America’s Oldest Gay Bar Is Turning 80

The current, open front patio is only a few years old.
The current, open front patio is only a few years old. Photo: Courtesy of the White Horse

This month, an unassuming gay dive on a quiet stretch of Telegraph Avenue near the Oakland-Berkeley border officially turns 80 years old. The White Horse Inn, now dubbed WhiteHorse Bar, is generally thought to be the oldest gay bar in America — or at least the oldest continuously operating one in the same location — but its exact age, just like that of many a vain older gay man, is likely to remain a mystery. Official records put the bar’s opening in 1933, as the Bay Area Reporter recently learned, just after Prohibition ended, but it was likely a gay speakeasy years before that, as Prohibition was barely enforced in the Bay Area and the building predates that year.

The current, open front patio is only a few years old.
The current, open front patio is only a few years old. Photo: Courtesy of the White Horse

Its proximity to the Berkeley campus, but just over the border in Oakland where liquor licenses were historically easier to get, was an obvious factor in attracting its early clientele. And in fact the entire building with the bar in it was moved about a block, into Oakland, in 1936 when a law was enacted prohibiting the sale of alcohol within a mile of the campus.

As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, there’s another gay bar, Cafe Lafitte in New Orleans, which may be tied in official age with the White Horse, having also "opened" coincidentally in 1933, but it has changed locations once since then. The Double Header in Seattle, opened in 1934, is a close second.

Long before gay marriage, or even living openly, was a possibility, the White Horse served the East Bay’s LGBT community. Like a number of other gay bars from the mid-twentieth century, the White Horse had no windows to the street until just a few years ago, dating as it does to a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense. (One San Francisco bar, Twin Peaks Tavern, recently received landmark status as the first gay bar in the Bay Area to have glass walls to the street, since 1972, and another in the Castro district, the Midnight Sun, is about to undergo a renovation opening its front wall, making it the last bar in the neighborhood to do so.) And throughout the more conservative postwar period, the White Horse was spared from any police raids, possibly because the owners paid off the cops, and possibly because the Bay Area’s liberal attitude toward homosexuality extended to fifties Oakland politicians as well.

These days the White Horse is an unpretentious, suburban-feeling hangout, with its pool tables and jukebox, that attracts a mix of older gay and lesbian regulars and the occasional gaggle of Berkeley undergrads. As one of the current managers tells the Chron, this is how the bar’s always been. “San Francisco has always been more ‘We’re here, we’re queer, we’re in your face.’ We’re queer, too, but we don’t have to have a big parade about it.”

Oakland’s White Horse gay bar turns 80 [Chron]
Hold Your Horses [Bay Area Reporter]
Related: More on Twin Peaks Tavern, the Landmark Castro Bar Affectionately Called ‘The Glass Coffin’