JEWEL THAIS-WILLIAMS

THE CATCH ONE,

MINORITY AIDS PROJECT,           

VILLAGE HEALTH FOUNDATION

Jewel Thais-Williams is a community-driven activist who owned the Catch One, the first gay, black discotheque in America. 

  

While working at a small market on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, Jewel would look across the street and see the future spot of the Catch One. In 1973, she chalked up the courage to do what very few black lesbians at that time did, become a business owner. The Catch One quickly cracked the surface when queers of all stripes learned that a black lesbian-owned a bar in Central Los Angeles. Within a span of ten years, Jewel’s Catch One became the most diverse and successful club of its kind.

 

Now that Jewel had built a community, she turned her eyes to nurturing it. In 1987, Jewel co-founded the Minority AIDS Project, which helps blacks and Hispanics affected by the disorder. In 1989, after seeing the worst of AIDS, Jewel decided that she needed to take her work further by co-founding Rue’ House, the first housing facility for minority women with AIDS and their children in America. 

 

At 81 years old, Jewel is still directed by her heart and follows her passion by volunteering at the Village Health Foundation, another nonprofit she founded, which provides affordable, safe, and effective health care treatment.

My first interview with Jewel in 2020 happened just a few weeks after the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by a police officer who kneeled on his neck for nine minutes. It was a surreal experience speaking to an 81-year-old woman who had spent her entire life doing things the white supremacist culture in the power structures said she couldn't do. Yet, here we are, 47 years after she opened the most successful black queer disco in the country, still dealing with violent systemic racism.

Jewel: What happened to George Floyd—I hope and pray that the catalyst to the next wave of change will be long-lasting and finally be able to put an end to the period of treating African Americans as second-class citizens in this country. Every time someone brings up reparations for us, it’s "Oh, they don't deserve anything. We've only been using them, riding their backs, stealing their inventions."

This goes on and on and on. With all of black peoples’ contributions to this country—racism has never gone away in my lifetime. As Martin Luther King said in one of his speeches, "We will overcome...it might not be the year, but I'm going to the top of the mountain," so this thing with George Floyd feels like we might be getting a little closer to the mountaintop.

 

To see the adversity and violence that black people in America face today, one can only imagine what it was like for a black lesbian born into poverty in segregated America. Jewel's family was originally from Arkansas. In search of employment and educational opportunities for their family, they relocated to Gary, Indiana, where Jewel was born. Jewel was raised to be a worker and to never take anything for granted. Even when she was home sick from school, she would have to do chores. While this is devastating news to any kid, it instilled in her a work ethic that ultimately allowed her to become a mover and shaker in Central Los Angeles and beyond.

Jewel: It was embedded in all my brothers and sisters as children. My parents worked hard. They didn't believe in leisure time. Black folks that picked cotton didn't have a day off. My mother's mother—she had a total of 11 kids. When they were born, she was picking cotton out in the cotton field. When a baby was born out in the cotton fields, somebody cut the umbilical cord and took the baby to the house and waited for my grandmother to come up to the field and do the nursing.

Despite having several intimate and emotional encounters with other women, Jewel did not realize that she was a lesbian until her mid-20s.

Jewel: There was no big coming-out party for me. I lived closeted and pretended to have boyfriends.

Jewel met her first same-sex partner when working as a clerk at the Safeway Supermarket in Los Angeles. Like so many queers of her generation, coming out as gay was difficult, painful, shameful, and awkward. It took Jewel 11 years to become comfortable with her sexuality and herself.

Jewel: My first lover cleared up what I needed to know about being gay. Just knowing in my head did not change my heart at that time. Of course, it was a process and something that I had not envisioned myself to be even though I was a big-time tomboy.

 

Jobs for African American women in the 1960s and '70s were relegated mainly to the service industry: housekeeping, dishwashing, and other behind-the-scenes labor. A few coveted positions in retail existed, but not for dark-skinned tomboys like Jewel.

Jewel: If you were one of the browner people then, there were things that you couldn't do. They were jobs that you didn't even think about applying for. The darker-skinned, for instance, couldn't work out where the public would see them.

Jewel knew that in America in the 1970s, less than ten years after the Civil Rights Act passed, no one was going to offer her any opportunities. The only way for her to move forward in the world was for her to be her own boss and own her own business.

While working at a small market on West Pico Boulevard, Jewel would look across the street and see Diana's Club, a bar that had once hosted jazz greats. By the 1970s, Diana's Club was a sleepy rundown shadow of its former glory.

Jewel: I went and checked it out. I went past it to check out someplace else, and we drove by looking to see if there was a for sale sign, and there wasn't. When I got back to the market, I did what I did most evenings after I'd run out checking on places—open up the business opportunities section of The Los Angeles Times, and there it was.

Getting the money that she needed to buy Diana's Club seemed like an impossible task. Like scrubbing the floors on a sick day as a child, Jewel worked because she had to. No sick days ever. Jewel put a down payment of $1,000 on Diana's Club with an agreement to pay the remaining $18,000 in two months. Even the public services that existed for small business owners initially rejected her.

August: Why do you think your SBA got denied?

Jewel: Oh, it was again about the blackness thing, but I got around that. My younger sister was married to a fellow who was the branch manager of a Wells Fargo, and he was able to get my SBA loan too. I wouldn't have been able to do it without him.

In the early days, Diana's Club patrons were white working-class people who came to the bar for a happy hour respite in the early days. Needless to say, they weren't thrilled when a black woman took over their space. Even the original employees took an issue.

Jewel: The first day I took over the club, the bartender backed out, said he couldn't work for a black person. Within a week or two, he came back and asked me for his job, and I gave it to him.

Shortly after she claimed her new home, the white clientele returned. Jewel's simple act of owning a business opened their minds and expanded their worldview. Soon, the neighborhood's large black population caught wind of the new black woman-owned bar.

Jewel: At the beginning, I was looking just to have a nice place where we could go and be comfortable, and I knew that it would be predominantly, if not totally, black folk.

August: Why did queer people start showing up?

Jewel: The word got out that a lesbian-owned it. Eventually, there was a fight between a couple of guys that kind of put the brand on it, for sure.

August: Was the fight between a gay person and a straight person?

Jewel: Oh, no, this was lovers. This was two guys.

 

For years, the heart of the gay scene in Los Angeles had been white, West Hollywood. Even today, the 2019 US Census notes that West Hollywood is 80.8% Caucasian and 3.6% black or African American. Things weren't dissimilar in 1973 when Jewel took over Diana's Cub, the Catch One’s seedling. In 1973, to keep away African Americans and other minorities, West Hollywood clubs would make minorities show numerous forms of identification and, often, take it further by enforcing blatant and white-only rules.

Jewel: When I opened that club in the early '70s, West Hollywood clubs wouldn't allow any people of color and no women.

While still not fully out in public, Jewel, like the rest of her queer patrons, found a place where they could be their authentic selves without judgment or fear of violence. In 1975, Jewel purchased the rest of the building, including the large ballroom upstairs, and named it Catch One, a spin-off on the mainly male bargoers who would show up each night, hoping to catch one of the other studs and take them home.

August: Were you a good dancer? Are you a good dancer?

Jewel: I could dance, but I was extremely shy. Many people who came to the club over the years didn't know that I owned it. I was either tending the bar, working the door, or mopping the floor, cleaning up spills, whatever. I just kind of blended in. There were those that were even wanted to say that the club—that I was fronting off for the mafia. I would let them think that or whatever because it gave me a chance to stay in the background still.

August: They'd be scared of you a little bit, too, I guess.

Jewel: Yes, kind of.

As ridiculous as this may sound, same-sex dancing was actually illegal in the Catch One’s early days.

Jewel: Folks were told that they couldn't touch each other and dance. We kept the music pumping, and people had to virtually dance by themselves, and if they started to touch or whatever, we would just go over and politely ask them not to.

Dancing laws aside, you can't open a black gay disco with a black lesbian owner and not expect a little attention from the police.

Jewel: On a Saturday night, there might be six police cars parked out in front intimidating—trying to intimidate people from coming in and going. There was, of course, writing for anybody that came out that was drunk that was driving the car. We always tried to check that, and, in fact, we tried to follow all rules and regulations and norms to the 10th degree.

August: Would you have felt comfortable calling the police if something terrible would have happened?

Jewel: There was a song by Casey Chapman, and one of the lines from her song is, “The police always come late if they come at all,” and that's pretty much the way it was. We pretty much policed ourselves everywhere, I think.

Prejudice towards Jewel and the Catch One expanded even to the fire department, who showed little interest in investigating a suspicious arson that nearly destroyed the club in 1985—closing it for a full two years.

Jewel: The fire department never came out to investigate after the fire.

August: Why do you think the fire department didn't go?

Jewel: Oh, they wanted me out too. It's like a black gay club in the ‘80s, the early ‘80s. Forget it. Nobody wanted me there.

August: Did that make you want to fight harder or—I mean, you've obviously—

Jewel: Oh, yes, without a doubt. I always had that in my soul that I will go when I get ready to go, not before.

As hundreds of black gay and trans people found their voice in the post-Stonewall world, their dream realized came to a grinding halt in the 1980s.

In June of 1981, Pride Month, the first GRID case, gay-related immune deficiency, later diagnosed as AIDS, was reported in the United States. It spread quickly. By the next year, there were over 750 known cases and 618 deaths.

Jewel: One of my bartenders, who was a friend of mine too, called me when he was on his way to pick up his check. He said, "I'm going to get tested." He knew what the symptoms were. He stopped by after and said, with tears in his eyes, he said, "Sister, I got it," so he died along with a bunch of other people, lots of them.

As the government finally began to take action against the AIDS epidemic, Jewel saw that, naturally, black people and other minorities, who always struggled for equal access to health care, were, again, left to die. Seeing yet another void that needed to be filled, in 1987, Jewel and Carl Bean, an openly gay minister who founded the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, founded the Minority AIDS Project, which provides invaluable treatment and support to their community.

Jewel: I was asked to be a member of the board of directors for APLA, a nonprofit that strives to achieve health care equity for LGBTQ folks, and, I said under one condition—-the Minority AIDS Project had very little funding coming. It was like, I'll be on the board of APLA, but you've got to do something with and about the Minority AIDS Project and make your face more friendly for folks to come to get food and health services and stuff like that. I wanted blacks to be able to come. It's very, very segregated to the community, the gay and lesbian community in those days.

During this time, Jewel met another woman who shared her spirit for charity and community work.

August: How did you meet Rue, and was it love at first sight?

Jewel: I liked her from our first meeting. It was at Unity Fellowship Church. It was a meeting at the beach at Santa Monica at this Episcopal church. They were sending a bus to pick up some of the church members, and Rue was in charge of that. That was kind of like our first unofficial date. Then, I don't know, we went to someplace, and the next thing we knew it was really late, so I asked her if she wanted to spend the night so she won't have to drive for four hours. She could leave in the morning, whatever, and I'd sleep on the couch. Needless to say, I didn't sleep on the couch. That was like 32 years ago.

August: Well, I'm glad you didn't sleep on the couch. That's a perfect ending.

Jewel: 'Tis true.

In 1989, she co-founded Rue's House with her long-time partner, Rue Thais-Williams. Again, paving the way for others, Rue's House was the first housing facility for women with AIDS and their children in the United States.

Jewel: Every day we would have food because, for some people, this was the only meal that they got. Usually, a social worker would find placements for the kids of the women who had AIDS, especially after they've gotten real sick, so our idea was for these women to keep their kids, some of which have AIDS.

Many of these women lived and died at Rue's House, but they did it with dignity and compassion. Through all this pain, the Catch One survived, and, as the '80s turned into the '90s, it became one of the hottest clubs in Los Angeles. Despite its high attendance, Jewel told me that she didn't realize how big the club had become until she watched the documentary Jewel's Catch One, which immortalizes her life. She remembers an inclination she had when celebrities such as Sylvester, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Janet Jackson, and, even, Madonna danced all night at the Catch One.

Jewel: It started off slow, and it just kept going and going and going. The celebrities started coming from and all over. They'd fly in from Europe and leave their bags to maybe get a sighting—Madonna sighting.

But, ironically, when the bar was at the height of its success, Jewel found herself unchallenged, a dangerous state for someone so akin to hard work. Compounded on this was the never-ending party of the Catch One that surrounded her. The temptation was everywhere.

Jewel: I was getting bored, mostly bored, because prior to getting the nightclub, I didn't stay on any job too long. Once I got to the club, there was no time for boredom until about 25 years after I started it.

We have interviewed Dr. Don Kilhefner, who has dedicated most of his life to his therapy practice, extensively. Jewel was one of his patients, and she credits Dr. Don for guiding her into a new way to help others.

Jewel: I told him I needed to put something else on my plate, so he suggested acupuncture school, because he had a patient who was attending acupuncture school—that I check it out, but it took me about a year to make up my life to do that.

While she still owned the Catch One, Jewel embarked on her next challenge. In 1988, she went back to school and got her Master's Degree in Oriental Medicine.

Jewel: I was overweight from the time I was nine, ten years old. I was always reading fashion magazines, and I tried every diet that came out. In this process, I had learned quite a bit about better nutrition and all that kind of stuff.

Minority communities have always been susceptible to the worst of the majority, whether it is as broad as an opportunity or as specific as equal access to healthcare. With the current coronavirus pandemic, approximately one in four deaths are among blacks, even though blacks only account for 13% of the population. It's hard to imagine the disparity that existed as recently as 2001 when Jewel founded the Village Health Foundation, an alternative clinic that offered non-toxic treatments for people living with ailments that they could not treat with Western medicine.

 

Jewel: I saw this—I think it was a 2020 episode, one of those magazine-TV type things, where they asked five or six doctors if they treated black people differently, and each one of them said yes.

Since its inception, it has expanded to provide affordable, accessible, and culturally competent healthcare treatment, with services provided in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. When Jewel dives into a project, she doesn't see color, culture, or creed. She needs to help all. Not herself, not one, not a few, but all.

I have come to realize that the people who created lasting change have never maintained a selfish ego. Instead, they continue to work because they don't think that their accomplishments are enough. There is something in them that moves, moves, moves.

August: Do you ever think that you created a community?

Jewel: Not specifically, no. It was just that this needed to be done, that needed to be done. I see someone sleeping on the bench across the street and then see if I can find them a place to stay, so it was just me being available and realizing how fortunate I was to be in a position to do this thing.

Today, Jewel is still a significant figure in Los Angeles and beyond. Pico Boulevard and Norton Avenue, in front of the Catch One, has been named in her honor. At 81 years old, Jewel hasn't slowed down. While she sold the Catch One in 2015, she still volunteers part-time at the Village Health Clinic. Whatever needs to be done, and wherever she is needed, Jewel just works. Now, as an elder, she realizes in a different way that her work has paid dividends.

August: If you could give advice to a downtrodden queer person, what would your advice be?

Jewel: I would probably start with learning to love yourselves. Look in the mirror every day, and say I love you just as you are. There's a universal plan for everybody's presence here on this planet. How did I happen to go to this place? Why did that idea come into mind? Why did my brother say, "Why didn’t you just keep working at the liquor store?" I always said no, and why did I think of a bar? I was not a bar person. I just think that everything goes according to plan. The important part is you just being willing to carry out whatever you wish in the end. 

The above interview was previously featured in the QueerCore Podcast. Text and research by August Bernadicou and Chris Coats.

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