Saturday, December 22, 2012

If Club

South Vermont Avenue & West 8th Street today
If Club

Location: 810 South Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, California, USA

Opened/Closed: 1940s-1960s

According to Gay L.A. by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, the If Club was a working-class lesbian bar that started in the 1940s, but continued to "flourish" into the 1950s:  

Terry DeCrescenzo, who had been a social worker, remembers that when she walked into the If Club, "a stereotypical dyke bar," as she describes it, the butches there called to each other, "Here comes a dish of ice cream." She was terrified. "I was in there for eight minutes," she says.

810 South Vermont Avenue today
Faderman and Timmons state that police harassment directed towards lesbians increased dramatically over the 1950s at the If Club and other Los Angeles area lesbian bars. An African-American woman named Meko reported that she and her friends were regularly "hauled in" by the LAPD just for standing outside the If Club. 

In a GLBTQ Encylopedia article by Dan Luckenbill, we're told that the If Club was not necessarily supportive of the early efforts aimed at lesbian networking and organizing:

9th and Vermont (c. 1948)
Alan Weeks Collection
In 1947, Vice Versa, a newsletter featuring reviews, articles, and editorials on lesbian life, was created in Los Angeles by a secretary who still prefers not to use her real name. The name she later chose was Lisa Ben, an anagram of lesbian. She called her writing for women "America's gayest magazine," the first written by lesbians and for lesbians. She produced only nine issues of Vice Versa, typing two originals of each with carbons. She learned that she could not mail them and even had difficulty distributing them by hand in lesbian bars such as the If Club.

A People's Guide to Los Angeles  informs us that from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, this block of Vermont Avenue was home to "two working-class, racially mixed lesbian bars: the If Cafe (also known as the If Club) and the Open Door." The Open Door was located at 831 South Vermont Avenue:

"Crowd of butch girls, men in 40s, others from area," read the description for the If Cafe in 1966 in the Barfly gay guide; for the Open Door, the same guide noted simply, "Same crowd as at If Cafe." The  clientele of both bars was Black, white, and Latina, demonstrating that Queer life in Los Angeles did not exist only in white and affluent areas but was also embedded in working-class communities of color. 

Women at these clubs developed a strong, oppositional community, with their own styles and slang; for example, butch Black women termed themselves "hard dressers." Women's experiences at the If Cafe and Open Door also remind us that homophobic and racist police practices overlapped in postwar Los Angeles. Police frequently raided the bars and arrested the patrons, charging women either with "masquerading"--that is, wearing men's clothing--or prostitution. While some lesbians did work as prostitutes, many such charges were false and were used simply to harass and criminalize women who did not meet dominant and sexual norms. Black women, who were already more likely to be perceived as "loose" or "deviant" by the dominant culture, faced increased risk of arrest for lesbian behavior. The If Cafe and Open Door stayed open for years and produced a vibrant culture that carried over into activism and community life among lesbians of color in subsequent decades.     

Martin Turnbull also mentions the If Club in his list of Hollywood Places. He simply describes it as a "working class/industrial/butch lesbian hang out" from the 1930s. 

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