Bars and Barns: Off-Campus “Gay Worlds” (late 1940s)

The need for most gay students to “play a role” or “wear the mask” around heterosexuals meant that “dropping hairpins” (suggesting that one was “queer” rather than “normal”—the most common words used by gay people and the general public in the war years) or pulling out every last pin and “letting one’s hair down,”[77] was often reserved for off-campus venues.

Despite Oberlin’s ban on student automobile use, some students made their way to gay bars, which proliferated in large and medium-sized cities such as Cleveland and Akron during World War II. In an era that criminalized homosexual socializing, most of these bars—including a lesbian bar situated directly across the street from the Cleveland police station—paid off the police and strictly regulated same-sex dancing and affection to avoid raids. Cleveland gay bars generally barred nonwhites. As a result gay African Americans generally entertained in homes, although there was one gay African American bar on the far east side of Cleveland.[78]

Euclid Avenue, Cleveland’s main thoroughfare and home to many post-war gay bars. 1950.

Euclid Avenue, Cleveland’s main thoroughfare and home to many post-war gay bars. 1950.

Despite restrictions and discrimination, many gays and lesbians felt “gratitude at just having the space where one could relax and be with one’s own kind,” one patron later wrote in an essay on the post-war Cleveland bars. Bars helped shape a sense of gay identity that went beyond the individual to the group, provided support systems, and offered a respite from the stress of the “double life.” It was this “curious combination of exploitation and liberation [that] helped define the mood in gay bars [in the 1940s].”[79]

Robert Wood (GST 51) frequently made his way to the Cadillac Lounge, a small piano bar in downtown Cleveland. It was “a strict bar,” Wood remembered—likely the reason it stayed open from at least the late 1940s to early 1960s. Dancing or walking from table to table was prohibited. A raucous night at the Cadillac consisted of patrons in suits and ties sitting at tables and singing popular party songs. Still, it was “really a place where you could be yourself, and not have to wear the mask, and you could talk and camp with some of the other gay fellows.”

Some bars in this period devised elaborate systems to avoid police crackdowns, especially if dancing or other illegal activities were involved. George Brenner (pseudonym; OC 50) remembered an establishment that required patrons to wear a handkerchief in the top pocket of their jacket. “And as you walked up the stairs [to the bar],” he recalled, “you would pull it out, and they had a little pigeon hole they would look through. If you didn’t [pull out your handkerchief] you were not admitted, but if you did the right signal, why the door opened and in you went.” On the top floor, men in suits danced in couples to romantic songs like “The Bluebird of Happiness.” This was “unbelievable in those days,” Brenner recalled, and likely the reason the bar was raided and closed soon after it opened.

On the other hand, female impersonation shows at the Zanzibar were reportedly advertised in mainstream daily papers.[80] Frank Burton (pseudonym; OC 49) was invited to the Zanzibar by a “worldly” heterosexual woman he met while based in Texas, and Cleveland resident Emmit Vicar remembered companies from New York performing full-length drag operas for a crowd of mixed patrons. The visibility of both drag bars and flamboyant Conservatory majors suggests that highly colorful and effeminate men were allowed a limited freedom as entertainers during the post-war years.

Burton also patronized an Elyria bar where he was told he could “pick somebody up.” When he walked in, he found three members of the Oberlin football team seated at the bar. “I got out of there as soon as I could,” he remembered. Back at Oberlin, one of the football players “start[ed] to make remarks at me. And so I said to them, ‘Well what were you guys doing there, you know?’ And he wanted to get physical [violent]. He said, ‘I’ll knock your teeth down your throat’…And this is the way it used to be played.”

Socializing was not limited to bars or even urban locations. In the late 1940s, students attended annual gay and lesbian Halloween parties advertised by word of mouth and held at a large, secluded farmhouse in rural Ohio. “You would plan months ahead of time getting there,” Brenner remembered, “and you were determined to make it, because it was such an important event.” Brenner recalled hundreds of young people from across the state, attired in drag or costume, dancing and socializing as an impromptu band played. He and others wore masks at the event, a literal manifestation of the figurative “masks” most wore in their everyday lives, but Brenner embraced the safety they provided. “You could go to this event…and be anonymous,” he recalled. “You would have masks on, and nobody could tell who you were or where you were from [laughs]. And you felt so safe, and you felt so alive, and you felt so delighted to be a part of this big organization.”

1950 Blizzard scene in East Cleveland. Courtesy East Cleveland Public Library.

1950 Blizzard scene in East Cleveland. Courtesy East Cleveland Public Library.

Wood attended two Halloween parties, but remembered fewer masks and more open displays of gay sexuality. After a snowstorm led to a blackout at one party, he recalled a small crowd of young gay men playfully pestering the electrician as he shimmied up the electric post. The farmhouse’s remoteness may have had something to do with the lack of reticence. “It was so isolated that nobody knew how to find the place,” Wood remembered. “And so people would draw rather crude maps of how to find it.” A gay dentist from Cleveland known as “Doc Gage” owned the property, according to Wood. After paying a five-dollar admission fee, “some people stayed for twelve hours…You could bring your beverage with you, whatever else you wanted.” In contrast to his gay campus circle, Wood also recalled a small number of women. After the night of heavy snowfall, he remembered some “husky women, real dykes, pushing the young queens’ cars out [of the snow].”

 

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