Monday, January 10, 2011

Girl, I Want to Take you to a Gay Bar

The concept of a gay bar is not what you would call new.  You could easily say that they had been around for quite a while.  Eighteenth-century London was a city of sex.  Gentlemen had to put in little effort to find a prostitute to their liking, whether a woman, man, or even child.  Men searching for the intimate company of other men would find it in molly houses (quite literally meaning gay houses).

Were molly houses gay brothels? Well, I suppose that depends on which molly house you would be going to.  Some of the houses were in fact a place to find a male prostitute and like any other brothel you could be supplied with a room, liquor, or even a delicious meal if you so pleased.  Other molly houses were gathering places for the gay man, the equivalent of a gay bar.  Liquor, dancing, music and drag queens would be found here, as well as a good time.  Additionally, there were several rooms for rent so if things got hot and heavy on the dance floor you could take the romance to a place more private and equally nonjudgmental- for a price of course.  Margaret "Mother" Clap was a notorious molly house procuress, who presumably ran her business out of her own home and did it for the pleasure of the company; a true fag hag.

Many similarities exist between our contemporary and ancestral gay hang-outs.  Just as metropolises now tend to have regions that the gay community make their own so did London.  Moorfields was one of the notable gay haunts of the city, so much so that it had a "Sodomite's Walk."  Like today, many gay men were known to refer to each other as "queens" which I personally find interesting since many female sovereigns existed at the time.  Queenly spats were also not wholly unusual either as Joseph Sellers describes from personal experience:
"As soon as we came in, Gabriel Lawrence (since hang'd for Sodomy) began to scold at Mark Patridge, calling him a vile Dog, a blowing-up Bitch and other ill Names because Partridge had blab'd out something about one Harrington's being concern'd with him in such Practice."
Oh the dramz! Don't you hate when someone has to cause a scene at the bar?

Spats could be the least of problems regulars at molly houses could have.  Sodomy was a very serious offense, punishable by death (as seen above).  Luckily, evidence was needed in order to charge someone with that offense and that could be a tricky task for the law.  Molly houses were prone to raids which famously happened to Mother Clap's house in 1726 leading to her arrest.  Thank goodness today the only raids that gay bars may suffer from would be those used to catch serving minors!


  1. Very interesting article. It strikes me as odd that although sodomy was illegal at the time, there was still such a strong gay scene. I didn't expect that. I figured such things were done sneakily in inns.

  2. Wow, how interesting. I am very suprised that they had gay bars/brothals back then, though i suppose it was very shunned.

  3. The gay scene was very underground. It was likely something the average person would hear of but not normally come in contact with. In a time where it was fashionable to be a flamboyant and fashionable male there was a lot of camouflage for the gay man in the urban jungle. As long as you kept your mouth shut, the safer you would be!

  4. Very interesting article indeed! And I agree with Renate and Rebecca that it's surprising how present and known those establishments were, but you've already answered to that, Heather :)

  5. «As long as you kept your mouth shut, the safer you would be!»

    Specially while accidentally kneeling in from of other gentlemen...

    Thank you so very much for the post! I have lot's of books on the subject but it is the first time I read about the «Molly houses».

    In Portugal, at the same period, any bar by the docks was a sort of gay bar. The church and authorities turned a blind eye and there are in the National Archives some love letters exchanged between men and the sailors.

    The funny part is that, by the time, sodomy was euphemistically referred as the «English Vice»....

    (post scriptum - In France, the expression «English Vice» refers to Spanking or Canning]

  6. Oh now THAT'S interesting! I knew that in France the German vice was lesbianism because Marie Antoinette was constantly accused of it.

  7. That's funny that it would be called "the English Vice" in England, it was called "the Italian vice."

  8. When it came to homosexuality it was always better to claim that was a foreigner vice....

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  10. Funny you should write about this the same week I finish 'Mother Clap's Molly House' by Rictor Norton, on the same subject.

    I like the Maiden names the guys gave each other, like the butcher called 'Princess Serafina'.

  11. How ironic! How is that book, I have had my eye on it for some time but have yet to get my paws on it.

  12. Hi Heather,
    I have just come across your excellent blog,and I'm really enjoying it. I am writing a novel that is set in 18thC London, specifically at the Royal Academy of Art. The notion of camouflage is a very interesting one,in a time that I believe is more queer than our own in many ways. At the RA at least, it was permissible for men to gaze upon other naked men in the life-classes (no women were allowed, either as artists or models).
    Rictor Norton's book is back in print (2006). You should be able to source a copy at: I have found it very useful (its packed with info) and inspirational. And if you are interested in 18thC queer gothic, here's a link to my book on the topic:
    Max Fincher