Pride in Places: Oldest gay bar in America gets a new owner and fresh programming

The White Horse Inn from the street with a mural with the words
Credit: The White Horse Inn

You would’ve never thought White Horse Inn was a gay bar when it first opened in Oakland in 1933, most likely because queerness was illegal and homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. Although the establishment might be considered the oldest running gay bar in America, it didn’t identify as a gay bar throughout its existence. There wasn’t a word yet for queer allies.

Its first owner, Abraham Karski, purchased White Horse Inn alongside an impressive hospitality portfolio that included the Grand Lake Theater, another Oakland landmark, and the see-and-be-seen bastion Leamington Hotel.

White Horse didn’t cater to queer people but served them without prejudice. Karski couldn’t have predicted that the bar would manifest into a neighborhood watering hole for inclusivity. The type of patrons that frequented the venue were neighborhood college kids, Oakland punks, and the discreet gay residents of the area.

As the years went by, it became an infamous spot where working-class East Bay men, sailors, and soldiers got “friendly”. During the fervent police raids of the 1950s and 1960s, when almost half of Bay Area gay bars were shut down or raided weekly, The White Horse flew under the radar – thus serving as a haven for queers. Did the bar have deep pockets? Or was it incredibly discreet? No one truly knows. Since its proximity to the liberal University of California Berkeley campus, the bar always had a reputation for being an extension of gay life on campus where long-haired hippies met to discuss anti-war efforts in the 1970s.

Not without its controversy, the bar refused to distribute the liberation Gay Sunshine Magazine or allow same-sex dancing when it was banned by the state. This landed a boycott in September of 1970 which eventually led to the lifting of the statewide “no touching policy”. The bar also had a history as a popular lesbian hangout since it was next door to the now-closed feminist bookshop Mama Bear. Older patrons can remember cruisey women’s nights throughout the 1970s.

Over the decades, White Horse evolved into a full-fledged gay bar and was acquired by gay owners seeking to embrace its history and bring it into modern times. The bar became known for its legendary drag king shows, karaoke nights, dance parties, pool tables, jukeboxes, and one of the most femme-centered East Bay hangouts.

On July 4, 2022, Patty Nishimura Dingle took over Oakland’s White Horse Bar from Chuck Davis, who owned the bar for over 20 years. This new ownership brought a new era of to the historic space, further cementing its transformation from being just an inclusive place to drink to proudly existing as a gathering space for the LGBTQ+ community.

The dance floor at the Whitehorse Inn is full of people lost in music and jubilee.
Credit: The White Horse Inn

In the last couple of months, the bar has begun to host a new era of events at the historic space. Queer First Fridays, what started as a queer Oakland art walk after party, is hosted by Bay Area’s Vogue and Tone dance teacher Sir Joq and nightlife sensation Johnny Bale that features drag performances, all the looks, and sweaty dance parties. Theresa Bale, the sister of Johnny and creator of QFF, tells us about the party’s inception:

A group shot of the crew who puts on Queer First Friday in Oakland.
Credit: Johnny Bale

“Queer First Fridays humbly started in the summer of 2017 on the back patio of an Oakland brewery. The short-term goal: a birthday party and queer friends creating a safe space. Space to feel seen, feel love, and feel community. QFF is bigger than a physical location. It’s a feeling and an experience. The vision of QFF is around the concept of friends and community coming together and celebrating our queerness, our similarities, and even our differences. Mourning losses, being scared and vulnerable together. Dancing. Singing. Partying. Laughing. Crying. Cry laughing. Laughing so hard our faces hurt. An unspoken notion of what family should be. Our chosen families. A group of people who have intentionally chosen to love, embrace and support each other. Chosen families grow together. And sometimes even grow apart. We need space and boundaries to grow on our own. To fall right back together. One thing that remains true for my chosen QFF family is loyalty. The ride-or-die types. The ones that make you feel like you’re home.”

Dana Iwaniec, an East Coast transplant who throws trans-focused nightlife experiences with witty themes in the Bay via the party histrionixxx recently unleashed a “Jersey Shore”-themed party at the White Horse called “Bump-it”. “If you wear your hair in a bump-it or have a Jersey blowout you get in for free!” exclaimed Iwaniec when we spoke to her about the latest event. “I really love the White Horse, it’s one of those storied East Bay queer dives, we don’t have that many long-time gay bars compared to SF. The bar just recently changed owners to queer women of color. There are new parties, but many of the popular classics will stay as well”

Vera the drag king poses for the camera in facial hair and vibrant pink ye make-up.
Credit: Vera Hanush

One of those events is produced by Vera “My drag troupe, the Rebel Kings of Oakland, has been producing our show at the White Horse twice a month (every 1st and 3rd Wednesday) for what will be 13 years this June,” she says. “My troupe is a king troupe but the show is open to all and very welcoming to newer performers, and the show is a beautiful, inclusive, and welcoming space for performers to express themselves, play with gender, etc! Jota Mercury and I are the co-hosts. I myself discovered both drag and my gender at this show we’re all about performer support and encouragement and community uplift. I figured out I was non-binary because of drag, because I feel so myself in drag; one of my 20 Drag children in fact was the first to ask me if I wanted to use they/them pronouns.” Vera is also on the board of the Oakland-based drag festival Oaklash which has events throughout the Bay each Memorial Day Weekend. ”

Coco Buttah lip-sings at Dollz in a purple wig and fringed body suit.
Credit: Photo of Coco Buttah by The White Horse Inn

Murillo who was a long-time customer before recently being hired as a bartender at The White Horse Inn says “Since the ownership change I feel like there is a shift in clientele. There seems to be a more diverse crowd and a more queer energy. ” When speaking about regulars and poignant people at the bar Murillo noted “Ohh my fellow bartender Captain, she has worked at the White Horse for like 14 years and is a neighborhood staple. She has all the stories. Also, Dennise is the manager. Her partner, DJ Lady Ryan, throws an inclusive queer POC party called Sweetspot. The bar is divey, which I love. We have all the classics beers and cocktails.”

The White Horse Inn has a host of new and old events to keep you from chasing the dragon in San Francisco such as Ava Lashay’s Dollz, (a sassy drag party that runs on select Wednesdays and Fridays) Good Times (“Weekly Beats & Soulful Treats for Women and their allies”), and Quaint*But*Extra. (A Sunday Disco & House Tea Dance).

DJ Nate Manic in a white mesh shirt and sunglasses and Dj Charles Hawthorne in canary yellow embrace and smile at the camera.
Credit: Nate Manic

Nate Manic, the host Quaint*But*Extra* with Charles Hawthorne, says “I am SO happy to see the White Horse taking a new direction and can’t wait to be a part of what’s turning into a really solid Sunday afternoon lineup. I’ve been looking for a DJ home in the east bay for a while now and this just feels really right.”

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