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In the 1950s, Robbie Robinson was in the army and was later stationed at Parks Air Force base in Dublin, California. In 1957, he crossed the Bay Bridge and landed in San Francisco where he found his true self and eventually created a cultural shift that forever impacted what we now call gay bars. In 1962, he and seven other men founded the Tavern Guild, the first gay business association in the United States. The Tavern Guild’s purpose was simple: protect the owners and employees of gay bars and the people who frequented them. The Tavern Guild also organized fundraisers and charity events including the annual Beaux Arts Ball, which served as the springboard for the Imperial Court System, an international network that hosts drag balls to raise funds for charities in need. In 1980, the Tavern Guild claimed a member base of at least 184 individuals and 86 businesses. It ceased operations in 1995. 

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Robbie Robinson and Bob Thompson at the Silver Dollar; courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library. 

“I arrived in San Francisco in 1957, and at that time in California, it was illegal to be a homosexual. You could not congregate because it was against the law. If you had a bar and gay people came into it, you could get in an awful lot of trouble and lose your license. You couldn’t even work at a bar if you were gay. If you got arrested and had a book of matches that said the name of a suspected gay bar, they could arrest you. That’s why we stopped making matches at the Hideaway where I worked.

It got really tough in the late 50s with the ABC, Alcohol Beverage Control, and the police department. They did everything they could to close a bar that catered to those they thought were homosexuals. Because of the police harassment, people were scared to go to the bar. We decided one day we would try to do something as employees, not owners. First, we created a phone tree, so if a gay bar was raided, we would call another gay bar, and they would call another gay bar, and we would stay connected that way. What did we do next? We formed the Tavern Guild. 

Robbie Robinson, The Tavern Guild, 1950s Gay Bar, Society of Individual Rights Gay Bars, Tavern Guild San Francisco, 1950s gay activist, The Imperial Court, 1950s queer bar, 1950s lgbtq

James Robbie Robinson dressed as Zorro at the Hideaway Halloween Party in 1960; courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library.

And with that, we went on. As an example—we served an awful lot of Hamm beer. We decided we would go to Hamm and say, if you don't do something about your employees not wanting to supply a queer bar and treat us with respect, we will stop selling your beer and will sell somebody else's. Well, that worked. Hamm's beer became sort of a friend. So, let's go to the liquor salesman. We said we're not going to serve your bourbon anymore unless you stand up for us a little bit. So, by George, they did. Little by little, things got better. But in the meantime, as the Tavern Guild, we also decided to suggest that liquor licenses be held by corporations, not an individual, because if it was taken from an individual, they could never have another.

Of course, we still had our issues. For example, if you had a transsexual in the bar and the police came in, then, of course, there would be trouble. I had a friend, Michelle, who was an entertainer and a wonderful guy. He came into the bar to entertain. He was at the front door with the owner and me, and the police came in. Of course, Michelle was dressed as a woman. The cop looked at him and said, “Are you a boy?” to which Michelle said, “No, I'm a man!” I couldn't believe it. But we went to jail anyway. I was arrested several times. The police would always set me up, but I survived it all, and look where we are today.”

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