By Mark Meinke
Forty years ago, gay-friendly bars – and their patrons – began pushing the envelope in Washington, D.C. It was the envelope of regulations prohibiting standing with a drink, moving with a drink, dancing with someone of the same sex, and all of those other "reprehensible" things that police and zoning codes outlawed. Paul Kuntzler, campaign manager of Frank Kameny’s 1971 ground-breaking run for Congress, calls them the "transitional bars."
Strictly speaking, there were no bars in D.C. Prohibition ended, but D.C. ruled that only restaurants could serve drinks. And since diners are seated, there was no option to stand and drink and walk about and talk – all those things that normally happen in a bar or tavern. In fact, if you saw someone at another table and wanted to talk, you had to leave your drink behind and find a waiter or a waitress to bring it to you.
In the late 1960's, they pushed envelopes at the 1832 House (1832 Columbia Road, NW), the Pier 9 (1854 Half Street, SW) and JoAnna’s (430 8th Street, SE). Kirby Matson, manager at the 1832 House, argued that diners waiting for a table could stand with a drink, so he put a bar upstairs for the "waiting public." Code required that the waiting public be screened from the public, so he put up six inches of chicken wire. At the Pier 9 (pictured above), the small cocktail tables all had numbers on stands and a phone so that if you saw a cute someone at another table, you could call and talk without leaving your table. JoAnna’s, the "first nice women’s bar," opened in 1968 on 8th Street and put in a dance floor for (horrors!) same-sex dancing. It was an overnight success. Within months, there were three other clubs on 8th Street featuring same-sex dancing. And the police didn’t do a thing.
The first "super dance club" opened across the street from JoAnna’s as the Plus One at 529 8th Street, SE. Kuntzler remembers an evening in the summer of 1968 when police cars raced up 8th Street, blocking both ends of the street around the Plus One. The police got out of their cars, expecting the gays to take to their heels and run. They didn’t. The gay men just stood there looking at the police with a confused look. So the police got back in their cars, drove around the block and roared up the street again hoping that the gays would scatter. They didn’t.
Gay Guys – 1; Police – 0.
Times indeed changed.
Mark Meinke is the chair of the Rainbow History Project, an organization that he help found in November 2000. The group seeks to collect, preserve and promote an active knowledge of the history, arts and culture relevant to sexually-diverse communities in metropolitan Washington, DC.
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