination for bachelorette parties. The discrimination led to some unusual rules. Washington's bars and taverns were already subject to asinine overregulation owing to "blue laws" imposed by the state Liquor Board, but some policies that could be ignored elsewhere were strictly enforced at gay-friendly watering holes because owners feared they'd be held to a higher standard than straight establishments.
According to Brown and Knopp, bar patrons were required to keep at least one foot on the floor at all times -- dancing atop the bar a lá Cowgirls Inc. was strictly verboten. Customers couldn't carry drinks from the bar to a table -- beverages had to be ferried by a bartender or server. The latter policy, Knopp explains, was initially enacted to target brothels, where working ladies would circulate from table to table.
Image Source The Golden Horseshoe, pictured above in an undated photo likely taken in the '60s, was the first bar to allow same sex dancing during regular business hours.
As for the dress codes, male cross-dressers would typically change inside the bar rather than risk walking down the street in drag. Lesbians, meanwhile, supposedly had to keep up appearances with the aforementioned three garment minimum.
"Managers and patrons of gay bars understood the rules and potential consequences and policed themselves," Knopp says. "We have a lot of people saying 'We knew what they would tolerate and what they wouldn't tolerate and we behaved accordingly.'"
As an extra precaution, it was standard procedure for gay bar owners (these tended to be straight men seeking to profit off the niche market, according to the profs) to bribe police officers to ward off harassment. Brown says the going rate for protection rackets in the '60s was about $50 per week, or the modern equivalent of $360 when adjusted for inflation. The system, Brown notes, prevented raids like the infamous crackdown on the Stonewall Inn in New York.
"All police cared about was getting a payoff," Brown says. "Beat cops would still harass people, but outside the bar. There weren't raids like Stonewall."
While a majority of the city's gay bars now operate on Capitol Hill, prior to the 1970s Pioneer Square was the queer nightlife hub. Famed spots like The Garden of Allah Cabaret, a former speakeasy in the basement of the Arlington Hotel, catered to soldiers returning from World War II. Brown says the Army inadvertently created a guide for men in uniform seeking out Seattle's forbidden pleasures by banning visits to parts of town known for prostitution, illegal gambling, and other forms of vice.
Image Source The Garden of Allah, a gay cabaret, opened in the basement of the Arlington Hotel in 1946.
"The military during WWII and up until at least the late 60s had a list of 'No-go Zones' and areas," Brown says. "I've talked to people who said, 'The first time I came to Seattle, I got changed into civiilian clothes and went down that list, because I knew at least one would be a queer bar.' The military ends up being this sort of guide for how to find a gay bar before the Internet."
The Double Header was the city's first gay bar in the city, and a place called The Golden Horseshoe on Second Avenue South just south of Washington Street was the first to allow same-sex dancing during regular business hours. With the help of the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum, the professors have recorded about 270 gay bars that operated in Seattle between 1930 and 1990.
The professors found that the relatively vibrant gay nightlife laid the foundation for public health initiatives in the 70s and 80s that improved access to venereal disease treatment. Digging through the UW archives, they unearthed some amusing grant applications from the UW medical school. Physicians were mystified by some seemingly inexplicable throat infectionss
"The research looks kind of silly nowadays," Brown says. "The wording in [the grants] is all 'We can't figure out how this happened, we don't understand.' People just didn't really think about men having oral sex with other men."
The professors are still conducting interviews for their project, so if you or someone you know is familiar with old school gay bars in Seattle, drop them a line.