|52 West Eighth Avenue today|
Location: 52 West Eighth Avenue (between Horatio and West Fourth Streets), New York, New York, USA
Opened/Closed: 1950s, 1960s
In the 1950s, the Sea Colony was one of New York's most popular working-class lesbian bars--though subject to constant police harrassment.
The lesbian writer and historian Joan Nestle has written extensively about the Sea Colony and its formative role in her life as a young fem. The following comments are from a 2001 interview in Ripe Magazine:
The Sea Colony was basically two rooms, in the front room was the bar and tables for tourist, the back room was where the illegal activity took place which was called dancing. A red light flashed to alert us when police were coming so we could sit down at our tables and not touch each other. Another image I keep alive is the bathroom line, before Stonewall there was the bathroom line. These bars were run by organized crime who made lots of money off of us so the bars had to negotiate legitimacy with the police. They created a rule – we’d only be allowed into the bathroom one woman at a time. Because they thought we were so sexually depraved, if two of us went in we’d probably make love, and that could bring the vice squad.
Every night, a short, handsome, butch woman with toilet paper wrapped around her hand, had a job to allot us toilet paper. The bathroom line went from the back room through a narrow hallway to the front room to the toilet which was behind the bar. This butch woman would stand at the front of the line and we each got two wraps of toilet paper. When I stood on that bathroom line, I could’ve been drunk and when you drink you have to pee a lot. I was dressed as a fem, not a high fem but I had on tight sweaters and wore lipstick. Feminism actually made me more fem. Everyone at the Sea Colony knew who I was and what I wanted.
It was the sixties, I was in my early twenties, and I was active in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and I’m a freak on the weekends. I had the knowledge that people could liberate themselves, even freaks. I’d stand on that bathroom line and look around me. The women who went to the Sea Colony were not rich women, many were sex workers, and “passing women.” Society would call us scum of the earth, but I loved those women. My mother taught me that when you are judged as unacceptable, something important is happening. It took me a long time to realize that while I was fighting for all these other causes, that it wasn’t okay for me to get my allotted amount of toilet paper. I could see the courage of everyone around me including myself as a young girl, taking on all this stuff just because I wanted someone to make love to me. That image, of this allotted amount of toilet paper is at the center of my life’s work – paying homage to that community of women who stood on the bathroom line, the mix of desire, politics, oppression, and resistance. It was a wonderful education in complexities because on that line, even though we were controlled, no one was a victim. Everyone was laughing and flirting and a big joke was to beg the butch woman to allow lovers to go in together.
Here are additional memories from 1989:
The police raided lesbian bars regularly, and they did it . . . they both did it in the most obvious way, which was hauling women away in paddy wagons. But there was regular weekend harassment, which would consist of the police coming in regularly to get their payoffs. And in the Sea Colony, we had a back room with a red light. And when that red light went on it meant the police would be arriving in around ten minutes. And so we all had to sit down at our tables, and we would be sitting there almost like school children, and the cops would come in. Now depending on who was on, which cop was on, if it was some that really resented the butch women who were with many times very beautiful women, we knew we were in for it because what would happen is they would start harassing one of these women, and saying, "Ha, you think you're a man? Come outside and we'll show you." And the woman would be dragged away. They'd throw her up against a wall and they'd say, "So, you think you're a man, let's see what you got in your pants." And they would put their hand down her pants.
Photo: 52 West Eighth Avenue today