When Gilbert De Jesus started managing the White Horse Inn on Telegraph Avenue 13 years ago, the place was the sixth oldest gay bar in the country. Since then, as he remembers it, disasters have hit the bars higher up on the list—Hurricane Katrina, a fire in Connecticut, the Northridge Earthquake. That has propelled the White Horse into the top spot as the longest continuously running gay bar in the country.
“So people are like, ‘Shit, you’re first now, you’ve got to be careful!” De Jesus said, starting to laugh. “An earthquake or something is going to hit you.”
The White Horse Inn, located at Telegraph and 66th Street, is now in its ninth decade in business as a gay and lesbian bar. For decades after the place first opened in 1936, there was a restaurant where the dance floor now is. De Jesus said that in the early days, the White Horse was a “gay friendly” bar and a Chinese restaurant, owned by a woman with a strict “no touching” policy.
“If you’re gay you’re able to come down here with your partner, but if you touch your partner she would come out from behind the bar with a ruler,” De Jesus said, “and she would slap you with the ruler.”
The White Horse has remained a haven for gays and lesbians, escaping raids by police in the 1960s while half the gay bars in San Francisco were raided. De Jesus said it was a meeting place for protesters and hippies during the 60s and 70s.
Part of the bar’s legend was that the “Inn” part of its name came from the idea that the area upstairs from the bar, in what is now apartments, was a gay bath house for years. De Jesus said he can’t confirm whether there was ever actually a bathhouse, but he’s heard something like that. “Rumors,” he said, with a sly smile.
De Jesus, 49, is a native of Puerto Rico who has worked as an insurance salesman in New York City, and served in the U.S. Army in Granada in the early 1980s. After moving to the Bay Area, De Jesus worked as a manager at the Marriott and a bartender at the Tough Club in Hayward before finding a want ad to manage the White Horse. He said he had been coming in as a customer, and couldn’t believe that he got the job when 71 other people applied. “It was like a dream,” he said.
When De Jesus started working at the White Horse in the late 1990s, it was a popular dance club, “with a line out the door,” as he remembers it. Nowadays, it still maintains its club look with a long bar, pool tables, a lounge area with cushioned seats around a fireplace. It also offers a separate room with a large dance floor with black-painted walls, a large mirror and another bar. But these days, it’s not just a gay bar. “I don’t target the gay community with this bar,” De Jesus said. “I don’t care if you’re gay, trans, bisexual, straight, whatever. You are welcome to this bar.”
De Jesus has tried to keep up the White Horse’s legacy as a gay icon by keeping it connected to historical events. He’s let servicemen in for free when they produce a military ID at the door because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” When California began granting same-sex marriage licenses in 2008, the White Horse hosted seven or eight weddings on the dance floor, De Jesus remembers.
“The last one, these two girls, I thought the honeymoon was going to be on the pool table,” he said.
De Jesus has also thrown big parties to commemorate important dates at the White Horse, like the 69th anniversary party, which featured an open bar for a couple hours and a free food buffet. “We had people from London, Paris, New York,” De Jesus said. “For me, it gave me goosebumps. It was like, ‘How do you know?’ And they said, ‘We know, we’re keeping track.’”
De Jesus usually has an open bar and buffet for the annual White Horse Christmas party, but this year had to cut off the free booze because of the tough economic times. De Jesus said the recession has hit the White Horse especially hard, and he thinks a lot of potential customers are staying home more now because they can’t afford to go out as much. “Every bar is suffering,” De Jesus said. “People today prefer to go to the liquor store and get a six-pack and have their own party.”
To attract more customers, De Jesus installed small flat-screen TVs that play a trivia game, and the bar also has karaoke on Mondays and Tuesdays, even though De Jesus hates karaoke. He also puts on special events, like a “drag king” show (“girls who want to be boys,” De Jesus said) every other Wednesday. On the weekends, the busiest nights, DJs spin mostly 80s, 90s and top-40 dance music. On Thursday night, there is no cover but the dance floor is open.
Even with the ups and downs of business, De Jesus said he wouldn’t change a thing, and the place has become a big part of his life. Last summer, he travelled to Germany for the World Gay Games with the White Horse softball team (he’s the catcher), and he’s made many friendships with the people that have walked through the doors over the years.
De Jesus said that what he thinks keeps the White Horse going is the legend. While he makes sure the bartenders are friendly and learn people’s names and their favorite drinks, it’s the history behind the place, and all the stories that may or may not be true, that keep the place alive.
Last week, an 83-year-old customer walked in the door and told De Jesus he had been to the place in the 1930s and 40s, and marveled at how much the place changed since the days of no touching and ruler slapping.
“He was telling me all these stories, these cute stories,” De Jesus said. “And I was like, ‘OK, well, it’s different now.’”