With its clapboard siding, Formica countertop, and peanut M&Ms dispensers, the White Horse Inn is a sincere, musty dive that managed to become one of the oldest LGBT bars in America through sheer force of will. In the post-WWII era it was a place where well-dressed, closeted bachelors listened to cabaret performances or waltzed to Perry Como over the polished parquet floor. In the ’70s, it was taken over by gay hippies who staged sit-ins to protest a long-entrenched “no-touching” policy, and forced the bar’s heterosexual owners to distribute their newspaper, Gay Sunshine. In the ’80s, it lost a spate of bartenders to AIDS. In the ’90s, it was a middle-American counterpart to the hipper, cooler bars in San Francisco’s Castro District.
“I heard it was sort of a time-capsule divey gay bar,” said local drag king Tommy Salami, who used to patronize San Francisco’s Cat Club ten years ago, but didn’t set foot in the White Horse until 2006. Characterizing the place as “old-school gay,” Salami took stock of its charming features: rainbow carpeting, people who actually talk to each other, DJs spinning the greatest hits of Madonna. None of the hyper-modern stuff you’d see in newer LGBT clubs, she said. No white rooms. No trance music. No obligatory dress code.
Still, it’s no small feat for the White Horse to survive this long and persist in an era in which some people view gay bars as passé. Despite its prime location — a close enough walk from UC Berkeley to rope in the college crowd — and all the “sprucing up” that followed a change of ownership eight years ago, it still has plenty to contend with. After all, most bars have suffered from new smoking ordinances, stricter DUI laws, and online social networks that keep people at home. Not to mention that with fewer gay people in the closet these days, it’s no longer necessary for them to have a special, private venue to meet one another, said White Horse owner Chuck Davis. But even with those obstacles, Davis said business at the White Horse has picked up over the past couple years, and it’s become more of a destination location. It still has the pinball machines, the junior prom disco ball, the rack of softball trophies, and that stained-glass unicorn hanging atop the bar. But it also has a demographic that other gay bars are still struggling to attract: namely, young hot lesbians.
Say what? Salami, who launched a weekly drag king revue at the inn in January of 2007, is as surprised as anyone. When she moved to the Bay Area a couple years ago after seven years as a drag king in San Diego, she started scoping the White Horse right away, to see if it would be a good home for her newly formed East Bay Kings Club. “I had actually been to karaoke night,” she explained. “I checked around and thought this would be perfect for a show — the way the dance floor was cordoned off from the rest of the bar.” She and East Bay Kings co-founder Jack Strap approached White Horse manager Gilbert de Jesus one night in the fall of 2006 and asked to set up a meeting.
De Jesus, a peppy Puerto Rican émigré who addresses most of his clientele as either “Papi” or “Babe,” said he liked Salami from the jump. “We start talking and she’s the sweetest person I ever see in my life,” he recalled. “We start talking and she’s like, ‘You know I do drag king,’ and I was like, ‘What the hell is drag king?’ I never hear that before, you know what I mean? And she like, ‘Well, girls wanna be boys.'” De Jesus said he consulted a couple friends before giving Salami the green light. “And I start asking, you know what I mean? Say, ‘You ever heard about the drag king?'” After a few enthusiastic responses, he called Salami back. “So all of a sudden I call Tommy and I say ‘Tommy, baby, yeah, Wednesday is your night.'”
“To Gil’s credit, he was 100 percent supportive from Day One,” said Salami, adding that she left the meeting with a slightly uncomfortable feeling that if the event seemed like such a boon, maybe she should have asked for more money. Two months and several Craigslist postings later, they were in business.
These days, the Wednesday night crowd at Oakland’s White Horse bar could have been transplanted from a hipper, glitzier dance club in the Castro: voluptuous rockabilly chicks mingle with waifish metrosexuals on the dance floor while DJ Jay-R spins a mix of ’80s dance cuts with the greatest hits of E-40 and Lil’ Jon. East Bay Drag Kings are the night’s main draw, performing a variety of solo dance numbers that range from cowboy crooner Neil Down lip-syncing over “Ticks” by Brad Paiseley, to Il Nocturno crawling along the floor in a slinky black negligee and lapping from a bowl of water. A woman with a shaved head, paintbrush eyebrows, and a studded collar strips down to her fishnets and Wonder Woman panties. A tip monitor clacks across the stage between acts, bending on her chunky high heels to collect all the dollar bills that audience members have tossed at the performers.
The performers vary in sexual persuasion and age — some are in their late teens and early twenties, whereas Salami, at 32, is the veteran of the group. Jack Strap, Tommy Salami, and Neil Down all identify as men when they’re in drag caricature, though Dante DeMoan is the group’s only transgendered member. Down is bisexual and has a boyfriend. The Amazing Jai is married to a man, though she still identifies as queer. Betty Page lookalike Ruby Vixen and platinum blond dancer Helena Handbasket are actually faux queens, Salami said, meaning they are “girls pretending to be guys pretending to be girls.” There are so many constellations of gender-bending that the average viewer wouldn’t be in on the joke until it’s explained to him or her.
Salami gives the show a real cult of personality, and provides the glue that holds everyone else together. A former clown-for-hire who directed skits at her Orthodox Serbian church camp, and played cymbals in the high school marching band, Salami seemed hard-wired, from birth to be some kind of drag performer. She said that as a kid she owned a secret collection of suits, and would run around the house dressed up as Zorro or Harry Connick Jr. whenever her parents went out of town. She didn’t know drag kings existed until watching an episode of Maury Povich in 1990. (The East Bay Kings were offered a couple gigs on Maury Povich but turned them down, she said, explaining that “it seems like one of those horrible Roman games where at the end the lion comes out and devours us all.”) De Jesus said that one time Salami handed him her strap-on and asked him to hang on to it while she attended to something else.
Granted, Salami isn’t the bar’s only draw, said Davis, who bought the White Horse eight years ago because he was handling the sale as a real estate agent, but decided the numbers were so good he should buy it himself. After all, de Jesus launched a lot of attractions, such as the wet T-shirt and wet underwear contests, the weekly beer busts (all-you-can-drink draft beers 1-7 p.m. every Sunday, for a $10 cover), the Monday-night pool tournaments, the tea dances, and the monthly drag king shows. But Salami should get her share of credit for 2007 being the White Horse’s most profitable year since 2003. After all, she said, even with “the most bare Internet marketing” — the usual Craigslist and MySpace bulletins, plus a few fliers stapled to kiosks in the Castro — Wednesday night drag shows became their own animal.
In fact, Salami said, they stopped advertising six months ago. “We sort of got scared. We thought, ‘If the crowd gets 30 percent bigger, what are we gonna do?'”