Activist, Author and Distinguished Professor Emerita at Pace University
March 8, 2018, 11am (By phone, New York to Florida)
Gwen Shockey: What was the first lesbian bar you ever went to Karla?
Karla Jay: The drinking age was 18 when I was growing up so when I was in college I made very brief forays into places like The Sea Colony. I went in and left really fast. I can’t even say that I really stayed in them. I had heard about these places and I had that book, The Grapevine which was a non-fiction book that came out in 1965 and talked about lesbian life. You’d walk around and try to find these places or look for people who might be going into these bars. I remember going to Julius’s for example to ask about where there might be a lesbian bar. Julius’s of all of the gay male bars was probably most friendly to lesbians. It’s still there on the corner of 10th street and Waverly I think. That was a place you could go into and have a drink! Guys would be in there with women friends. You really couldn’t go into the Stonewall or other places along Christopher street. They would look at you and say things like, “Are you lost girl?” or “This is the wrong place.” They were quite hostile and wouldn’t offer you any help if you walked in to ask them. I remember going into The Sea Colony and it was really quite seedy. All the bars were. Maybe I’m misremembering but I think they had a pool table.
By the end of college, I started going to Kooky’s sometimes. Kooky’s opened up and somehow I heard about it and I went. I felt like I really didn’t belong – by the time I was a senior in college I wasn’t drinking much. I was much more into pot. Somebody told me it was really dirty in Kooky’s. You could see that they had two sinks behind the bar and the bartender would take dirty glasses and dip them in the soapy sink and then quickly rinse it in the clear water (which wasn’t so clear after a while) and then just hand it to someone else. You could see that the place wasn’t really that clean. So, not being much of a drinker I tended to like what my wife calls “sissy drinks” (laughing) I like White Russians, Black Russians or something that’s just a little bit sweeter and watching the bartenders at Kooky’s was really unappealing. What I started doing in there was ordering beer in a bottle. One beer could really last me all night. I knew people who would bring a flask into the bathroom and fill their glass up a bit. That was another trick.
The bathroom line was quite a phenomenon. You had to really plan when you were going to go. It wasn’t true in Gianni’s (another lesbian bar at that time) but in Kooky’s they had two single seaters on the left about mid-way through the room. You were only given two sheets of toilet paper at the bathroom door. I don’t know if anyone’s ever described the layout to you?
KJ: Ok! So, when you walked in if they were having a cover charge which was many nights, particularly on weekends, they would set up a table in the front with two guys taking your money. They gave you a ticket for one drink. There were two goons – two mafia guys sitting in front.
Kooky’s was part of the Genovese crime family. There’s a book called THE MAFIA AND THE GAYS by Phillip Crawford, Jr., which details that these bars and the Stonewall were all part of the Genovese crime family. If you look at chapter five in particular it details that the family also tried to take over the gay movement when it started. They ran the newspaper – the gay male newspapers that were around New York City – and all of the ads that were in the newspapers were for bars they owned. It’s a really interesting book. The author is a lawyer and I don’t know if a hundred percent of it is accurate but he would have had access to these court cases. Ed Murphy who was the bouncer at the Stonewall claims that he killed people for the Genovese crime family. The author posits that the bar raids (which we always thought were about shaking down the bars) in particular the one at Stonewall was about shaking down Wall Street brokers. What the mafia wanted was to get the goods on these Wall Street brokers, to get them to give them bonds. The way bonds worked was that there were usually coupons around the bonds that you could clip off with scissors and anybody with a coupon could cash it in and get money. Now if you get a bond and you have an account the company holds the bonds. Back then the mafia wanted these bonds because not only were they as good as cash, they were cash! I don’t know if that had any impact on the lesbian bars as well. It’s such an interesting angle because some of the women who hung out in there clearly had money. I mean, what did they really want from people who were arrested? Did they just want to do a political shakedown and show the mayor that they were cracking down or were they helping the mafia get money from these women as well as men just in different ways? I think they have to have shaken down some of these women in some way. There was usually only one lesbian bar at a time in the city and so they weren’t necessarily cash cows. Lesbians and women didn’t have a lot of disposable income. There were many more gay-men’s bars. If you went up and down Christopher street, Hudson or Eighth Avenue there were tons of bars in the ‘60s and before that there were bars. Marie’s Crisis and all of these places went way back. There were also places like the Silver Dollar which was this coffee shop on Christopher street over by the river that people used to hang out in. Gay men had all this disposable income and lesbians didn’t so lesbians were always trying to find ways in bars not to spend money.
GS: I think that’s still the case (laughing).
KJ: It is still the case! To get into Kooky’s I believe was three dollars. In the 1960s with a student ID I could get into the movie theater for fifty cents for a double feature! The guys took your money, you went in and got a drink. The bathrooms were on the left and they only had two single seaters. It was always very crowded on the weekends. I would say that it wasn’t big but narrow and long and the bar was on the right. All of these bars looked alike. They all had long bars and I think Kooky’s was made out of wood or a little wood in the front of it and behind it there was a mirror with different shelves of alcohol. You could not see into the bar from the street. You never could. It just said “Kooky’s”. It did actually have a name because with some earlier bars there wasn’t even a name. As you went to the back, on the left they had a ring of tables around the edge of the dance floor which was very small. They did have a dance floor and I remember the tables being around it on the left in the back. Around the bathrooms was a wooden enclosure where you walked in and there you’d find the bathrooms. The place might have once been a restaurant. A lot of the bars had that look.
Kooky was often at the front and then she would circulate around and make sure people were drinking. I think she may have been a retired prostitute. Some people thought she was a man in drag but it never occurred to me that she was. One time someone groped her under her dress to see if she was really a woman and they were kicked out of there forever. They had music and there was a fire exit in the back but I remember it being locked which terrified me. It was also the case in Gianni’s. The fire exits were almost always locked because they were afraid people would sneak in. If there had been a fire in there we all would have been dead.
GS: It sounds like it was a huge risk to go to one of these bars for multiple reasons.
KJ: It was a huge risk! My biggest fear wasn’t being caught in a bar raid it was burning to death! There was a big fire in New Orleans and they all burned to death because they couldn’t get out. Women smoked inside (I smoked then) and it was really smoky in there with poor ventilation.
When I first started going to The Sea Colony I was a lot younger than everyone else. It wasn’t a place where eighteen-year-olds would go. The women would turn to me and say, “Are you a college kid?” It wasn’t in a nice way. Most of the women were working-class and saw me as some kind of outsider. At the other bars I went to, around Barnard and Columbia like the West End Bar, everybody was a college kid and nobody turned to you to say things like that.
GS: Were you able to find lesbian or queer community at school?
KJ: Oh no! Barnard was really hostile. During freshman orientation I heard about two girls who were in Reid Hall making out in their dorm room and a guy across the street with binoculars saw them and they were expelled. It was really kind of hostile. There were teachers who I thought were lesbians – mostly gym teachers – and in fact I later ran into my fencing instructor down at Bonnie & Clyde’s and I thought, “Ah HA!” That was years later. But nobody acknowledged it when I was in school. Nobody was out. Kate Millett was there, Catharine Stimpson who was later very out in academia, and Catharine’s lover who was my philosophy professor but nobody was out as a lesbian or bisexual. It was just unheard of.
GS: I remember reading in your memoir, Tales of the Lavender Menace, about the obstacles you had to cross in your political activism advocating for lesbian inclusion in left-leaning groups that were all women and the animosity that you experienced as a lesbian from the straight-identifying women. Can you tell me a little bit about those experiences?
KJ: Yes! That is one of the things that I have been writing to the Museum of the City of New York about. They have it noted that Betty Friedan changed her opinion about lesbians in 1971 but if only that were true! It was in 1977 at the Women’s Conference in Houston and she was forced to accept a platform that allowed lesbians into any group. Betty didn’t want to accept that even in ’77.
It was really quite hostile. I really made quite an effort to fit in at Barnard and to keep my life to myself. I never said anything to anybody. I had a boyfriend at Yale who was conveniently far away so I didn’t have to see him very often and we went out for like five years so it worked out.
GS: How did you find out about lesbian bars in New York and were there any other options for queer women to gather in New York at that time other than bars?
KJ: Ah! You know, I remember when I first went down to the Village I saw women walk into the Sea Colony – two what we called “suspect” – two women who were too close to each other, who looked like they might be butch and femme. I remember going to the Village and just walking around looking. I would see women who looked “suspect” and I would follow them! Sometimes I would follow these women and they would just go into their house (laughing) and it didn’t pan out. I didn’t know how to find places. I really didn’t have a clue what to do.
Then, in ’67 the earliest homophile group on the campus started at Columbia and I went over there to a meeting. It was called the Student Homophile League and it was all guys. Martha Shelley had belonged to it at some point because she worked at Barnard as a secretary. The first time I went I really didn’t feel welcome. I felt like I’d walked into a boy’s club. Later I became friendly with some of these guys. I wouldn’t say I became friendly with them but I got to know them better. They were odd guys in that group. I belonged to a faculty seminar at Columbia and some of these same guys were there: Stephen Donaldson, Warren Johansson (both of these names were pseudonyms, often used by activists pre-Stonewall) – maybe in retrospect they weren’t being hostile to me, they were just so odd. Stephen, who was known as Donny, at one point was the head of that group. You’d go into groups like this and you’d think maybe I’m straight, you know? Maybe I can make this work! (Laughing)
I found a Daughters of Bilitis meeting in the Village once and they were so much older! I called them the Daughter of Bursitis (laughing). I laugh now but do you know that when we were in the movement in 1969 a group formed called Older Women’s Liberation (OWL) and do you know how old you had to be to be in there? 30! That was older women! It’s hilarious. I went there and I did make some friends. I wasn’t happy with the group but I did make two friends. Riki Klein lived in Brooklyn on the south side of the Park. We were both working in publishing later on and would run into each other. Her partner was the president of DOB at one point.
GS: Stemming off of that, what would you say was the most important community you found Karla? Would that have been more on the West Coast when you moved out there?
KJ: The most important community I found was the Women’s Liberation Movement. When I went into Redstockings which was 1969, that’s when I discovered that there were other women like myself who were interested in politics, they weren’t interesting in hanging out in bars particularly and felt that the bars were treating women offensively. We didn’t want to be in butch/femme couples and we wanted to live in different ways. I met Rita Mae Brown in Redstockings and she was also at my graduate school. I met Michela Griffo and a number of other women who were out. Some members of Redstockings were rather homophobic but there were also a number of outspoken lesbians.
GS: I’ve heard from so many lesbians who were active during the same time you were politically that there was maybe more overlap between gay-male bars and gay-male activism and that lesbian bars were actually kind of a negative place for a lot of women and that political action was pretty separate.
KJ: Yeah. There was a second bar that came along called Gianni’s which was a little bit more liberal than Kooky’s. I think Gianni’s opened in 1969. Gianni’s was important because it was the first time that anyone could think of that we had two bars to choose from and then Kooky’s went under and it was just Gianni’s for a while. We had a political action at Gianni’s and we may have also had one at Kooky’s. After GLF (Gay Liberation Front) meetings we sometimes decided to do political actions. The GLF met every Sunday afternoon at the Church of the Holy Apostle on W. 27th Street. About once a month we would either walk or pile into people’s cars and head to Kooky’s, Gianni’s and a couple of the male bars. We went into these bars, both men, women and trans people, and we danced in a circle holding hands. It was a Sunday afternoon usually and the bars weren’t typically crowded but the patrons found it very disruptive as did the bar owners. They didn’t like that men were in a women’s bar and women in a men’s bar, that there were trans people like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who came with us. I remember very distinctly that they were along. They didn’t like that there were people of color – both Marsha and Sylvia were people of color. There were a lot of people of color in the GLF who weren’t welcome in these bars because of their race. The bars were not a hundred percent segregated but they did have a quota.
GS: So, the action was so disruptive because of how mixed your group was both along racial and gender lines?
KJ: Yes! Men, women and trans people. We were dancing in a circle, we didn’t buy drinks – we just came in, danced a bit and left! (Laughing)
GS: It seems like such a peaceful action to take yet at the same time so controversial.
KJ: It was so controversial! When I look back on it now I think it was really disrespectful of these people’s lifestyle and their space. This was the only space these people had and we would plow in there with our politics, looking androgynous and they were mostly butch/femme. The women’s bars were mostly butch/femme and the men’s bar was maybe a leather bar and we were in there with men with long hair and scraggly beards. We looked like hippies! The men’s bars also had these looks so if you went into the Mustang looking like a bunch of hippies they were less than thrilled. By the time they called the police we were out of there.
GS: There was frustration with the older gender roles or the sort of set dynamics in the bar space?
KJ: These bars also had a danger to them! I want to tell you about an incident at Gianni’s. I wasn’t there but people talked about it for a long time. The thing that the mafia would have told you, not that they called themselves the mafia, but they would say that they were there to protect you. Occasionally people would get in and they would try to repel guys who tried to get in to beat up lesbians. The guys at the front were big. Sometimes, particularly on a week day, there were no bouncers at the front and they did get in. There was a particular incident where guys came into the bar on a week day and they started to hit some of the women in the bar and the women all came together and chased the guys out of the bar. Mark Giles who was a member of the GLF worked behind the bar and ran out after the guys. She got ahead of the pack somehow and she turned around and they hit her, pulled her wig off her head and hit her in the face. A lot of people talked about this for ages.
GS: Were the after-hours bars that you went to pretty mixed?
KJ: Yes. After-hours bars were really mixed. We had dances at the GLF and we would get together and clean up. I liked to be on the clean-up team because I didn’t like getting to the dances early. It was boring until people got there so I always volunteered on the clean-up committee as did Marsha (P. Johnson). Marsha and I would be cleaning up after the dances which was about two or three in the morning and then we would leave the dances which were on 14th street and 6th avenue at the Alternate U and then we would go out and get something to eat at an all-night diner and then we’d go to the after-hours bars. By the time that was done it was between 4 or 5 in the morning. These bars opened when NYC bars closed around 3am. Marsha knew where they all were so we’d go and I’d just follow Marsha. We’d walk down, because we didn’t have money to take a cab, and I remember a bar we went to a couple of times was on Broadway between Houston and 8th Street. It was probably closer to Houston to 8th street. The bar was on the west side of the street in one of those buildings where there might be a store now like Crate and Barrel. There was no sign or windows and there was a big black door like a speakeasy. Someone would open the slot and they’d always know Marsha. They’d open up and in we would go. There was often a fee to get in and they were often private clubs and you had to be a member. That was the premise.
GS: Were you a member of any of them?
KJ: I remember once someone saying to me, “In order to come in here you have to be a member. Give me a dollar.” Then I was a member. They stamped my hand and I was a member. No one took information, you wouldn’t give them your name. There were all kinds of people in there. There were men and women and trans people. They had great music. You went in and there was a big bar on the left, they had a big dance floor and in the back they had these two huge bathrooms without signs on them. I said to Marsha, “Which is the women’s room?” She’d say, “Honey! Just go into whichever one smells best!” (Laughing) “That’s where the good dope’s gonna be.” You just went in and people were standing there with drugs.
GS: In a lot of ways that space sounds incredibly progressive in terms of being mixed more than the bars.
KJ: They were mixed racially, there were probably straight people there and people who liked music. It was very smoky with terrible alcohol – you really didn’t want to drink that stuff. The music was much better than at Gianni’s or Kooky’s and you just danced and danced and when you left it was 8am and bright daylight and you’d walk out and it was like someone slapping you in the face. It was just the most awful feeling in the world. It was often the winter and you were so loaded and it was just horrible to leave. After the first time you went you just didn’t want to leave. It was dark, fun and you’d leave and go home and I’d go to sleep and get up at 3pm.
In a way it was a good plan because it was so much safer for me to go out with Marsha and go home at 8am than to go home at 3am after the dance. It was a much safer plan for me in many ways. I wasn’t much into drugs, I tried things early on that people gave me but a lot of drugs didn’t agree with me. If you hung out with gay men they were all into poppers. I tried poppers – it was like filthy socks! That’s what it smelled like.
GS: I can’t say I’m a big fan of those either (laughing).
KJ: It didn’t do anything for me. Gay men were always doing them. Everybody was always trying to hand you a popper. In the beginning they thought poppers were the cause of AIDS. That was one of the theories. It was a common theory that went around because they were so ubiquitous in gay male circles. I never saw drugs in Kooky’s or Gianni’s but in these clubs in the bathrooms there was a lot of marijuana, there was cocaine, uppers, black beauties, red devils – all of these uppers. People would recognize you after a while, grab your hand and there would be a pill in it.
GS: Was there a lot of sex in those clubs?
KJ: There was some in the bathrooms but I never saw women on the East Coast have sex in bars. On the West Coast women did that. There wasn’t sex in the bars that I saw until the ‘90s when there was a bar on 14th street in Meatpacking for women.
GS: The Clit Club?
KJ: The Clit Club, yes! That’s where women were having sex. They had a downstairs where women were having sex and dancing on the top of the bar counter. I used to go with a friend who was really interested in the scene and polyamory. It was an interesting scene. It was quite popular. There were women of different ages. We were probably among the older women there at that time. I did go to a number of different bars. There was a bar on the east side in the ‘70s with what we called “Blazer Dykes” and I went to The Duchess a lot for various things.
I did go to a lot of bars. Once when I went to Kooky’s and I met a woman who invited me home with her to Queens. She was quite butch and older and she started to get undressed and was covered in tattoos. I was like, “Oh my god!” I didn’t want to be the next name on her body. I’m from a Jewish family and that’s against the Jewish religion. People didn’t tattoo themselves then. It was much later that women started getting tattoos. The woman I went to the Clit Club with had her whole forearm tattoed but that was a later period.
GS: It’s amazing talking to you Karla because you have really witnessed decades of changes not only in the bar culture but politically. It’s incredible to hear about not only the changes in romantic dynamics and gender presentation but ways of dressing and body art and the types of spaces women were going to.
KJ: It’s true! I went out with a lot of women and nobody ever had a tattoo until later on and then everybody started to get tattooed. It had nothing to do with gender or gender identity or anything. When I was growing up if you were tattooed you were either a sailor or a psychopath (laughing). It wasn’t legal! You couldn’t just get tattooed. People forget that these things times are time related.
GS: I guess a sort of final question I would have for you Karla, although I could talk to you for hours and hours you have so many amazing stories, through all the political movements you’ve experienced, all of the waves of bars and clubs and dances, do you feel that lesbian-specific spaces served an important role for women through the decades?
KJ: Oh yes! Just because it wasn’t specifically for me they really were vital. I’m working on the 50th reunion of the Stonewall riots and when the topic of bars comes up women are still angry with the mafia and what we did in the movement was to get people out of the bars. I think it’s an important point for me to say now if you go to the bar you go there because you have a choice and that’s an important distinction! You don’t go to a bar because you have a lack of choice or because it’s the only place on earth you can go and so bars do have a function. They are a social venue, they often had restaurants attached like Bonnie & Clyde’s or Rubyfruit later on. They became places where you could go and have dinner and not be hassled by guys if you were a young woman or you could just have a drink and not be hassled by guys. I think that bars have for lesbians a really important function because now lesbians have many other ways of meeting one another. Lesbians I know often meet each other on apps or on dating sites or in meetup groups so they don’t need the bars for that function.
So, I think for lesbians they are more social venues in the way that men historically got together at a place like McSorley’s to have a drink. I think that’s a wonderful transformation in a way. Because if you go there and you want to meet somebody that’s ok. But if you go to a bar and you don’t want to meet somebody, that’s also ok. That’s the real transformation. Women have choice. Men have a choice too. For decades and decades and probably since the 19th century expect for rich people like Natalie Barney and her salons, nobody had a choice.
GS: I cannot thank you enough Karla for all you have done for our community, your activism and your writing.