When people think of spaces for queer communities to congregate, collaborate, and enjoy each other’s company, bars and clubs are usually the first thing that comes to mind. This assumption—that an openly gay or queer space must inherently be a bar—is beholden to its own history and fraught with prejudice. It’s also only part of the story.
Queer coffeehouses have for centuries been vital to queer culture past and present, presenting valuable spaces for organizing, finding community, and freely inhabiting queer identity. While many tend to associate queer culture with nightlife—a direct result of the criminalization of queer identity over the course of history—queer coffeehouses occupy their own essential cultural space, sometimes operating as part of the nightlife scene, and sometimes acting as a valuable counterpoint.
As the legality of various queer identities and expressions has fluctuated over time, the culture around where and how queer people congregate has shifted alongside it; while the queer coffeehouses of the past were often spaces where expressing queer identity was an act of open (and sometimes illegal) rebellion, queer coffeehouses of the present are able to inhabit queer space in marvelously myriad ways. With a nod to the past, today’s queer coffee bars show us the stunning diversity of what it means to be queer in the 21st century, where the fight for respect and inclusivity continues.
Queer Coffeehouses Go Way Back
Today’s queer coffee bars are as modern as they come—more on that later—but the coffee house’s role as a popular space for queer folks to get together go way back: all the way back to the Ottoman Empire, in fact, when coffee made its way from Yemen to Turkey. As coffee became a popular beverage for royalty, the majority of the general public met coffee through the establishment of coffeehouses. Coffeehouses quickly became an integral part of Istanbul social culture, where people would congregate to discuss poetry and literature, play chess and backgammon, and read.
As coffeehouses were a center for intellectual and social progress, it’s only natural that they also became hubs for queer people, specifically queer men. At that time in Turkish culture, male beauty was lauded and homoerotic romance was not criminalized. Over time, the culture shifted, and the prevalence of queer activity in coffeehouses actually contributed to periodic attempts by the Turkish government to prohibit coffeehouses, the most drastic being Murad IV’s 1622 law mandating execution of coffee drinkers (and tobacco smokers); during that period in Istanbul, religious leaders preached on street corners that coffee would “inspire indecent behavior.”
Stewart Allen, author of The Devil’s Cup: Coffee, the Driving Force in History, told the story of an Ottoman Grand Vizier secretly visited a coffeehouse in Istanbul. “He observed that the people drinking alcohol would just get drunk and sing and be jolly, whereas the people drinking coffee remained sober and plotted against the government,” said Allen. The link between coffeehouses as spaces for intellectual activity, queer activity, and revolutionary activity repeats throughout history, and the criminalization of coffeehouses and criminalization of queerness are similarly linked; once we acknowledge the role of coffee in revolution, it’s not surprising that the idea of queer people meeting in coffeehouses was at times even more threatening to governments than queer people meeting in taverns. Today nothing has really changed.
That’s not to say that queer coffeehouses didn’t partake in their fair share of revelry. In 18th century England, molly houses provided a popular venue for queer men to get together. While many molly houses were taverns, the famous Mother Clap’s was a coffeehouse that also served spirits; a center for dancing, cross-dressing, and sex, it was one of the most popular and successful molly houses of the time. Mother Clap’s was raided in 1726, leading to the arrest of 40 attendees, most of whom were released on “lack of evidence” (read: not being caught in the act of queer sex), but many were fined and three were hanged. Mother Clap herself, the proprietress, was fined, pilloried, and imprisoned for two years for “keeping a disorderly house.” Nevertheless, the queer subculture continued, and shutting down individual molly houses didn’t stop people from getting their queer culture elsewhere.
The Modern Era: Compton’s Cafeteria and the Queer Civil Rights Movement
When the US established independence after the Revolution, crimes like “sodomy” and “buggery” were capital offenses in many states, and cross-dressing was a felony punishable by imprisonment or corporal punishment. For a long time, since no queer activity was legal in the US, all expression of queer identity was forced underground. By the 1960s, queer communities had had enough of police and state oppression of queer identities and fought back; unsurprisingly, there was coffee involved. While the 1969 Stonewall riots are commonly thought of as the beginning of the queer civil rights movement in the US, the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, which predated it by three years, started with a cup of coffee thrown in a police officer’s face in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.
Compton’s Cafeteria acted as a gathering place for trans women, drag queens, and crossdressers—who, as a result of transphobia in the gay community, were often not allowed in gay bars—to congregate. Because crossdressing was illegal at the time, police could use the presence of trans people as a pretext to raid the establishment and close it down. According to The Advocate, “The “screaming queens” erupted one night after one of their own was being hauled away from the cafeteria. After she emptied her steaming cup in the police officer’s face, all hell broke loose. Chairs, dishes, and sugar shakers went airborne and the restaurant’s dirty windows were smashed; outside, queers broke the windows of a squad car and lit a newsstand on fire. Immediately following the chaos, restaurant owners banned trans women and drag queens. The community picketed against the decision the following night.”
The riot, aided in part by coffee, marked a turning point for the local queer rights movement: after the riot and protests, a network of transgender social, psychological, and medical support services was established, which culminated in 1968 with the creation of the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the first peer-run support and advocacy organization in the world. By 1974, the anti-crossdressing law was repealed, and today San Francisco remains a hub for trans and gender-nonconforming individuals, who enjoy greater legal protection in SF than in most regions across the country.
Queer Cafes Today
Queer rights are nowhere near comprehensive in the US, and although the right to legal gay marriage was established at a federal level in the US in 2015, politicians and civilians on both the right and the left continue to rally around criminalizing or simply not legalizing specific elements of queer identity. In the US today, trans individuals are not legally protected against discrimination at a federal level, and nonbinary gender identities are only acknowledged in a few states. Nevertheless, we’ve come a long way from a full criminalization of all queerness, and it shows in the diversity of queer coffeehouses and companies today. I reached out to several queer coffee companies and found them each wholly unique expressions of queer culture in the US today. I couldn’t possibly fit all their stories into one article, but below are just a few.
Founded in 2009 by Ryan Galiotto, San Francisco’s Wicked Grounds provides the community with a full-service cafe, kink boutique, and community hub for the LGBTQ, polyamorous, and kink communities. “Think about the community aspects of your local leather bar, then envision that happening in a full service and sober cafe,” said current owner Mir Bilodeau. “We host about 50 events each month, including Kink 101 classes, munches for specific kink subcultures, activism groups, polyamory socials, and more.” In addition to their own events, they sponsor a wide variety of local queer organizations and events, like SF and Oakland Pride, the Trans March, Folsom Street Fair, and International Ms. Leather. They also partner with other queer organizations to offer everything from STI testing to prisoner letter writing days to give back to their community. In a region with so many queer bars, providing a queer space for sober folks and families is crucial, and the mission of education and activism speaks to a long tradition of queer coffeehouses in the SF region.
Michelle Barber’s online coffee retailer Queer Coffee represents a different facet of queer culture. Launched in May 2017, Queer Coffee sells whole bean, fair trade, organic coffee online and donates $2 from every bag sold to an LGBTQ+ nonprofit—currently, they’re supporting the Campaign for Southern Equality. “The idea is that this is a high-quality bag of beans you’d be proud to have in your cupboard or give to a friend, all while supporting our own community. I’m passionate about coffee and I wanted to find a bigger way to support LGBTQ+ nonprofits,” says Barber. “I hope we can grow that support over the years to have a bigger and bigger impact. I have big goals for Queer Coffee, like organizing meetups and sponsoring events, but we’re small and new right now.”
Cuties Coffee, launched through crowd-funding less than a year ago in East Hollywood, has already done so much to provide queer-centered community space for their local community. “We wanted a space that anchors the community, open during the daytime so that all ages could attend. We wanted a space for folx who don’t find a home in the queer nightlife scene. We wanted a space that was casual. There was a gap we saw that a coffee shop could fill,” said co-founder Virginia Bauman. Cuties hosts community events like the Friday Flirt!, craft nights, and queer movie nights, as well as casual coffee and donuts socials. They also put out a newsletter with events from other groups in the area, as well as media to enjoy from home for those who aren’t up for being out of the house for any number of reasons.
In addition to this valuable work, Cuties have recently launched a community tab program to ensure that no one who wants to enjoy the safe, affirming space they provide is turned away for lack of funds. Look for more on this community program in a coming feature here on Sprudge in early May.
In Charlotte, NC, Comic Girl Coffee is a queer-led co-op selling coffee with vegan milk options and queer/POC-centered books. They work to create a safe space for community-building and activism for Charlotte’s marginalized. One of their main goals is to make the space accessible to people of every income using a Pay it Forward board populated by magnets purchased by other customers and a section of donated books for which customers can pay what they want. They also donate 10% of profits to Trans.formation House, a healing space for homeless transgender people.
These are just a tiny handful of the beautifully diverse queer coffee companies carrying the tradition of coffeehouses as spaces for queerness, thought, and progressive society.
Queer Coffeehouses, Past and Present
From the beginnings of coffee to the present day, coffeehouses have always been hubs for queer collaboration and activism. As coffee culture moved across the world, queerness moved from a non-criminalized subculture in Ottoman Turkey, to a heavily-criminalized underground scene in Europe and the US, to the open-yet-threatened status many queer people inhabit in the US today. Throughout that history, coffeehouses have always been exactly what the queer community needed them to be at any given time and place. So many different queer subcultures thrive across the US and alongside them, a rich spread of coffee shops prioritizes different groups, missions, and needs.
While the queer coffee scene in the US continues to thrive and diversify, queer civil rights in the US and across the world are still under attack. Many coffee companies and coffee professionals wish to remain apolitical in such a polarized climate, but coffee has always been political, a space to brew revolution. In honor of that history, coffee drinkers and coffee professionals alike should salute the companies who continue that legacy with the courage to boldly create and protect the space their community needs to survive and thrive. Visit and donate to these spaces, and respect those who risk so much to champion these causes. It’s easier to look away, but coffee’s history points us in a different direction.
RJ Joseph is a staff writer for Sprudge Media Network. Read more RJ Joseph on Sprudge.
Top photo by Sunnie Townsend.