What is the Oldest Gay Bar in the United States?

To answer this question we must not only make some fairly arbitrary rules about what constitutes a single bar (e.g. what kinds of name changes, changes of location, or temporary closures matter?), but also what really constitutes a "gay bar." To age a gay bar, I think the following ground rules make sense:

  • A "gay bar" does not merely accept the occasional one or few gay customers; it must cater primarily to LGBT patrons, and/or a majority of patrons must be gay, during some regular portion of business hours.
  • If a bar was established as a straight bar and eventually changed to a gay focus or hangout, the age of the "gay bar" should be based on the years it has catered to gay patrons, not the date that the (straight) bar was founded.

With these rules in mind, I consider the the oldest gay bar in the U.S. to be the White Horse Bar in Oakland, California. For at least a few decades I the title probably belonged to the "Double Header" in Seattle, Washington. But this bar closed on Dec 31, 2015, and it is not at all clear that it really merited a description as a gay bar over the last three decades. If you consider it a single bar when a business opened in one location, then the owners open a new bar business with a similar name in a new location, then the oldest gay bar in the U.S. is probably Cafe Lafitte in Exile in New Orleans. But as tempting as that may seem, that is not the typical way we date a single bar -- particularly when a bar continues in the old location under the same name. If we identify bars with a consistent location, then from what I have been able to gather, the title probably belongs to the White Horse, which appears to have become truly a gay bar at some point in the 1940s, although the exact year is unknown and perhaps unknowable.

Below are some details and links on particular establishments for which I've found claims to oldest gay bar in the country.

-- Pete

The Double Header Seattle, WA The Double Header opened in 1934 according to historyLink.org established by a gay-friendly owner and sharing clientele with The Casino, which had been a major gay attraction since 1930. Perhaps the more difficult question before then was how long the bar remained what might accurately be described as a gay bar, as in the last few decades it drew a mixed crowd, with few discernible differences from neighboring straight dive bars. The Double Header closed Dec 31, 2015.
Atlantic House Provincetown, MA The Atlantic House or "A-House" is said to have been constructed in 1798 and to have served as a tavern from that date, with some famous gay clientele, including Tennessee Williams. However, the A-House does not appear to have become a truly gay bar until the 1950s.
White Horse Inn Oakland, CA Some say the White Horse was established right after prohibition, in 1933. However, what seems to be one of the better researched articles on the bar states that the building was constructed in 1936. Further, no one seems to know when it actually embraced a primarily gay clientele. In the article excerpted on the bar's web site Olson notes: "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....  Burt Gerrits, 78, says that when he started going in 1948, the bar became gay only after a certain hour at night."
Cafe Lafitte in Exile New Orleans, LA Cafe Lafitte in Exile in New Orleans claims to be the oldest gay bar in the country. While it is again difficult to identify when the bar started catering primarily to gays, "Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop" was founded in 1933 by straight but gay-welcoming Roger 'Tom' Caplinger and his partners Harold Bartell and Mary Collins. "In Exile" authors Perez and Palmquist note:
    'Although the bar could not be classified a "gay bar" as we think of that term today, it was as gay friendly as the times would permit.'
However when the building's owner died in 1951, the building was sold at auction and a new owner took over Lafitte's, and did not welcome gay patrons. "Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop" remains in business to this day in the location, now catering to (straight) tourists. In 1953 Caplinger and his partners opened "Cafe Lafitte in Exile," which welcomed his former patrons, and remains definitively a gay bar today. However, dating the current "Lafitte in Exile" as the same bar as Caplinger's original Lafitte's would be inconsistent with a more typical approach, where people routinely treat a bar business run by a series of owners under a single name and in a single location as the same bar. That is, the more established approach would be to count Caplinger's years in the Blacksmith location in the age of the bar still operating there, rather than in the age of the new one he opened a block down Bourbon Street two years later, even if his theme and most of his patrons moved with him.
Julius New York, NY Julius is a historic gay bar just a block from Stonewall and said to have been established in 1867. However, it appears to have not attracted a large number of gay patrons until the late 1950s, and gays were harrased by bar ownership into at least the mid 1960s. It does appear to be New York's longest continually running gay bar.
Cedar Brook Cafe Westport, CT The Cedar Brook Cafe claimed to be the oldest continually running gay bar, having been founded in 1939. However, I have not seen any clear indication that the bar catered to gays from its inception, and in any case, the Cedar Brook closed in 2010.
The Black Cat San Francisco, CA The Black Cat opened in 1906 and again in 1933 after prohibition, and appears to have become higly populated by gays after WWII. Listed under "places open and continuously operating since [1933]" in the Wikipedia entry on "gay bar," I included this among the oldest in the first verison of this page, not realizing that it actually closed in 1964.

If you have any corrections, additions, or other information on the subject, please e-mail them to kbar@peterga.com

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