Nashville’s first gay bars remembered with historical marker
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — On a wild stretch of Commerce Street, next door to Ira’s Barber Shop and just blocks from Ryman Auditorium, stood a pair of unique bars surrounded by a slew of beer dives.
Dimly lit and filled with cigarette smoke, The Jungle was a one-room club with a grill where cocktails were mixed and a piano often inspired a round of singalongs.
The restaurant had a straight clientele during the day for lunch — but in the evening, it morphed into a gay bar.
Next door, Juanita’s, a skinny, shotgun-style joint with only a handful of tables, served as The Jungle’s sister establishment.
It was the first bar Jerry Peek ever went into. It’s also where he met his partner, Joe, 47 years ago. In the 1960s, at a time when same-sex relationships were considered unlawful, it was a welcoming place where gay men in Nashville could hang out together.
“They both gave our circle a place to go where you felt safe,” Peek says. “It was a rough time, but it was also a wonderful time for people like myself who were coming out.”
Recently, the Metro Historical Commission unveiled a plaque recognizing The Jungle and Juanita’s as the city’s first gay bars.
Though the bars have long since been demolished, the place where they stood on the corner of Commerce and Seventh will now be permanently marked for passers-by, remembering an era when police raids and arrests sometimes ended in violence against the LGBTQ community.
“Gay people coming up today, they don’t know what it was like back then,” says Peek, who is 76. “And this will give them a little bit of history.”
John Bridges’ first boyfriend took him to The Jungle in the 1970s. It was a spot they stopped at before heading to The Warehouse on Franklin Road to dance the night away.
“Of course, you couldn’t be out in public,” Bridges says, “there was just no way.”
Gay men caught holding hands out in the open would be handcuffed and hustled downtown and possibly jailed if they didn’t make bail. But once inside The Jungle, with the doors shut behind them to the outside world, men found friendship and love.
“People went there so they could be themselves,” Bridges says.
It was Bridges, a Nashville writer and author, who led the research effort to get a historical marker downtown. “The story behind these two bars is fascinating,” he says.
It starts with Warren Jett — a straight man — who had been running bars all over downtown for years. He opened The Jungle in 1952, and a few years later, he hired Juanita Brazier to run the little sliver of a space next door, then called The Leopard.
Miss Juanita, as she was known to her customers, had been waiting tables around town. In 1955, she got her own beer license, and renamed the place after herself, opening it the next year.
It’s hard to say when the two bars became a gay hangout, but by the 1960s, they were a favorite spot for white men — and a target for law enforcement.
Peek remembers being there when police came into the bar.
At the time, men weren’t allowed to touch — “you couldn’t even put your hand on somebody’s shoulder,” he said. “Everyone just sat tight with their hands in front of them hoping not to get kicked out.”
Brazier — who was also known to be straight — defended her clientele, offering them protection from the hate and abuse outside her hole-in-the-wall.
“She had a way about her,” Peek says. “You just felt at home right away. She helped a lot of people who were thrown in jail, picked up by the police at one of the bars.
“She would bail them out and never expect to be repaid. She was an amazing women. A powerhouse.”
Jett sold The Jungle in 1960 after his brother, Leslie E. Jett, was elected sheriff.
The sheriff led his men on multiple bar raids downtown, as did the police force.
In 1963, 27 men were arrested at Juanita’s for “disorderly conduct,” a term police used at the time for same-sex activity. A patrolman testified there was much “lewd and boisterous” conversation, according to an article in The Tennessean in April of that year.
Gay men continued to gather at both bars until 1983, when the block was leveled to widen the street and make room for the Renaissance Hotel.
The historical marker, which was funded by the H. Franklin Brooks Fund of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, will be only the second in the city that mentions Nashville’s LGBTQ community.
The first was installed a year ago recognizing the work of gay rights and mental health advocate Penny Campbell, daughter of civil rights activist Will Campbell. She was the lead plaintiff in Campbell v. Sundquist (1996), which overturned a law criminalizing private, consensual, sexual acts between same-sex adults.
“It’s history that we haven’t commemorated in any way,” Tim Walker, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission, said of the LGBTQ-focused historical markers. ”... This is part of the commission’s work to make sure all aspects of our history are being recognized.”
Today, gay bars are less clandestine. Pride parades march jubilantly down city streets, with rainbows splashed across flags, balloons and painted faces. Same-sex marriage is legal.
“It’s so much different now,” Peek says. “To me, we live in a society that is just the same for me as it is for my next-door neighbor. I don’t feel persecuted or like the police are going to bother me.”
But, he says, reminders of what came before remain significant for all people: “I just think they should know that we’re here.”
“The world has changed,” he says, “but it hasn’t changed for everybody. It’s still not all fixed.”
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com