Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Palais

655 Deaubien (2009)
The Palais

Location: 655 Beaubien, Detroit, Michigan, USA

Opened: 1949

Closed: 1975

Roey Thorpe has published a wonderful article called "The Changing Face of Lesbian Bars in Detroit, 1938 - 1965." This is her description of the Palais:

The Palais, also known as "the Pit," was more than just a place to drink or dance on weekend nights; it served as a social center for white, working-class lesbians during its twenty-five years in business, sponsoring parties, picnics, and other social events. Billie Hill describes a "great big snifter glass sitting on the bar" into which customers would drop their spare change. When the glass got full, the bartender would use the money to buy supplies for a picnic. This responsibility fell to the bartender because, as Billie explains, "Back then, most all the bar owners were straight." The bartender or manager, always a lesbian, would go the extra mile for her community. 

Thorpe goes on to explain that these picnics had a "special signficance" as lesbians of that time seldom gathered in public, out of doors, and in the light of day. Pulling off these picnics successfully required "courage and mutual support," and it was not unheard of for the women to be threatened with violence by roving groups of young men, even in a public park. In fact, Billie Potts describes one incident in which "the girls" picked up baseball bats and chased some guys "a half-mile down the road." Nobody else bothered them for the rest of the day.    

In addition, Thorpe notes that the Palais "provided the space and audience for social rituals that were usually arranged by and restricted to heterosexual families," such as birthday parties, lesbian and gay weddings, and even baby showers for regular patrons.

To a modern "queer" audience, the organization of the space within the Palais would have seemed odd indeed. The back part was "just gays and mostly girls" while the front part was "for sightseers or the gay boys." Yet this was considered progressive for the time, given that a previous "lesbian" Detroit bar, the Sweetheart, had merely separated lesbians from others by "social custom." What this meant in reality was that lesbians were constantly subjected to the leers of heterosexual tourists and voyeurs. The existence of "clear physical boundaries" within the Palais provided a "physical turf to defend." In contrast to the Sweetheart (which didn't seem very sweet at all), the Palais employed "big, tough lesbians as bartenders, waiters, and bouncers." As Thorpe observes,

These women were responsible for asking heterosexual men who stepped out of line to leave the bar, and resorting to physical violence if they refused. Not only did working for the bar give a few of the more hard-core butches a means of supporting themselves without compromising their butch personas, but patrons of all sexual orientations had the unique experience of seeing lesbians whose job was to maintain safe lesbian space. Heterosexuals were not excluded, but their behavior was regulated by lesbians.

Even then, violence was "frequent" and there was a lot of "tension" when straight men tried to cross "the boundaries" and "make out with the girls." As one patron told Thorpe, these "sightseers" seemed to think they could "take this gal and show her what the hell life was all about." As a result, "fighting became an integral part of bar life and tough lesbian identity. This was necessary because lesbian turf was so vulnerable to encroachment by heterosexuals."

As a distinctly working-class bar, the Palais was not comfortable to middle-class lesbians. That niche was filled by Fred's Bar, which opened in 1952 "at a northeast section of Detroit" which was closer to the suburbs. The clientele there was apparently "exclusively lesbian," and this exclusivity was maintained by having a back-door entrance. In general, Fred's is described as "nicer" and "cleaner" than the Palais, and almost "barny" in size by comparison. There were fewer "memorable characters" at Fred's, but there wasn't much fighting either. It closed in 1956.

Detroit Gay History has also collected some interesting recollections about the Palais. Certainly the fights and the violence were remembered, and how "men were not welcome." Even some "hippie" type guys selling the Gay Liberator newspaper got the cold shoulder. One commentaor recalled something about somebody named "Big Joyce" killing herself there. Another remembered that the bartender was somebody named "Big Geri." In general, just a great "hang-out bar," we're told. Detroit Gay History also records one other lesbian bar, Bingo's, which was located at 7101 Puritan.

Update: This June 2014 article in PrideSource also discusses the Palais.

Photo: The Detroiter, a sports bar now at the same location (2009)

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