By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
Since the 1600s, there have been bars and clubs catering to LGBTQ clientele in most major European cities. Today, such establishments are generally known as gay bars, even though they cater to more than just gay men. In the United States, there are a number of bars all claiming to be the first gay bar, most of which date back to Prohibition and the 1920s or 30s. They are predominantly located in major East and West Coast cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
Elmira’s first known gay bar was Mary’s Grill at 112 Lake Street. It was owned by Mrs. Marion Stumpf and opened on November 2, 1967. The bar didn’t exclusively cater to the LGBTQ community, but it was welcoming of them. I recently interviewed two gay gentlemen who specifically mentioned Mary’s as their entry into the gay bar scene. Mary’s Grill remained in operation until around 1980.
|Star-Gazette, September 29, 1972|
The David, owned by John “Jack” Westervelt from 1972 to 1998, catered exclusively to the gay community. It was first located at 203 1/2 Railroad Avenue before moving down the street to 511-513 Railroad Avenue in 1975. Westervelt himself was gay and wanted to create a space where people could come and be themselves. One of the former patrons recalled it as a fun place to meet other members of the LGBTQ community. In addition to offering drinks and some food, The David hosted drag shows by the Legendary Children, a local troupe of drag performers. The bar closed in 1998 when Westervelt retired.
Historically, gay bars across the nation were heavily involved in the gay rights movement. When the gay rights movement began in the late 1960s, homosexual acts were criminalized in every state except Illinois. Gay bars were frequently raided by police. In fact, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, is the event which inspired the Gay Pride movement. Gay bars became a place, not just to drink and meet people, but to organize and resist. As the AIDS epidemic worsened in the 1980s and ‘90s, many bars became involved in fundraising and safe-sex education.
I haven’t been able to uncover any information about the extent to which The David or its clientele were involved in the gay rights movement. Bar owner John Westervelt was himself part of the movement. During the 1970s, he participated in a series of panel discussions about homosexuality and the gay rights movement at Elmira College.
In 1999, Steven West and Barry Johnson opened a new gay bar, Angles at 511-513 Railroad Avenue. It billed itself as an “alternative dance club” welcome to all and regularly hosted events like trivia and karaoke. It was huge in the drag scene, regularly hosting shows as well as the annual Mr. & Miss Southern Tier contests. It closed in 2008.
|Angles bar, exterior, courtesy Star-Gazette|
|Angles bar, interior, courtesy Star-Gazette|
Elmira’s last gay bar was Club Chill, owned by Clinton “Billy” Lewis from 2004 until his death in 2011. The club offered dancing, drinks, and regular drag shows. It took over the Mr. and Miss Southern Tier drag contest after Angles closed. Club Chill management was invested AIDS relief, hosting charity benefits for the Chemung County AIDS Task Force. The club regularly participated in local Pride events as well.
|Star-Gazette, September 24, 2004|
LGBTQ history is seriously under-documented. Everything in this article is based on a pair of oral history interviews and what I could glean from the newspapers. If you have stories you would like to tell about any of the above-mentioned bars or have images or artifacts associated with the local gay community, I would love to hear from you. You can reach me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at (607) 734-4167 ex 207. I look forward to hearing from you.