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SF’s Oldest Gay Bar, The Gangway, Has Closed

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Opened in 1910, it began serving a gay clientele in the ’60s

Kevin Y./Yelp

The Gangway, a historic establishment credited as the city’s oldest continuously operating gay bar, has closed. The bar’s liquor license transfer to a new owner was recently completed, and the Gangway shuttered over the weekend according to disappointed patrons and employees, who received the news suddenly by text message.

The business at 841 Larkin Street, known for its nautical theme and all-day drinking hours, opened in 1910, surviving prohibition and catering to a gay clientele by 1960. Along with other extant area bars like Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, The Gangway served as a reminder of the Tenderloin’s long gay history. And while it was certainly a watering hole, the Bay Area Reporter recalls the larger community role it served:

The Gangway was also a community center and fundraiser beginning in the ‘70s. Bars often cooperated in events. Totie’s and the Gangway put on an old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration together in 1971. In the early ‘70s, the bar hosted Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s parties, complete with food.

Ring exchanges between partners were celebrated in the days before same sex marriage was legal. In 1977 Roland hosted a fundraiser, donating cash and turkeys to seniors for Thanksgiving which Harvey Milk acknowledged with a plaque presented in the bar.

Gangway owner Jung Lee’s liquor license now belongs to Sam Young, the proprietor of Kozy Kar, a Boogie Nights-esque dive bar on Polk Street. According to the license, Young’s replacement for the Gangway will be called Young’s Kung Fu Action Theatre & Laundry LLC. Young has described the idea as a laundromat screening movies while patrons wait for their clothes to dry — but how that business calls for a liquor license, and whether Young is actually serious or just being facetious, remain to be seen.

This fall, with the Gangway’s fate already sealed, morning bartender John David told Eater SF that the establishment was still “a busy neighborhood” spot. “Everybody’s here,” he said, “everyone from the Uber yuppies to the older veterans. It’s a come as you are sort of place.”

Coy Meza, a former employee, describes the Gangway as “full of relics and homages to our struggle... a living museum.” Its entryway, for example, was covered in purple handprints — an art piece dedicated to the Holocaust and also to the Riot of the Purple Hand, an incident in which a local newspaper dumped ink onto LGBT protestors, who responded by painting the town with their ink-stained hands.

Meza, a veteran, liked how the Gangway paid tribute to the military with signs and plaques, and appreciated that it “let the old queens play dice games, like Five Thousand,” which other bars forbid. Before it closed, Meza returned to the Gangway to save items from a history wall he’d erected, rescuing flotsam and jetsam from the bar like a life preserver inscribed with the Gangway name. He plans to donate the life preserver, which dates back to the bar’s opening, to the Tenderloin History Museum.