San Francisco History Lesson: The Black Cat versus Bar Raids

In the post-WWII era, the Black Cat, on Montgomery Street in North Beach, was one of the city's most popular gay bars. In 1951 owner Sol Stoumen won a case with the California Supreme Court that gave bars the right to operate with primarily gay clienteles. In the '50s and '60s, the Black Cat was also the site of José Sarria's popular drag revue. His shows had strong political undertones, and he packed the house once a week, giving audiences their first taste of gay pride. Through humor, Sarria turned serious subjects on their head—a drag show staple to this day. (At a time when men could be arrested for masquerading as women, Sarria dressed in full drag, wearing a sign that read "I am a boy.") Despite frequent police raids of the Black Cat and harassment by city politicians, Stoumen resisted paying unwarranted fines and refused to close until the state succeeded in revoking the Black Cat's liquor license in 1963.

But the gay business community had had enough. By 1962 Stoumen and other local bar owners had formed the Tavern Guild of San Francisco, America's first gay business association. The group succeeded in waging and winning a legal and public-relations battle to end police harassment. Many credit the Black Cat with paving the way for gay establishments to exist freely and Sarria with infusing pride, humor, and sass into the gay community.

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