QUEER VOICES
09/03/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Before Stonewall: Silver Lake's Black Cat Tavern

If you live anywhere long enough, you begin to see in layers, as if the present were a thin wash of pigment brushed over the past, or over several pasts. This is perhaps truer in Los Angeles than elsewhere, if only because we discard our histories so hungrily here. Look at the sign outside the Black Cat Tavern on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. The grinning cat face, bubble eyed, is there as it has been for nearly half a century. The sign beneath looks just like the one that hung there nearly 40 years ago. It’s new. Until a few months ago the space it filled was empty, a painted frame that you could see the sky through.

On New Year’s Eve of 1966, the Black Cat had been open for just two months. It joined a dozen or so gay bars huddled around a single square mile of Silver Lake. Affection between men was officially a perversion, a crime, a sign of mental illness. But in a few bars in a few neighborhoods, gay men could find acceptance, companionship, the indispensable solace delivered by music, dancing, laughter. That night the Black Cat was packed, the barroom strung with Christmas lights. A trio called the Rhythm Queens was performing, and when the costume contest concluded at New Faces, the saloon down the block, 15 or 20 men in wigs and gowns squeezed into the Black Cat.

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