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Fighting for Third Places: The LGBTQ+ Civil Rights Movement

The topic that started it all! When I was planning our Cocktails & Civil Rights event, I was particularly interested in how places can become catalysts for change. Familiar with the stories of Stonewall and the significance of bars to the LGBTQ+ community, I wanted to learn about how these were not just gathering places, but places where people could express their identity and fight for social change. How did gay bars become 'a thing'? What did these spaces mean to people? Why did bars feature so prominently in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement? What were the different methods of activism in the LGBTQ+ rights movement?

To kick off our virtual Cocktails & Civil Rights exhibit (join as a member to get all the access), we are chatting about community spaces, also known as ...

The Need for LGBTQ+ Bars

During the 20th century (and still today), LGBTQ+ individuals and communities faced discrimination, harassment, and violence. But the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals, on both the individual and societal level, varied based on political and religious sentiment.


A brief period of acceptance of individuals and gay bars, as popular culture and celebrities openly discussed homosexuality.


The resurgence of conservative beliefs and morals, which forced individuals to hide their identities and sexualities. LGBTQ+ identity was medicalized as a mental illness and treated with electroshock therapy, castration, and lobotomies.

Two unknown American sailors in a photo booth. Image courtesy of Friends of the National WWII Memorial.


While the public conversation still focused on a heterosexual nuclear family, WWII provided service members the opportunity to live and work in a same sex environment. LGBTQ+ individuals were able to express their identity and find partners while in service.


The Lavender Scare was a period of moral panic about LGBTQ+ community members in the government. LGBTQ+ individuals were declared national security risks and seen as more likely to be communist sympathizers, and were dismissed from government positions en masse. The Lavender Scare ran parallel to McCarthyism and The Red Scare.

Gay Bars: (Mostly) Safe Spaces

In the 1960s, gay bars rose to prominence and served as safe havens for many LGBTQ+ individuals and community members. These Third Places provided a safe environment for experimentation, expression, connection, support, and community.

More than a place to drink and gather, gay bars were also places for education and part of many people’s coming out experience.

"‘Gay bars … teach and enforce the ethics and rules of gay life and pass on traditions and gay culture. One learns how to make out, to use gay slang.’ Bars are a place to find fellowship." --Dick Leitsch

However, while gay bars were spaces to learn, connect, and express one's identity, LGBTQ+ bars were also targeted by law enforcement because of their function as Third Places in the LGBTQ+ community.

Until the 1970s, It was illegal to serve gay people alcohol. LGBTQ+ individuals could be arrested and charged with sodomy, vagrancy, loitering, lewd acts, and/or wearing a disguise (dressing in drag). Raids by law enforcement would result in bars being closed, arrests, and violence.

LGBTQ+ bars “were a public place where gay people could meet and start to have a conversation, where they didn't feel like sexual freaks or somehow not part of the larger social fabric. From that came culture, politics, [and] demands for equal rights."

-- Gerard Koskovich

The raids on these Third Places launched the Gay Rights Movement with the Stonewall Riots...


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