Passing the torch
KNOXVILLE - Few gay bars make history of the textbook variety. Most everyone knows about the Stonewall Inn, where the 1969 riots defined the gay civil rights movement. Some may even have read about London’s White Swan, infamously and tragically raided in 1810. San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar and New York’s Julius Bar are often name-checked in gay and lesbian history pieces.
Clubs in smaller cities, like those in Tennessee, risk being lost to memory alone. Their histories are seldom written down. Just a few decades ago, gay establishments rarely advertised, so even a historian looking through newspaper archives might never even know some establishments existed. Those who do remember the early clubs are eager to share their stories.
Stacy Breeden of Knoxville wants younger people to know just how much has changed.
“We helped pave the way,” he says, remembering an era that was only a few years removed from Stonewall.
Before there were explicitly gay clubs, the Huddle on Knoxville's Gay Street was doing business in the 1950s.
“It was popular with gays, lesbians, transvestites, prostitutes, newspapermen, and other fringe sorts who didn’t always feel quite as comfortable
at, say, Howard Johnson’s.” says local historian Jack Neely. (A patron at Club XYZ remembers it as a place where “you could go without gettin’ your head busted open.”)
The Huddle is near-legendary to literature fans, as Cormac McCarthy immortalized it in his novel Suttree. McCarthy writes about a “cool and dark” dive with “the door ajar,” where one could observe the patrons on the downtown end of Cumberland as “they came down the steep street and turned in two by two.” He describes a “group of dubious gender” in the corner booth at the Huddle, where drinkers could have beer in a fishbowl or whiskey from a jelly jar.
A few decades later, the events of Stonewall reached the ears of Knoxville. Tony Carlisle --who many locals know as the iconic “Talk of the Town”-- remembers hearing about it from his older brother, who explained the situation in New York by saying, “The queens have had enough of the cops.” Unfortunately for Knoxville’s first non-underground gay bars, the cops had not yet had enough of them.
It was the Seventies, when downtown was crumbling and Knoxville didn’t yet have a Sunsphere, when Anita Bryant was actively opposing rights for homosexuals (and not yet the name of a drink at Club XYZ), and A Taste of Honey was at the top of the charts. Tony Carlisle remembers his first trip to the Carousel as a distinct part of the era.
“The first show I saw was at the Carousel, which had been a straight bar in 1974 --I think it was called Barrister’s," he says. Jamie Chambers was the show director, and she went on to be the first Knoxville winner of Miss Gay Tennessee. I remember seeing Francine Wilson, Arlene Davis and the comedy entertainer Daffodil Murphy.” Not long after, Carlisle took the stage, performed Bette Midler’s “Do you Wanna Dance,” and was hired practically on the spot.
Breeden remembers the atmosphere well: “It was a very fashionable time: Izods, Calvin Kleins--Levi’s were huge. Everybody seemed like they had something in common, and I never had trouble making a friend.”
Carlisle concurs, “In the Seventies it felt like you always had somebody looking out over your shoulder.”
Both recall the cops showing up like clockwork for monthly raids, ostensibly checking IDs, but seemingly hoping to find illicit behavior.
“The drag queens always took care of me,” Breeden, who was underage at the time, remembers. “They would hide me in the dressing room. Once I
was hidden under the register, and could hear the queen at the door beckon the cop to ‘Come on in.’”
The Carousel is still opened today, and may be the longest continually opened bar in Knoxville. The late Seventies and early Eighties saw several gay and lesbian bars come and go: Europa, the Factory, the Pepper Tree and the Back Office Lounge, among others. The Huddle was still plugging along, though Carlisle recalls the latter-day crowd being primarily women.
“Sometimes if the first show at the Carousel didn’t go well,” he says, “We’d all go to the Huddle, put a quarter in the jukebox and perform for tips, then make it back to the Carousel for the second show.”
The party vibe of the Seventies didn’t last forever. Early in the Eighties, AIDS was being discussed in the bars, before it even had a well-known name.
“At the club people called it the ‘gay plague.’ I never would,” says Carlisle. “I just called it ‘the bug.’” Breeden says he felt like the issue of gay
rights began for him with AIDS. “I never even heard about it in the media until the late Eighties.”
While tension between club-goers rose, with rumors circulating about who may or may not be infected, the police intensified the feeling of fear. They continued to make their regular raids, but now, Carlisle reports, they came wearing surgical gloves and rubber masks.
Carlisle feels like the climate in the Eighties was different for other reasons, too. He notes that the music turned darker and harder as people began burning disco records and dressing in black clothing and leather.
“The Eighties was the worst decade,” he says. “Disco died and then AIDS...It was two double whammies in a row.”
The aftermath of the Eighties, Breeden thinks, is that people are a little less friendly. The loss of so many friends and lovers has taken its toll, and the younger crowd, living in an era of greater acceptance, don’t rely on gay bars as their only community anymore.
“Now, they can talk to a friend or maybe even their family,” Breeden says.
Entrepreneur magazine listed gay bars as one of ten businesses facing extinction in 2007, noting, “As gay men and women have been gaining greater acceptance in society, what used to be a hangout for people who felt unwelcome elsewhere is becoming less necessary.” It was
predicted that only the best would endure.
In Knoxville, the gay bar scene may have changed, but it has also most certainly endured. The city now boasts more choices than ever. And while acceptance is ever-growing, those from smaller towns still need the community they can only find where groups gather.
Kenny Coycault, who came to his first gay bar in 1999, agrees: “I was so relieved to find out I wasn’t crazy. I had never even seen Will & Grace. I didn’t know there were people like me.”