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Listen: The powerful history of the first gay bar in America

Nick Duffy June 20, 2016
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This powerful podcast celebrates the legacy of the longest-running gay bar in the US – after the tragedy in Orlando.

This month’s Orlando attack is the worst mass killing of LGBT people in US history, with 49 dead and more than 50 injured.

Following the attack, much of the discussion has revolved around the violation of the sanctuary provided by LGBT bars and venues.

In his speech from Orlando, President Obama said: “For so many people here who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, the Pulse Nightclub has always been a safe haven, a place to sing and dance, and most importantly, to be who you truly are.

“Sunday morning, that sanctuary was violated in the worst way imaginable.

“This was an attack on the LGBT community. Americans were targeted because we’re a country that has learned to welcome everyone, no matter who you are or who you love. And hatred towards people because of sexual orientation, regardless of where it comes from, is a betrayal of what’s best in us.”

In the wake of the massacre, Nate DiMeo’s podcast the memory palace recorded the history of the White Horse Inn in Oakland, California.

The White Horse is thought to be the oldest continuously operating gay and lesbian bar in the United States, operational since at least 1933.

The Inn’s website recalls: “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.”

The bar’s account of its history recalls how it evolved through the early gay liberation movement through to the fight for equal marriage – with a harrowing telling of the impact of the AIDS epidemic.

It says: “An eerie pall fell over the White Horse as longtime customers became desperately ill.

“Jill Anderson 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, 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’.”

Related: In 1973, thirty people died in an attack on a US gay bar… and everyone laughed about it

Related topics: bar, club, Gay, LGBT, Orlando, US, US

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