The first gay barroom I ever stepped into was my Aunt Molly's place, The Bacchanal, on Solano Avenue, near Berkeley.
She took me inside before it opened to clean it up and do a little carpentry work— I must've been eleven years old at the time. 1969, perhaps? I had no idea what "gay" was, let alone the nature of the establishment I was mopping down.
We listened to Marlene Dietrich records while I dusted and oiled the wooden bar, (see photo!) which was quite glorious.
Molly had decorated it with all kinds of antiques, including a handsome beaded purse with a red silk lining, that once belonged to my Grandma. I begged her for it, and she scolded me— but then put it my hands at the end of our sweaty day. I used that little flapper handbag for years, until my bisexual boyfriend ran it over with his motorcycle.
I figured this all out in the early 80s, a good ten years after I'd been active in the lesbian scene, which for my generation, took place as much in meeting rooms and demonstrations as it did in bars. I'd just graduated from school, living in San Francisco with my 13-years-senior lover, Honey Lee Cottrell, when I heard her mention a venerable lesbian bar called The Bacchanal, in Albany.
I cut her short— "What are you talking about? That's my aunt's place!"
A million family dramas, wounded looks, and years of silent treatments came together in a snap. I remember my mom sobbing one night, "Molly won't, she won't wear a dress!" And it was true, my aunt could pass as a man and didn't seem to care. One time her sister forced her to put on some lipstick for a family reunion and she scrawled it on like The Joker.
I learned from Honey that Molly wasn't "Molly" among her peers, she was Sean. Sean Halloran. She moved out to the Bay Area in the 1940s, after the war. In Minneapolis, in the Phillips neighborhood, where she grew up, the stores had signs in the windows that said,"No Dogs No Indians No Irish." You could certainly add "Queers" to that list.
She worked as a bio lab tech, for the dyke City Pathologist of Oakland, a holy terror I remember she called Gertrude. She opened the Bacchanal (probably with others) before its most famous owner, Joanna Griffin, bought the place in the mid-1970s.
I didn't hear much from my aunt when I came into my prime, because when I looked her up, eager to have a "gay history chat," she turned me down cold. —Told me gay "pride" parades made her want to "throw up." She was old old old school.
Molly felt guilty that maybe she'd passed something to me in her genes... "It can't be true," she'd say, "you have those little doe-shaped eyes."
It was only when Honey Lee accompanied me to visit her one night that she opened up like faucet.They looked like each other, a truth-telling mirror. Molly's coming-out had been brutal. She didn't see one damn advantage to being a homosexual, and yet she was so NOT straight, so entirely off the grid, that it was hard to believe she didn't see she was as queer as they come.
I tried to show her a copy of my magazine, On Our Backs, and she told me to "bury it."
"I'm a writer, Molly, that's what I do," I said. I was good for something besides dusting and mopping!
"Any Irishman can write— what else are you doing with your life?" She slammed me like a book. I wish she was still alive today so I could scandalize her, once again, with this little homage.
LOVE YOU MOLLY
[This story came about because June Thomas of Slate, who was one of the original off our backs collective, has started on series of essays on the history and meaning of the gay bar in queer history.
[June asked, "what's your first gay bar memory?" to me and many others, like Alison Bechdel, Matt Crowley, Dan Savage, Pam Spaulding, and other lavender luminaries. Here's the whole crowd, with an abridged version of my story.]
Photo: by Cathy Cade, a still life of the bar I dusted and oiled so thoroughly. The graphic below is from the Bacchanal's later years, when it was "out of the closet."