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 came together.
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 would change."
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 White Horse.
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."
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