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Oakland’s White Horse Inn Lets the Sunshine In

“The White Horse was the sort of place you might go after a day of tanning by Lake Temescal with the boys, or having brunch at this lesbian and gay hangout, Grandma’s House,” says Jim Gebbie. A 78-year-old writer and editor who came to San Francisco in the heady late 1960s, he remembers sometimes crossing the Bay during the ’70s to go there.

“Maybe you’d end up there if you wanted to meet a Cal student, or if you were tired of the crowd at your usual San Francisco places,” he says. “The White Horse was never the ‘it’ place, it just was always there.”

“Always there” is perhaps just the right description for the White Horse Inn in Oakland, California. It persisted while other flashier, more niche bars have fizzled out. In doing so, it has earned the title of the nation’s oldest LGBTQ bar that has operated in the same place.

Opened in 1933 on Telegraph Avenue, the University of California, Berkeley’s campanile is visible from its entry. It kept a low profile from the get-go, with no windows on its ground floor.

Exterior of White Horse with rainbow crosswalk
Outside White Horse/Photo by Meg Baggott

The bar was somehow never raided in the years when cops busted down the doors routinely of such establishments to make arrests and, as often as not, publish the names of those found inside. Even with its raid-free history, one longtime patron, Betty Boreen, recently said that in her nearly 50 years of going there, she always kept one eye on the door.

The White Horse has been on its own journey to liberation in its nearly nine decades. Its first owner, Abraham Karski, was a family man who also opened another Oakland landmark, the Grand Lake Theater, and an actual hotspot, the see-and-be-seen Leamington Hotel.

The early years at the White Horse were decorous ones, with flowers on its long bar and jazz standards in the air. It had a mixed clientele and a no-touching policy. A straight male owner would demonstrate, sometimes with a ruler, the appropriate distance he expected clients to keep between each other. It was social distancing avant la lettre.

If the bar’s willingness to serve LGBTQ clients was a closely guarded secret at first, its reputation was established by the World War II years. Here gathered soldiers, sailors and stevedores, as well as riveting Rosies who worked in the shipyards and nurses that who worked at the military hospitals.

But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the bar truly came into the light. The White Horse’s owners refused to distribute an early liberationist publication, Gay Sunshine, and continued to ban public displays of same-sex affection on the premises. The LGBTQ community boycotted the bar, redirecting would-be patrons to raucous, anything-goes parties at an apartment building across the way.

The owners ultimately capitulated to activist demands, and since then the White Horse has mourned openly the LBGTQ community’s losses and celebrated its victories.

At the height of the North American AIDS crisis, the bar lost eight bartenders in just one year. After the Russian government banned speech about homosexuality in 2013, the bar stopped serving vodka from there.

When activists and lawyers, at last, won the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015, it was here that some couples elected to recite their vows on the bar’s small dance floor, as the disco ball rotated above their heads. In 2018, attendees at a block party repainted the crosswalks across Telegraph in rainbow colors to signal the bar’s central role in LBGTQ movement.

Since its Depression-era founding, the White Horse has morphed from what one patron described as a khakis-and-cashmere-sweater place into one with a more “dark, dungeony, divey” vibe, as one Yelp reviewer said of it.

Dress is California casual, with the West Coast’s higher degree of “woo-woo” reflected in the occasional presence of a tarot-card reader. No longer are jazz standards heard here. Instead, honky-tonk tunes blare from the jukebox.

Before the coronavirus shutdown, it hosted regular drag-king and karaoke nights. Never the “it” place, the White Horse is a come-as-you-are joint that’s somehow, after all these years, still here.