Because the Night: Nightlife and Remaking the Gay Male World, 1970-2000

Eric Gonzaba

Advisor: Suzanne E. Smith, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Zachary Schrag, Stephen Robertson, John D'Emilio

April 11, 2019, 01:45 PM to 03:45 PM


This dissertation examines how nightlife culture shaped the urban gay communities of Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore beginning in the 1970s. It analyzes the ways gay citizens in the urban Mid-Atlantic confronted internal bigotry, exclusion, and violence at nightlife establishments and the diverse ways oppressed queers (often people of color) resisted these forms of discrimination.  Far from being sites of sanctuary and community-building, this dissertation argues that places of gay nightlife (like bars, bathhouses, and cinemas) became the front lines in the battle to define gay liberation.

Following the famous 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, gay activists indeed took to the streets, to demand equal treatment under the law and access to straight institutions, like marriage. However, contestations at nightlife, mainly among gay men themselves, suggest an, at best, fragile homosexual coalition or community. To fight issues of racism and sexism within their gay male world, activists in Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia engaged in strategies of resisting discrimination in their evening communities. Some demanded inclusion into segregated bars, while others retreated to create their own versions of homosexual society. Some activists sought to make nightlife spaces free from violence from unwelcoming neighbors. Others tried to defend sites of sexual pleasure from conservative gay political activists, activists who grew increasingly uncomfortable with bathhouses and porn cinemas being tied to the gay movement. Battles over the meaning of nightlife and gay pleasure underscored significant divisions within the gay rights movement, especially along lines of race, gender, and class.

Gay men in the 1970s through the 1990s began to understand that the ways they interacted and regulated their leisure lives at night reflected broader trends in how gay politics might develop. Gay men fought for access to gay bars, bathhouses, cinemas, and cruising spots because they understood pleasure (dancing, drinking, finding sexual partners) as fundamental to their freedom. In the end, nightlife proved a critical battleground for the ever-expanding gay rights movement because it united and fractured queer coalitions.