Black Cat Cafe




The Black Cat Cafe opened in 1933. It is the Bohemian Bar referenced in Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, and becomes a cultural mecca for writers, artists, bohemians, beatniks, and queers. In the 1940’s, Jose Sarria, a waiter at the Black Cat, organized a series of Sunday afternoon “drag operas” and “drag balls”. In 1942, thanks to a new military policy that banned homosexuality from the armed forces, many men were discharged from service and sent to San Francisco. The drag queen Imperial Court, still alive today, is said to have originated here. In 1949, there an attempt was initiated to close the bar due to its particular crowd, but in 1951 the Supreme Court ruled that a bar couldn’t be closed simply due to the clients it attracted. Because of this, The Black Cat broke down barriers that prevented openly queer spaces from existing. In 1963, the Black Cat’s liquor license was revoked by the state the morning before the bar’s annual Halloween party, which was held anyway without alcohol. The next day the Black Cat closed down permanently. Within a week, the San Francisco police had closed down five other ‘gay bars’, and by 1964 only 18 remained of the 30 that existed the year before. In The Grassroots and the City, Manuel Castells argues that The Black Cat established an important cultural atmosphere for queer community characterized by fun and humor, inspiring the development of queer cultural expression in the form of feasts, celebrations, street parties, public and private bars, bathhouses, and sex clubs.

Jose Sarria performing at the Black Cat (1961)

Jose Sarria performing at the Black Cat (1961)

Jose Sarria

Jose Sarria


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