Earliest Gay Bars Featured Grog, Trade, Drag, Weddings, Danger


An expose first published in 1709 describes “molly houses,” secretive London gay bars that managed to exist and thrive despite operating during a perilous time. Atlas Obscura has unearthed Ned Ward’s 18th Century reportage, which gives a somewhat disdainful view of the outposts as “dens of sin” for the “Gang of Sodomitical Wretches.” Nonetheless, it’s an undeniable tribute to a daring and resourceful community.  

London’s edgiest private pub rooms and brandy shops hosted these fringe clubs, which were less dangerous than London’s theaters and courts, or even gay brothels, which historian Rictor Norton suggests were located on streets once fittingly called “Cock’s Lane” and “Lad Lane.” Queer men took the “molly” moniker, which was a demeaning slur derived from the Latin word for “effeminate,” and forged a new “warm and reassuring” place for camaraderie, where gentlemen could “take off the mask” and enjoy “The delights of the bottle.”

Emboldened ‘He-Strumpets’ and ‘He-Whores’ as gay men were also called, used these clubs to express their rebellious spirit with drag performances, gay “marriage” ceremonies and other queer traditions. Drag was especially hot at molly houses: “some were completely rigged in gowns, petticoats, headcloths, fine laced shoes, befurebelowed scarves, and masks; some had riding hoods, some were dressed like milkmaids, others like shepherdesses.”

An 18th Century engraving showing a couple in drag.

There were also mock baptisms where one ‘sister’ would perform in a woman’s nightgown as a lady in labor and “mimic the wry Faces of a groaning Woman,” followed by a merry celebration of the new gayby. Other houses offered gay “marriage” ceremonies in private back rooms complete with double beds where often “the couple did not bother to close the door behind them.”

One molly house raid by an agent for the religious Reformation of Manners, suggests how much fun these men got up to, “there I found a company of men fiddling and dancing and singing bawdy songs, kissing and using their hands in a very unseemly manner.”

But the danger was intensifying in the city as Britain saw a sudden surge of convictions under the rarely used 1533 Buggery Act. From the 1720s to the mid-1800s, gay men were hunted, entrapped and many sent to the gallows. Those that weren’t put to death were forced to endure humiliating labor while the public pelted them with dead cats, putrid fish, dung and insults – a typical reaction to seeing Lady Bunny’s latest show.

Finally in 1861, the death sentence was replaced with a charge of “gross indecency.” Although more lenient, Oscar Wilde served two brutal years under this new charge. 106 years later, homosexuality was finally legalized in the UK but it is the rich history of those enduring bars that leaves us an inspiring and lasting testament to the legacy of our fearless gay forefathers and their molly houses.

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