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San Francisco, Calif.

Black Cat Cafe
710 Montgomery Street

Like many early gay bars, the famous Black Cat didn’t start out that way. Just a few blocks from the center of North Beach, the Black Cat was first distinguished as a bohemian hang-out (it billed itself as Bohemia of the Barbary Coast) and provided the backdrop for part of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Following World War II, when gay men and lesbians swarmed San Francisco after service in the Pacific, the Black Cat assumed a “gayer” personality. The poet Allen Ginsburg, who knew it in the ’50s, described it as an enormous bar with a honky-tonk piano that “everyone” went to: “All the gay screaming queens would come, the heterosexual gray flannel suit types, longshoremen. All the poets went there.”

At a time when homophile organizations like the Mattachine Society were largely conciliatory to the police and to city officials, the Black Cat was noteworthy as a site of resistance. Its owner, Sol Stoumen, refused to pay off the police for protection against harassment, and his bar was routinely raided and fined from the 1940s through the early 1960s. During the 1950s, the Black Cat’s flamboyant drag performer, Jose Sarria, sang campy parodies of torch songs, giving them political twists, and finished each set by leading the bar’s patrons in his rendition of “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” even when members of the vice squad were present. His brand of activist theater made him extremely popular among gays, and in 1961 Sarria decided to campaign for city supervisor, knowing that he had no chance of winning. Though he received only a few thousand votes, Sarria said later that his intention had been to show his peers that a gay man had the right to run, whether he won or lost.

The Black Cat was closed in 1963. Said the attorney for the club, “That place is like an institution. This is like closing the cable cars or the Golden Gate Bridge.” There is now an upscale tapas and wine bar called Bocadillos on the site.

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