Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in October 2016.
Just a few generations ago, the term homosexual was often qualified by adjectives. Alleged. Avowed. Rumored. Known! The descriptions were used by cautious media, police enforcement agencies and courtroom attorneys.
Not many are aware that until as recently as 35 years ago, Michigan’s Liquor Control Commission prohibited bars and “licensed premises to be frequented by or to become the meeting place, hangout or rendezvous for known homosexuals.”
It was never clear what was a “known homosexual.” Was it a person who had a sex offender arrest record? Someone who habitually dressed in clothes of the opposite sex? Someone who swished or gossiped in a high-pitched voice? Ssomeone brave enough to tell the straight world he or she was gay, lesbian or queer?
The term was so vague that, if nothing else, it provoked bar and nightclub owners, bartenders, waitstaff to insist that possible sexually deviant clientele be warned to behave themselves, not to ‘camp it up,’ never to hold hands, dance and — throw the miscreants out at once! — kiss or fondle in public.
Presumably sipping drinks through a straw, ordering Shirley Temples, a gin and tonic with cucumber or a cutesy drink topped with a cherry or a paper umbrella was acceptable, if one behaved oneself and didn’t too obviously follow a straight client or two into the john.
(I can remember when cautious bartenders at the “discrete” bar in the downtown Detroit Statler Hotel would hand too obvious gay patrons a terse note, “Your patronage is no longer welcome here. Do not return.”)
This somewhat egregious prohibition of gays and lesbians from Michigan’s bars and nightclubs was rescinded under Republican Gov. William Milliken’s administration in 1979, thanks to the efforts of the Michigan Organization of Human Rights.
Interestingly enough, in spite of the Liquor Commission’s admonition to keep gays and lesbians from spending hard-earned, ribbon clerk cash on getting inebriated, tipsy, occasionally downright drunk and disorderly, since Prohibition ended in 1933, the number of drinking establishments serving “known” or “suspected” homosexuals is, it turns out, in the hundreds.
According to the “Historical Directory of Gay & Lesbian Bars in Metro Detroit,” by Yale University Ph.D. graduate (and former associate editor of BTL) Tim Retzloff, the listing is about 300. (Of that number, I’m pleased to say — or, is it embarrassed to admit? — I’ve been in about a tenth of these at one time or another, with varying degrees of success at making out or making a fool of myself.)
Among the earliest listed is the Sweetheart Bar, dating back to 1938. The oldest operating gay bar is the Woodward Lounge, still shaking its booze and booty since 1954. Menjo’s, which over recent years has hosted changes of clientele and settings, got started in 1974.
(Three pieces of ID – including picture – once kept anticipated outsider problems and racial mixing to a minimum.)
Many, many of the bars and clubs in Retzloff’s 2010 Directory are now but fading memories of a vibrant Detroit gay past. The 1011, Rio Grande, Silver Dollar, LaRosa’s, Barrel Bar, Foster’s, Royal Showbar, Palais were all within walking distance of each other. And to the nearby First Police Precinct jail, bullpen and adjacent courtroom.
In passing, let me gratefully say that my friend Tim Retzloff has done Detroit’s LGBTQ community a service that is truly dedicated and amazing in its research endeavor, scope and detail. In addition to his Bar Directory, Tim has reviewed over 15,000 arrest records of gays since 1940 and has completed a 680-page dissertation of Detroit’s LGBTQ History.
On behalf of countless gays, lesbians, transgender persons both present and past: Thanks, Dr. Tim. A loving documentation, well-undertaken, meticulously done. OUR history preserved for future generations. I eagerly await its publication in book format soon.