The Black Cat Cafe – FoundSF

Unfinished History


Jose Sarria, performing at the Black Cat, c. 1961

Photos: Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California

The Black Cat Cafe on Montgomery Street became home to a gay drag revue starring José Sarria. Sarria was born in San Francisco and performed each Sunday afternoon for fifteen years to full houses of 250 or more, using his role as Madame Butterfly to sermonize about homosexual rights and leading a sing-along of “God Save the Nelly Queens…”

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Carlo Middione describes attending the Black Cat in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Video: Shaping San Francisco

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The Black Cat Cafe at 710 Montgomery Street

When it finally closed in 1963, The Black Cat had broken the barriers that prevented overtly gay bars from existing freely. A 1951 California Supreme Court decision banned the closing down of a bar simply because homosexuals were the usual customers.

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Jose Sarria in action

Manuel Castells convincingly argues in The Grassroots and the City that The Black Cat had also established an important cultural precedent for the gay community: fun and humor. As the community developed, feasts, celebrations, street parties, public and private bars, and bathhouses and sex clubs, became the important forms of cultural expression and sociability, which in turn strongly influenced other communities in San Francisco and beyond.

–Chris Carlsson

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