The Tavern Guild and Imperial Court
Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.
The gay commerce and bar-based activity that began in 1961 with the League for Civil Education crystallized in the Polk Gulch commercial corridor. In 1962, Polk Street gay bars provided fertile ground for the establishment of the Tavern Guild of San Francisco (TGSF), the first gay business association in the country. Phil Doganiero, a bartender at Polk Street’s Suzy-Q bar, was elected the first president of the organization.
As a result of the Guild, its president said in 1966, “our businesses have a greater chance for survival, and the hazards of operation are minimized.” At the same time. “the improved image takes the gay bar out of the class of a resort for social rejects, and establishes it as a social and recreational center that has a proper place in urban life,” he said. This “permits the bars and clubs the opportunity of being social centers for our people, with wholesome and safe atmosphere…[and ] a stronger front from a united ‘Gay Community.’”
Historian Nan Alamilla Boyd has noted that the Guild “represents a marketplace activity that, in order to protect itself, evolves into a social movement.” Bartenders originally founded the Guild to bring business to alternating bars on typically slow Tuesday afternoons. But within its first year, TGSF instituted a number of policies that helped protect bartenders, bar owners, and patrons from patrons who wrote bad checks, police harassment, California Alcoholic Beverage Control actions against bars, and the chronic unemployment faced by bartenders whose jobs were subject to the whims of patrons and the actions of police.
They established phone networking system to track police and ABC movement, set up a loan fund for bartenders and members who became unemployed due to police raids, and fixed prices at reasonable rates and worked against unfriendly rumormongering that might ruin a good business.
The Tavern Guild raised funds at auctions, dances, and other social gatherings. Perhaps the most important of these events, the annual Beaux Arts Ball, was organized by Darryl Glied, third president of the Tavern Guild and manager of Polk Street’s Jumpin’ Frog, in October 1963. At the October 1965 Beaux Arts Ball, gay activist José Sarria was named queen of the ball; in a Napoleonic gesture, Sarria responded by declaring himself “Empress.” The Empress title stuck and at the following year's ball a new Empress was elected to lead the recently formed Imperial Court—an official “project” of the Tavern Guild that became the locus of many social, fundraising, and benevolent activities.
The German Cultural Center, once a thriving community space for the neighborhood’s immigrant German population, became California Hall in the 1960s, a focal point for an emerging gay community. The aftermath of arrests made at a January 1, 1965 benefit drag ball held at California Hall is now seen as a major turning point in the city’s and nation’s gay rights movement, signaling the beginning of a close partnership between liberal Christians and gay activists and progressive city politicians.
- Bill Plath, The Tavern Guild: A Record of Accomplishment, Address to the Tavern Guild of San Francisco (Apr. 5, 1966) (transcript available in the GLBTHS, TGSF Collection).
- Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 223.