Tuesday, September 11, 2012



Location: William Street (near Nash Street), Buffalo, New York, USA

Opened: 1938

Closed: Sometime in 1940s?

Way back on Valentine's Day, my sweetie gave me a copy of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, the now classic history of the Buffalo, New York lesbian community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis. It's a fantastic book that discusses many lost womyn's spaces, particularly the city's lost lesbian bars. I've been meaning to retrieve some of these places to share with all you Lost readers, and this seems as good a time as any.

Winters, we are told, was a popular lesbian bar of the 1940s. According to one of the narrators interviewed for the book, it was "discovered" by a lesbian around 1938. This woman apparently had something of a "big following," and eventually Winters came to be identified as a lesbian space. Like Buffalo's other gay bars of the period, it was believed that Winters was not protected by the Mafia, and that regular payoffs to the police were an accepted cost of doing business. Nobody seemed to recall that it was ever raided.

We're also informed that Winters was located in what was then a "Black section of the City" and that it was owned by two Black women. (Given that no narrators are identified by their real names in the book, we aren't told the women's identities.) Yet the Winters clientele was mostly white. During this time period (the 1940s), most Black lesbians socialized through a network of house parties, not bars. The reason given for this is that Buffalo's Black community was not large enough to provide Black lesbians with the anonymity required to socialize comfortably in a public setting, especially in a setting located within the Black community. It was also felt that a lesbian bar with a primarily Black clientele would be vulnerable to racist attacks.

Winters was characterized as a "small and intimate bar" that "felt like home to its steady clientele." However, even its fans conceded that it was "not particularly well kept," which was typical of gay and lesbian bars of the period. Here's how a woman named Arden described it:

It had a long narrow bar with a room on the side with booths, and then in the back was another room with a big table and couch. There was a bathroom off of it, and in the back was a kitchen. What a terrible kitchen, with rats running around up on the stove. Things can't be as bad as that today. They have to be more glamorous, though you still do see some dirty johns.

Winters also had rooms upstairs where "gay girls and show girls" could spend the night.

Some narrators felt that Winters was a bit cliquish, because a lot of the crowd had been together since the days when Galante's had still been open. (Galante's was a Prohibition-era mixed gay speakeasy behind City Hall on Wilkeson Street. It closed in the 1930s.) The clientele was regarded as somewhat older with a lot of married women. They had a reputation for being somewhat "far out" for the time with their "lively  parties" and experimental attitudes about sex.

As Kennedy and Davis conclude,

Winters was the closest thing to women-defined space that could be imagined for a public bar in the 1940s. Sometimes a few of the Black "racketeers" would come in, but they got along quite well with the lesbians. Leslie even recalls a friend leaving her fem in their care for a few hours. It wasn't that gay men weren't allowed or weren't wanted, they just did not come in any numbers. "They didn't like it too well. They wanted to cruise and Winters was predominantly women" (Arden). Thus in the 1940s lesbians and gay men, consciously or unconsciously, created some separate space from one another. This is curious, particularly given narrators' unanimous and emphatic statements that in the past, unlike today, gay men and lesbians always mixed easily. The difference they perceive might be that in the past there was no ideological commitment to separatism, and no overt hostility between the two groups. The separation might have been due as much to economic factors  as social preference. Perhaps Winters was not a large enough or high-class enough bar for men to want to frequent. Perhaps the owners discouraged men, given that at this point in history they were viewed as more troublesome; more likely to get into fights or to attract the attention of the law.

It is important to clarify that although Winters was primarily a woman's bar, it was not refined or discreet. Arden remembers, "There were quite a few rough butchy girls. . . they were older than me. . . . They swaggered around. They used foul language." Leslie confirms this, remembering how she used to be uncomfortable when many of the butches at Winters would make passes at her young girlfriend.
 Main Street - Buffalo, New York (1940s)

And yet Leslie could only recall two physical altercations involving the women.

One was in the middle of Michigan Avenue. It began at Winters. [My friend] was young and used to be bothered at Winters. Normally she wouldn't go there because women wouldn't leave her alone. She used to ask me to go to the bathroom with her because people would pester her. This night [Denny] yanked her up on the floor, and I took [her] home and told [Denny] I would come [back]. When I came back they [Denny and her sidekick, Jamie] followed me out, they thought it would be two on one, I suppose. And there we fought on Michigan Avenue. Soon some gay guys came by and they took us off two by two, two took me and two took Jamie. We got into their cars. It was a good thing because we would have run into trouble. Pretty soon we could hear the sirens coming, the police.

Today it appears that this section of William Street is nothing but a huge parking area for trucks. In fact, much of the old neighborhood has been torn down and destroyed, with nothing but empty lots and a few light industrial structures to take its place.

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