Shades of the rainbow: East Bay gay bars evolve, stay relevant with the queer community

A rainbow crosswalk in front of the White Horse Bar in Oakland.
The White Horse Bar in Oakland claims to be the oldest continuously operating gay and lesbian bar in the United States. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Almost every day, Murphy — “just Murphy,” he said — is the first person in the door at White Horse Bar, arriving even before the bartenders.

“I get their ice, cut their lemons and limes, and then I go home,” he said. Murphy doesn’t stay there long, but comes back to decorate, work the door or just chat up the other regulars.

A 45-year-old self-identified gay man, Murphy has been coming to the White Horse for 17 years and working there, as needed, for 16. He doesn’t come for the drinks (he’s been sober since summer 2018), he comes for community. The bar is his anchor, what gives him a sense of place and belonging in his adopted hometown.

During his first week in Berkeley, newly arrived and without a place to stay, he found an apartment through the White Horse. A little after that, he found his husband there too. He uses the word “family” a lot in his descriptions of the White Horse, the putative “oldest continuously operating gay and lesbian bar in the United States.” (Though at least two other bars make the same claim.)


“There are subjects that you can’t talk to your own family about. But this is a separate family that has different rules and practices,” Murphy said, drawing the distinction between family of origin and family of choice. “If anybody is going through anything, you can come to family here.”

“There’s nobody here that’s a licensed psychologist,” he said. “But a little advice, and a little bit of ‘I been there too’ conversation, makes you feel a little less alone.”

June 28 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the national flashpoint for LGBTQ civil rights. But even before Stonewall — a bar whose name now doubles as a byline for historic injustice — there had been raids and riots at The Black Cat in Los Angeles, and Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. The turning point Stonewall represents is not when gay America got angry, it’s when straight America started to pay attention. Gay bars have long been at the center of the movement for equality. And tragically, they have also been its targets.

Murphy, a longtime worker and patron of the White Horse Bar in Oakland.
Murphy found employment, housing, community and a husband at the White Horse Bar in Oakland. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Murphy describes the White Horse generally, and gay bars specifically in nearly spiritual terms. He divides his own biography into pre- and post-White Horse, looking back on the pre-White Horse version of himself as the embodiment of Murphy’s law: anything that could go wrong did.

“When I moved here, I had given up on love, completely, and all I wanted to do was submerse myself in work,” he said. “And I met somebody here who changed my own life.”

“And if it happened for me, for someone named Murphy who is supposed to have bad luck, nonstop throughout their life, but yet I found love and am happily married, then miracles can happen.”

Like Murphy, generations of Americans have gone to gay bars to find and make their own families. Yet gay bars are closing. Some of the reasons are relatable to any business, such as rising rent, aging clientele and competition from the internet. Bars are less romantically necessary when you can open an app and double tap.

Guests at the Port Bar in Oakland. Photo courtesy of The Port Bar in Oakland
The Port Bar in Oakland attracts a diverse crowd. Co-owner Sean Sullivan jokingly calls it ‘a hetero-friendly place to unload.’ Photo courtesy of The Port Bar

But the biggest single factor driving gay bars out of business is the broader trend of national acceptance. Gay bars have become a casualty of progress. Americans who identify as something other than heterosexual no longer have to seek out segregated facilities for a drink. They can go to any bar. That’s a good thing.

“We’re seeing a lot of venerable and older institutions close,” said Sean Sullivan, co-owner of The Port Bar in Oakland.

In a buck of the national trend, Sullivan opened Port with his partner Richard Fuentes in 2016 as “a hetero-friendly place to unload,” he said with a laugh. The descriptor was a play on establishments that bill themselves as venues “for everyone” in well-intentioned attempts at inclusion that somehow miss the mark. Sullivan and Fuentes wanted to flip that by opening a bar that was not just queer-friendly, but queer-centered. “We want everyone to feel welcome here,” said Sullivan. “But we’re definitely a queer bar.”

“They find home here. And that’s not something you can get on an app.”

Sullivan and Fuentes wanted to offer a venue that prioritized queerness, offering “100% assurance they can kiss their partner, hold someone’s hand, dance as freely as they want to.”

“Despite the advances that we have made in terms of our rights, so many people, even around here, grew up in homes that were evangelical, or accepting of other people being gay but not their kid,” he said. Coupled with a tight housing market, many of those same individuals remain living at home well into adulthood, said Sullivan. “They are fully adults and can’t be their true authentic selves at home. But they find home here. And that’s not something you can get on an app.”

Even the descriptor as a “queer bar” points to a shift in attitude towards such topics as pronouns, gender, and just the word “queer.” A division that splits the generations and makes older ones look fusty by comparison. Whereas lesbians, gays, bisexuals and even trans individuals of previous generations hewed largely to gender norms and sexual orthodoxy, younger generations are less likely to choose and stick to an early and individual letter of LGBTQ, and more likely to reach directly for Q, embracing a sort of “etcetera” or “yes, and” identity that allows for multiple and more flexible expressions of self.

Millennials and Gen Z are not just spending their lives more “out” than their elders, they’re also spending more of their dollars drinking and dining out. In the traditional sense, gay bars may be closing, but the world is also getting more queer. The more accurate statement is definitively gay bars are closing. The ones that remain serve a role and a community that is more than historic artifact.

“The Port Bar was never more important for me as a queer person than election night of 2016,” said Sullivan. “We had the results on, and early it seemed like things weren’t going well. And that had seemed unfathomable earlier in the evening. There were people crying here, hugging each other, and I really just felt so blessed to have our community united for each other, to know that we will be here tomorrow, and take care of each other.”

Above the bar at Port, there are portraits of six queer activists: Audre Lorde, Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, Sylvia Rivera, José Sarria and Marsha P. Johnson. Sullivan notes that though the gay rights movement was started by queer, trans people of color, its primary beneficiaries — and most frequently depicted victims — have been cisgendered white men. In the 2015 film Stonewall the first brick of the riot is hurled not by Marsha P. Johnson, a trans African-American woman most often credited with having lobbed the salvo, but by the fictional Danny Winters, a cis white man with model good looks. Though historians dispute who actually threw the first brick, unlike the fictional Danny Winters, Johnson was actually present.

Carlos Uribe, general manager of Club 21 and Club BNB, two gay nightclubs in Oakland.
Carlos Uribe, general manager of Club 21 and Club BNB, two gay nightclubs in Oakland. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Carlos Uribe, general manager of Club 21 and Club BNB in Oakland, sees the ongoing role of queer spaces as venues for the culture to grow while increasing representation for all of its members. Even growing up in Latinx culture, Uribe admits his first experience at Club 21 came as “a culture shock.”

“It was guys that looked like my uncles, dancing with other men,” he said. “There were a variety of things that were counter to a lot of my experiences with Mexican and Norteño culture.”

One of Club 21 and Club BNB’s signature events is La Bota Loca, a queer cowboy event that involves some of what Uribe refers to as typical Norteño machismo — “the belt buckles, and the boots, and the hats” — but with a decidedly more festive swing: more rhinestones, more sequins, more rainbows.

“Some of the machismo and cultural issues that come around Latinx and specifically Mexican-Norteño culture, people don’t have to face those here,” he said. “Or not as bad, hopefully. I think it’s softened,” he said, laughing.

Uribe wants to make sure Club 21 and Club BNB can welcome but also expand beyond the queer subcultures most associated with gay bars — the “typical gogo boys, or high femme female-presenting folks,” he said — subcultures that still hold to traditional, if hyperbolic, interpretations of gender.

Gay bars are a place to ask “how can those of us who identify as queer or LGBTQ+ be better allies within the community?”

For Uribe that expansion means focusing on the intersection of gender, orientation and culture. For the past 17 years Club 21 has prioritized the queer Latinx community, while Club BNB has become more of a center for queer African American culture. Uribe himself identifies as a queer Latinx man. “Are Club 21 and Club BNB open to everyone? Absolutely,” he said. “But it is namely, first, our space.”

“[It’s important] that we welcome gender nonconforming, that we have trans artists, performers, dancers, bartenders, and patrons so that people are able to come into a space that’s safe for them and be able to see that,” said Uribe. “Because queer culture itself does need to be maintained, does need to be focused on.”

The role, as Uribe sees it, of gay bars is to expand outward to queer bars, which is to say to a more completist representation. And by that he means more than mere refuge, but space for queer culture to flourish, reinvigorate, and reinterpret itself, as the conversation moves from cis-het presenting individuals, to trans individuals, to intersex and nonconforming, gender nonbinary individuals. Gay bars are a place to ask “how can those of us who identify as queer or LGBTQ+ be better allies within the community?”

“We have our own marginalized communities within the queer community and we want to make sure that the representation is there,” said Uribe. “It’s part of our responsibility as owners and operators of gay or historically gay and queer spaces to push the envelope to make sure that we’re evolving with our community.”