We know Julius’ was the site of the famous Mattachine Society “sip-in” in New York City’s West Village in 1966, setting the stage for the spark of the modern gay rights movement.
And the events that took place three years later just down the street from Julius’ at Stonewall have been firmly ensconced in our understanding of gay American history.
But you may not be familiar with another bar, Pfaff’s, that operated some hundred years before Julius’ sip-in and played host to some of the city’s most noted artists and bohemians. It had two rooms to cater to a diverse clientele, but one was always filled with gay men.
It’s always tough to call anything the “first” of anything (it’s a claim that many find a way to feel entitled to), but Pfaff’s may very well be the first gay bar in America. Of course, in the mid-1800s, “gay” didn’t mean the same thing as it does now, and even “homosexual” hadn’t made its way into the popular lexicon, so it’s all a matter of semantics.
But the fact remains that the bar is a big piece of gay American history. It’s one subject in a new book by Justin Martin called Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, which offers a rare glimpse at the gay identity of New York in the 19th century.
From Martin’s account:
When he started frequenting the saloon, Whitman was thirty-nine years old. He stood roughly six feet, tall for the era, but weighed less than two hundred pounds. He wasn’t yet the beefy, shaggy poet of legend. His hair was cut short, a salt-and-pepper mix of brown and gray. His beard was trimmed. Only later would he put on weight, the wages of stress and illness and advancing age. Only later would he grow his hair long and let his beard go thick and bushy.
But he was already an eccentric dresser. Whitman favored workingmen’s garb, such as his wideawake, a type of broad-brimmed felt sombrero. He liked to wear it well back on his head, tilted at a rakish angle. His trousers were always tucked into cowhide boots. He wore rough-hewn shirts of unbleached linen, open at the collar, revealing a shock of chest hair. Whitman had a rosy complexion, almost baby-like, and quite incongruous for a big man. Because he was meticulous about hygiene, he always smelled of soap and cologne. His manner of dress often struck people as more like a costume. Or maybe it was a kind of armor, protecting the vulnerable man underneath.
Whitman wound up keeping the company of many younger men at the bar, and he called them “my darlings and gossips” and “my darling, dearest boys.” Martin notes that this was a much different side of Whitman than that which he usually presented to the world:
It’s striking how different Whitman’s manner was with this group of men. One can scarcely imagine him using words such as darling or gossip at the long table in that vaulted room. As everyone does, Whitman revealed different sides of himself to different kinds of people. The two sections of Pfaff’s appear to have served separate social needs for Whitman — as a poet and as a gay man.
For more information, check out Rebel Souls on Amazon.
Via Brain Pickings
Rebel Souls sounds to be an interesting book.
Mainstream society and world has rarely acknowledged our people. This is slowly changing as we continue to make more and more noise.
Too bad acceptance seems to come saddled with assimilation and loss of our historical identity.
The current example of this is Ken Burns series on the Roosevelt family. No word on Eleanor’s Sappho dalliances or the big ‘gay scandal’ during Roosevelt’s term in office.
Even with allegedly liberal documentary film makers, we get the shaft….and not in the good way.
I feel there is a lot more gay history and a lot more gay men in our history that we can’t get to because straight society want to block such things from us re-writing our history.
I hope it was an oversight that you forgot to include our lesbian sisters, transexual and bi-sexual brothers and sisters.
Some North American Indian tribes also accepted and revered ‘berdache’ folks.
We have always been around and always will be.
Really interesting and out of curiosity looked up that
Pfaff’s was at 647 Broadway (at Bleeker, a block above Houston,
so the village and about 5 blocks from Washington Square park).
Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892; so, he started going to Pfaff’s around
1858 (at 39 years old). It’s pretty amazing they had photography back then.
i also fond this article interesting, with a few photos of whitman.
The word “Gay” has meant “gay” as we use it for 800 years in English — only it was spelled “gai” for a few centuries — for it comes from Occitan, or Old Provence, the language of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who used it to refer to her son Richard the Lionhearted, and he used it — and he was “gai” — the word was used to mean our modern “gay” in the terms “gai troubadour” and “gai saber” — which are often studied and mentioned in Medieval history lessons – while ignoring the ‘gayness of gai’ — for gai troubadours were single men who wore brightly colored multicolored striped clothes and put on dinner theater in the 1100s to 1300s — gai saber was “cosmopolitan” “arty” even your “first bohemian” — which itself is a far newer word in English than “Gay” for “Gay” — for Bohemian as we use it today sometimes is from Bohemia, — the Czech lands, Prague, where my family is from for centuries … and it got brought into English through William Shakespeare, and his “coasts of Bohemia” in the Tempest and a few other plays — whereby which the Bohemians adopted the word “Ahoy!” as “hello” to make fun of the “coasts” for the landlocked nation.
The word “gay” as in “happy” is even older — and is from “Gayen” of Old Germanic and Saxon — Alfred the Great used it. But the word “gai” was used often over the centuries when gay men did make the printed word (rarely, of course, which is the problem of the citations.)
The word “homosexual” wasn’t even invented until 1869, in Germany — and didn’t make the popular press until the 1880s in Germany and didn’t occur in American English until 1910 — and by 1920 made the popular press …
It’s part of the unknown etymology of these words that is part of the problem …
Hell, if “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were applied opposite to what they were, they’d make perfect sense:
“Homosexual” means “same sex” as if a straight couple got married at 18 and had the same sex with each other till death did them part …
“Heterosexual” means “different sex” which could refer to some gay men’s more randy multiple partners …
And they’d be absolutely fine in this way – and to think — we could be arguing over “heterosexual” marriage if the words were thus applied.
As for Photography in the 1850s — the Civil War was well photographed — 1000s of images … fascinating.
Thanks for the data. New ideas to consider. Hope it’s all true.
Thanks for the history and linguistics lesson! So good to have all this background info about “gay”/”gai,” etc.
I can imagine Whitman in Pfaff’s, chatting up the boys. There’s far more gay history just waiting to be unearthed.
*sigh* Let’s go over this one more time:
Was this bar in the Czech Republic? Was Whitman a Czech? No and no. Therefore the heading “Bohemian love” is misused. Bohemian does not mean “hippie” or “artsy” so much as it means “Bohemia”is a place. Would you call someone “ghetto” in your header? Probably not. So stop using Bohemian in this way.
Manhattan was very cruisy in the early part of Whitman’s adult life. Whitman’s diary had lots of entries about the men he picked up on the street, and went home and slept with. And he had a passion for bus drivers for many years, too – he’d ride up front with them (these were horse-drawn buses) on the Broadway route, mainly. That street-cruising scene shows up covertly in his poems, where he describes exchanging meaningful glances with other men on the street, and extolls the street life of Manhattan.
His straight biographers have claimed that he actually just slept with the men he went home with, of course. No sex, they were just sharing a bed with a stranger because – well, none of them can explain this part, because of course they were having sex.
@hash – no, sorry, in English and French, at least, “Bohemian” means living an unconventional, experimental and (usually) low-budget life. Yes, there is a place called Bohemia. No, that is not relevant to the meaning of the English word “Bohemian”.
“Lesbian” originally meant an inhabitant of the island of Lesbos. Do you refuse to call anyone a Lesbian unless they are an inhabitant of the island of Lesbos? I am certain you don’t.
@Sammy Schlipshit: Yes sorry it was an oversight because I was being hurried off. There’s a book I read that I’ve kept with me for years that has an insight to north American including Mexico on our native brothers and sisters, including pirates, cowboys, mountain men, miners etc.: called “The Spirit and the Flesh” by Dr. Walter L. Williams. I don’t know if it is still available but I think it is a great historical book on our sexuality.
Thanks. Understood. It happens.
Just went to Amazon and bought a used copy for $2.
Always hungry for more of our history just in case I run into any nutbag crazed homophobes…..who, of course, won’t listen.
They have their minds made up.
Don’t confuse them with the facts.
Carry on, brother.
@Sammy Schlipshit: Oh and by the way, the book doesn’t mention a lot of things about Mexico, I think he had a problem with what he was allowed to write. My father said that boys were being married to boys (not men to men)even in the early 1900s and that a lot of the berdaches among the Zapotec were hidden dressed as girls and were called muxes that translates as mujer or woman, but my dad said the word used was mujercito, girl/boy. These girl/boys still have a parade in some towns and villages in Oaxaca every year. Some of the boys were not allowed to have sex outside the family circle because of the Spaniards killing off the homosexuals so in some areas boys married boys in their own families. I have not seen marriage practiced in Mexico between two boys since the 70s but boys still choosing partners from their own family members is still practiced and they do not admit that the boy is gay unless you are a relative. Also some parents prayed for a girl/boy in the family and some who had up to five boys would have one convert to being a girl/boy by a spiritual ceremony dedicated to Tetzaltezupe, the creator goddess. Like I said a lot of things about Mexican natives are not included in the book.
All news to me.
Am I correct in assuming your family lineage is Mexican?
How terrific you have the type of relationship to your dad where he will tell you all those things.
@Sammy Schlipshit: Yes, my adopted family is Spanish and Native Mexican, but not Mestizos, their children were Mestizos. My mother’s side of the family told me a lot more about girl/boys in Mexico than what my father could tell me being that they were almost full blooded mixed Natives. I never came out to them, they knew from the time I was little so I never had to. WE are accepted among those with traditional native beliefs as being sons of the gods. The elders they sent me to in Mexico told me many stories of people like us, some with very special powers. They also put me in touch with others like ME that I could relate to and for them to tell me their stories. Their males are never considered gay. Our ceremony is nothing like that of the American Berdache described in the book you just bought.
@hash: oh god! Really?
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