Private Clubs, a Liquor Code Loophole and Lucky: How Gay Life Came of Age in Pittsburgh

Mar 13, 2015

Doug Rehrer started graduate school at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1978.

“It was a fun time but you always had to be aware of your surroundings because you could end up in a very bad situation,” he said.

Rehrer is not talking about his religion classes.

“I got involved in the bar scene because my work-study fell through."

Almost every night, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Rehrer worked at the Tender Trap, a gay bar located on South Highland Avenue in East Liberty. He could walk there from school.

“It was exhilarating," he said. "It was liberating.”

At the time, Rehrer needed a little liberation. A fellow student told Rehrer he was being targeted for homosexuality and asked Rehrer to formally come out to the school. Risking alienation, Rehrer wrote a letter to the administration and unfortunately, his identity was leaked.

“My life for the remainder of the school year was very interesting. They were stealing my food from the community kitchen; I would walk into a bathroom and they would just run out and it’s like, don’t flatter yourself,” he laughed.

Rehrer’s story is one of thousands collected by Harrison Apple, co-director of the Pittsburgh Queer History Project.

“What our project really tries to do is preserve a bygone era from the 1960s to the 1990s of all these LGBT individuals,” Apple said.

The project began as an undergraduate research fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University in the summer of 2012. A friend invited Apple to excavate an abandoned after-hours club in East Liberty. There he uncovered the remnants of a nearly extinct ecosystem of gay clubs and bars.

“It was a time capsule," he said. "There were drinks on the bar. Soda cans had been sitting there for so long that the acid had eaten through the aluminum. There were keys from an employee of the Nabisco baking company, clip-on earrings. I know every brand of cigarette somebody smoked at that club.”

The crux of the excavation was pulled from a found wallet: a membership card for Travelers, an after-hours club run by the fulcrum of the city’s LGBT community, said Apple.

“His name was Robert Johns, but everybody knew him as Lucky,” he said.

Lucky was a charmer. Openly gay, he worked at a series of bars around the city and developed a loyal following that helped him obtain a social club charter. All of Pittsburgh’s clubs, and there were hundreds of them — the Elks, the Moose, Veterans of Foreign Wars — required a charter to operate. A chartered club could obtain a liquor license to serve registered members and operate after hours.

“Anyone who’s ever tried to buy a six pack of beer in Pittsburgh will tell you our liquor codes are insane. And we used them to work to our advantage,” said Tim Haggerty, Apple’s adviser and director of the Humanities Scholars Program in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“These private clubs were built for what we think of as fraternal interests, and we were just a really big fraternity," Haggerty said. "What Lucky saw was a loophole through which one could have a gay club that would not be a public nuisance because of its private membership.”

Just 40 years ago, serving a drink to a gay person could be a criminal offense, and most club and bar patrons preferred a degree of anonymity, Rehrer said.

"Nobody ever used a last name," he said. "It was one of those things you forgot, just in case." 

The private nature of the clubs allowed gay life to develop in relative safety, Haggerty said. 

"Many of the people who went to these clubs were closeted, except for maybe the one or two nights a week where they went out to these clubs and had a gay identity," he said. "The world was different. And you negotiated that world differently." 

Not everyone in Pittsburgh's gay community frequented the bars and clubs, said Apple, noting that people of color, women and trans women aren't well-represented in the photographs donated to the project. 

"While faces may not end up in our photographic archive, it doesn't mean they're not there," he said. "There are these vacancies that we're starting to look at because those start to articulate the archive through their absence." 

Haggerty added that the opportunities and access to be found in the gay community at the time were easier for men than for women, easier for white people than black people. 

"The biases and prejudices of Pittsburgh repeat themselves in the gay world," he said. "It's not a utopian history." 

As Pittsburgh entered economic decline, many in the city's working class gay community didn't join the era's out-migration. Instead — maybe alone, maybe behind a bar, maybe at a cruising spot — they found ways to survive within communities they'd been born into, in a society opposed to a central part of their identities. Apple is working to make this "twilight world" of Pittsburgh's history better known.

"A lot of these people are getting older, a lot of them are passing away," said Apple. "If we don't do this work it will likely never happen." 

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