For many LGBTQ people, queer bars are where we go to find our people. These spaces have rich histories of fostering connection, exploration, and grassroots activism, especially during periods where being openly queer or gender non-conforming was punishable by law.
This is the basis of Beers and Queer History, a new historical guide penned by Dr. Eric Cervini (The Deviant’s War) and available for preorder now. The bestselling author, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Logo30 Class of ’20 honoree was tapped by Miller Lite as part of its ongoing Open & Proud initiative, which supports the LGBTQ community through a partnership with the Equality Federation. All proceeds from Beers and Queer History will benefit the advocacy group.
Logo caught up with Cervini to chat about partnering with Miller Lite, memorializing queer historical sites, and visiting his first gay bar back in the day. Read our conversation below.
Hi Eric! How did you get involved with this project?
So, I wrote my last book [The Deviant’s War] about the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement, which was called the Homophile movement at the time. As I was researching that book, I realized that there were so many queer spaces — not just in the 1960s, not even just in the ’50s, but going all the way back to the very beginnings of the 20th century — that have been really crucial parts of the formation of what we now would call queer identity. And so many of these spaces have been lost to time. Of course, we have the internet, gentrification, so many different forces have been threatening these spaces. I started keeping a list of some of these queer spaces that were my favorites. A lot of them didn’t make it into the book itself, but I’ve been looking for opportunities to share some of the stories contained therein, and here comes along this wonderful opportunity from the Equality Federation and Miller Lite. I’m so excited to be able to share just a handful of these stories.’
Can you talk about one or two of the spaces featured in Beers and Queer History?
Well, a lot of people know about Stonewall, but one of the lesser known bars that was, I wouldn’t say equally important, but I’d say certainly, maybe second place after Stonewall, is known as the Snake Pit. Just a few months after [the Stonewall Uprising], it was another instance of a police harassment and brutality. It was a middle-of-the-night raid. The police actually detained dozens of different queer folks and brought them to the police headquarters, where the resistance continued. I like to think of it almost as a sequel to Stonewall that people just don’t know about. It was that raid that really mobilized so many folks, especially within the Gay Activist Alliance. This is around the time that that Sylvia Rivera was rejuvenating its legal committee. Because of this raid, the Gay Activist Alliance really became a new force. People were just so livid by this continued harassment, even in the months after Stonewall.
Wow. I’ve never heard of that uprising.
It’s pretty brutal. I don’t know if you want to include this in the article, but if you look it up, there was one guy who jumped out of the window of the police precinct because he was undocumented, and he actually hit the fence and was impaled by the fence outside of the police headquarters. And he survived, thank god, but that photograph of this man being impaled as a result of police brutality was published throughout newspapers, especially in the queer press. It really, of course, pissed people off, and it helped galvanize the community even more after Stonewall.
I know lesbian bars in America are diminishing in record numbers. The Lesbian Bar Project counted just 15 lesbian bars in operation across the entire country. Was that something you explored in Beers and Queer History?
Absolutely. I had a podcast back in the day, and the second episode was about what happened to Los Angeles’s lesbian bars because there used to be dozens. It’s something that historian Lillian Faderman is able to not just write about in her own research, but also talk about as a lesbian woman in 1950s Los Angeles — just the diversity of different lesbian bars that existed, and now they’ve disappeared. There are so many factors, whether it’s patriarchy or the allocation of capital within even queer spaces, that should be discussed. But there are so many instances of lesbian bars in particular being extremely important in our past, especially in Philadelphia. The story of Barbara Gittings, she helped organize and create the Mattachine Society over there. It eventually became known as the Homophile Action League as a result of a raid on a lesbian bar known as Rusty’s in Philadelphia. So that’s one of the ones that people should be talking about because it wasn’t just these predominantly gay male spaces. Lesbian spaces were also victims of police persecution, and then as a result, sites of organizing that helped create the movement we have today.
Oh, totally. Was there anything surprising or unexpected that you uncovered in your research?
What a lot of people don’t realize is that Prohibition wasn’t the worst thing for queer folks, especially queer folks who drink. When all alcohol is illegal, and suddenly straight bars are just as taboo as queer bars, that meant we were all in the same playing field. We were all essentially underground together. George Ching writes about this quite a bit in his book Gay New York. As a result, we were able to get away with a lot. Queer spaces really were flourishing during Prohibition, and paradoxically you might say, after Prohibition ended, that’s when queer spaces began to be more regulated. That’s when police persecution [of queer spaces] became even worse because there were now these state institutions that existed to regulate them.
Since we’re on the subject of queer bars, what was your first experience at a gay bar like?
Oh my gosh. I think — rest in power — the club known as Town in Washington, D.C., was probably my first and most important, and probably to this day, my favorite, queer space. I visited it right after I came out. It really was, I would argue, a utopian space. Of course, all queer bars have their problems, whether it’s with management or other problems. But that moment, that first experience and seeing what I would consider my chosen family, is something I’ll never forget. And I think everyone, hopefully, has the opportunity to have, if it’s not a bar, some queer space where they feel like it’s their home.
Your first book, The Deviant’s War, was such a hit. Can you tease any future projects you’re planning or working on now?
Stay tuned. I will say that hopefully, there will be an announcement soon. There is quite a bit of queer history that still needs to be told, especially about mid-century America. I’ll leave it at that.
Beers and Queer History is available for preorder now.