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Sapphic Silver Lake
Gender Trouble in the Swish AlpsMW Wilson speaks here to the joys and tensions that attended making lesbian and genderqueer space in Silver Lake in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Does framing "Sapphic Silver Lake" even make sense? We deploy this "antique" art of citation from 1970s Second-Wave Feminism, featured in such titles as 1972's Sappho Was a Right-on Woman, as a point of both homage and critique. Historiography from this era often held that lesbians suffer a "visibility" problem, not only because all of women's history has been suppressed, but also because early Women's Liberation often rejected the lesbian "Lavender Menace." Other historians have noted that working-class lesbian bars did, in fact, thrive during and after WW2. This seems especially true about and around Southern California's munitions industries in San Diego and Long Beach, where the "Rosie the Riveter" phenomenon yielded both all-female work forces and social spaces. Race, class, and gender overlaps between various subcultures remain a central point of inquiry for queer historians, who variously describe how upper-class and bohemian lesbians thrived in trans-Atlantic "salons" pre-WW2, middle-class lesbians often "slummed" in the aforementioned post-war "butch-femme" working-class bars, while other "pink collar" and professional lesbians were often closeted at work and so only congregated in house parties. Lesbian feminism in the 1970s and 80s yielded a number of all women's spaces across the city. De facto segregation in LA led to separate Latina bars like Redz in East LA and African American clubs like Jewel's Catch One in South LA.
Silver Lake's history reflects many of these ebbs and flows of gender-inclusive and gender-separate space and community. Whereas 1950s homophile organizations like ONE Inc. included women from the beginning, Harry Hay's Mattachine and later the Radical Faeries tended to be all-male, even if embracing genderqueer and anti-patriarchal ideologies. Before LA's late 1960s uprisings, police raids were so common that gay men and lesbians would often "double date" at the same bars. Bar owners often had a code, a flashing light bulb or a song on the jukebox, that would alert patrons to start dancing with an opposite sex friend to divert police attention. According to a respondent in The Other Side: A Queer History's Last Call, a documentary about a recently shuttered Silver Lake piano bar, "[T]he bulb would go off and on, which meant 'here come the cops.' And someone would scream 'grab a dyke.' And so we'd all grab a dyke and dance and they'd walk through the place and they'd walk out." Photographs from the Black Cat protest in 1968 as well as accounts of HIV/AIDS organizing confirm cross-gender coalitions.While Silver Lake's gay retail has mostly focused on men, and in particular the leather and BDSM scene, it has had a handful of lesbian bars over the years. As old school dyke bars like Flamingos and Dreams of LA shuttered in the late 1980s, mostly gay male bars like Little Joy and Akbar started to host lesbian nights. As the neighborhood's retail life has become increasingly white and straight, much of Silver Lake lesbian life has become more residential.
We feature our gay male oral history narrators' accounts of sapphic Silver Lake alongside MW Wilson's experience as a trans-man who ran Shotgun Club. As MW Wilson attests in this section's audio clip, while a few mixed and gay male clubs held on in the face of AIDS, gentrification, and dating-apps, by the early 2000s Silver Lake did not provide a place for "dykes and [...] other kinds of gender-non-conforming queer people." In 2004 Wilson took over Shotgun that had been founded by a few friends to take up the mantel of creating such a space in an unlikely collaboration with the leather bar Gauntlet II (now the Eagle). Every Wednesday for four years (an epoch for dyke clubs), Shotgun featured $2 beers, pool, DJs, and events ranging from standup comedy to arm wrestling contests to BDSM demonstrations.
Wilson's collection of ephemera, posters and photos of Shotgun (see the archive section of this chapter) suggests that a number of gender and sexual minority communities overlapped in this dyke/trans/genderqueer club night. A reunion is forthcoming, which Grit and Glamour hopes to document with further oral histories and media.
"[Fred Sands] was a 99% gay [real estate] office. There was like one married lady, there were gay women, and then gay men. There was nobody straight there, with the exception of our receptionist Candye Kane, who was featured on the cover of Jugs Magazine, and she would do phone sex occasionally from her desk.” —Joseph
"And my lesbian friends were so supportive. I think they were the ones who carried us up and over and through it all. I am grateful to them. Three of my really good friends were lesbians. I think that AIDS brought our communities closer and more intertwined at that time. And we began to depend on each other a whole lot more.” —Alvaro
"It was such a wonderful feeling to be part of a network and a family like that. Ivy Bottini [pioneering lesbian feminist activist] worked there. She was a realtor. She was very involved in everything, and everyone there was. It was the most incredible thing. Who needed to go to a bar? Everyone who was there was gay and you could meet people through them. But again there were people in the office who we found out were positive and getting sick. And this was even before testing though." —Joseph
“What would happen with the dyke nights that would spring up in different places, is that straight hipsters would start coming to them. And the dykes wouldn’t want to go there anymore. They wouldn’t want some hipster dude hitting on their girlfriend. And people were like, I don’t want to be hit on by a hipster dude." —MW
“Little Joy Jr.’s was the same thing. One day I walked in at it was ... I’d not been there in a while. And I looked at the people who were there and they looked at me and it was like we both said, ‘What are you doing here?!’ I didn’t recognize any of the people or the type of people." —Alvaro
"We played vintage gay male porn most of the time. And some of the lesbians really hated that, like ‘why are you doing that to us, we don’t want to see this.’ But people were really uncomfortable if we ever played lesbian porn.” —MW
"Because what was then Gauntlet II and is now the Eagle had such a reputation as this leather bar, it was kind of scary to people who hadn’t been there, particularly straight people […] One of the things that made Shotgun last as long as it did was that it was in a place that even when straight hipster people came in, they weren’t going to come back and they didn't stay long.” —MW
“There were some older gay guys who really hated women and didn’t want people in their space and were like 'this is our space,' and I totally understand that but we didn’t have a space anywhere.”—MW
“Vice was coming all the time, and then it became not fun for me anymore because I always to had to mediate between the DJs and the bar owners, and they were having to deal with the guy who was complaining and have to go to meetings with the city.” —MW
Biographies of Narrators (These sound excerpts also appear in the essay sections of "Swish Alps" chapter.)
Joseph Fiorillo was born in Miami, Florida in 1942 and eventually went to school in New York, where he primarily dated girls. Finding gay life by way of 1960's counterculture, he saw all sides of New York's swirling 70s nightlife. Moving to Los Angeles in 1979, Joseph worked as a real estate agent and established a private network of gay friends in and around Silver Lake while observing its thriving nightlife. Joseph’s life story weaves through crucial subcultures of the late twentieth century, charting sexual liberation, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the development of Silver Lake as an important gayborhood in Los Angeles.
MW Cartozian Wilson is a trans guy who was raised as a girl in Silicon Valley. As a child, MW did not want to wear dresses. From an early age, MW knew that “there was something different about me,” what exactly was less clear. A gifted student athlete at a private girls' high school, who also haunted the San Francisco underworld, MW ended up going to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met his first girlfriend. MW eventually got an MFA in film at UCLA and moved to Silver Lake, where in 2004 he took over the legendary dyke/trans/genderqueer club Shotgun, hosted weekly at the Eagle leather bar.
Alvaro Vega grew up in a large Mexican American family in Arizona, knew he was gay when he was five, and first came out when he was in high school. He eventually moved to Silver Lake and immersed himself its gay culture. Alvaro first encountered HIV/AIDS in the local Kaiser hospital where he worked as a pulmonary technician. His oral history provides a view on over three decades of Silver Lake life.
Bill Tutton was born in 1963 and grew up in Buffalo, New York. He has played in bands since high school and came out to his family when he was twenty. In the 1980s, he moved to Los Angeles and gained national recognition in the 1990s as the bassist for The Geraldine Fibbers, a center piece of the Silver Lake music scene. He is married to Alvaro Vega.