As promised, complete transcript of the "A White Horse" episode of Nate DiMeo's The Memory Palace. I sincerely hope that those of you dislike or have no time for spoken-word audio will take the time to read it. I've rarely encountered such a powerful example of the wordsmith's craft.
The White Horse Inn on Telegraph, in Oakland, opened in 1933. Or thereabouts. No-one's been able to nail down the date. Historians have tried — as have various of its owners, it seems, over the years. But if you're not an academic, or if you don't have a personal financial stake in solidifying its claim — as the oldest gay bar in the United States to operate continuously in one location — it doesn't really matter when The White Horse first opened its doors.
Just that it was soon enough. For a man to walk in on just the right night in 1936. Or forty-six. Or fifty-four. And see the most beautiful man he'd ever seen in his life. And just be done for.
Soon enough for another man, who'd heard of this place — heard of places like it — whispered about, or mocked, by the fellows the fellows on the assembly line or in the office or in his usual joint across town. Heard the cracks about pansies and perverts and queers. And feared what they might mean. Feared why the words seemed to cut right through him. Sit strange in his belly. Tight in his throat.
But who fought through that fear to make his way there — to The White Horse. Who may have circled the block, all butterflies, before working up the courage to park. Who may have walked right past it, rather than be seen walking in by some stranger. Or maybe he pulled his collar up, and tipped his fedora low, and pushed through the door as fast as he could.
And who may have learned that night — in that bar — where men talked to men by the fireplace in the back. Where women flirted with women in the light of the jukebox. Men held hands by the pool table like it was nothing. Like it wasn't everything. Knew that night for sure that this was the place he belonged. That this might be the only place he belonged.
Like it was for other women and men — those who were identified correctly as such at birth, and those who weren't. People who needed their lives to change. To make sense. To be less lonely. To be less scary. To be more fun. To be safe.
In the forties and fifties, and later, men and women — friends from the neighborhood or the bus, or church — friends who knew the truth about each-other — would walk arm-in-arm up Telegraph Road to The White Horse. Would play at being people they were not. And then walk through the door — into that windowless room — and become who they were.
They'd go their separate ways: He to a boyfriend, and she to a girlfriend. And they'd spend a few hours in a place where so much of that they'd been taught all their lives about what life was supposed to be — about who they had to be to be happy, or responsible, or good, or saved — just fell apart. Just put the lie to the whole thing. Laws of the universe themselves, just torn up and tossed like confetti. To swirl in the bar light, and flit in the laughter and the dance songs, and lie on the eyelashes of some pretty man, and float on the surface of a martini glass.
And then they'd say good-night, to their boyfriend and girlfriend. To the people there who understood — who helped them understand. And they'd link arms and go back out into the world.
Have no illusions about the world. The world did not want that man and that woman to be who they were. Gay sex was a felony. Cross-dressing was a crime. People risked imprisonment. Forced sterilization. Institutionalization. Lobotomization. For acting on who they were. If the cops, armed with laws that let them raid bars if they suspected women were dancing with women, or men were holding hands — or speaking in high-pitched voices, in some cities. If the cops came, and threw you into the paddy-wagon — if not threw you up against a wall — your name would wind up in the paper, along with your address. You could be fired, kicked out of your apartment, lose your car loan. Get beat up, or worse, by people in your own home. Or by people who now knew where your home was.
The laws would change. Attitudes would change. Sometimes for the better — and sometimes not. The was seemed to change everything for a while. Especially there in the Bay Area: All these soldiers and sailors and nurses flooding in — away from home for the first time. Discovering who they were for the first time. Discovering whole worlds in windowless rooms like The White Horse.
In the sixties a straight couple bought the bar. And they were so worried about raids, it seems — and some speculate so skeeved-out by their own clientele — that they instated a strict No Touching policy. No more slow dances. No kissing. No nothing. It was like that for years. But still people came to The White Horse. Because it was their place.
But then the late sixties came. And the hippies came, and the radicals came. Berkeley was just down the road. The Black Panthers were on patrol right there in Oakland. And gay men, and lesbians — transgendered people — started staking more radical claims. Started living more radical lives. And The White Horse embraced Gay Liberation.
And by then it was just one of the many gay bars in the area. Where people could fine each-other. Could find out who they were and who they wanted to be. Where they figured out what it was possible to ask from this life. Where they asked for it together.
As they'd done in The White Horse Inn since 1933 or thereabouts.
The White Horse Inn was open the night in 1966 when transgender women fought back against police harassment at Compton's Cafeteria across the bay in San Francisco, and rioted. It was still open two years later when The Stonewall Inn was raided across the country, and people protested for three days. And never really stopped.
It was open on the night in 1973 when an arsonist set fire to a gay bar in New Orleans, locked the door, and killed thirty-two people. The White Horse was there for people who needed to mourn.
It was open for people who wanted to celebrate in 1962, when Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexuality. And thirteen years later when California joined it. And twenty-eight years later, when the Supreme Court forced fourteen states to do the same.
It was open in 1977, when San Francisco elected Harvey Milk to its board of city supervisors, and in seventy-eight when he was assassinated. It was open in 1979, when 75,000 people marched in Washington for their civil rights.
And it was open all throughout the 1980s, when its customers started dying. When its employees started dying. In one year alone, eight bartenders — eight — died of AIDS-related illnesses.
And The White Horse Inn stayed open.
As it has been, again and again, when men and women — and boys and girls — transgendered people — were murdered for who they were.
So many, since 1933 or thereabouts. Mourned by what people now call The LGBTQ Community. A community build, year by year, night by night, in windowless rooms like The White Horse.
It was open when Vermont passed its civil unions law. And when Massachusetts passed its marriage law. When San Francisco's mayor issued marriage licenses. And when the California Supreme Court annuled those unions. Annuled the marriage of the manager of The White Horse too. It was open when the California voters rejected gay marriage. And it was open for dancing when the Supreme Court threw that vote out.
It was open on a Saturday in June, when someone killed forty-nine people in Orlando, Florida. In a place like The White Horse, where people came to be who they were. And it was open on Sunday. And it's open tonight. It'll be open tomorrow.
(It's an exceedingly arcane and minor point, but when I first transcribed it, I used the definite article in the title. The definite article is there every time The White Horse is mentioned in the story, and in the filename of the mp3 on the website. So I initially decided the indefinite article in the title of the episode on the website was a mistake. Only after I was nearly done transcribing it did I catch the significance of titling the episode "A White Horse." How many people, in how much distress, have been rescued by a knight bourne on this white horse, and others like it? How many has it given the opportunity to become the knight?)