Searching for a Kiki: SF's First Black-Owned Gay Bar

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Photo portrait of Rodney Barnette, owner of The New Eagle Creek Saloon, against colorful background
Rodney Barnette, owner of The New Eagle Creek Saloon (Courtesy Rodney Barnette)

When Rodney Barnette first moved to San Francisco in 1969, he noticed that “it wasn’t all rah rah gay capital of the world.” His experiences with racism in San Francisco’s historic gay community led him to open the New Eagle Creek Saloon, the city’s first Black-owned gay bar, in 1990. Over 30 years later, Barnette speaks about why Black-affirming queer spaces are still needed, and what he took away from his experience operating one.

Below are lightly edited excerpts of the episode with Rodney Barnette and his daughter Sadie Barnette.

Corey Antonio Rose: Tell me about your first time getting adjusted to the gay community here in San Francisco.

Rodney Barnette: When I first moved here, it wasn't known as the gay capital of the United States. Most of the activity was on Polk Street, but eventually things shifted to the Castro district. They started opening more restaurants … and the more white gay men that came, the more racist it got. That's when we started getting carded, three pieces of I.D. to go in these bars. The bartender, they were always white and they would bypass you. Some of them had goons as security guards. There were fights that broke out at places that I went to that got so humiliating that I swore I would not go back because it can be dangerous for me or somebody else to be there.

You know, things were so bad that they even created racist language to depict if a white gay guy had Black gay friends or was attracted to Black people. They came up with the term Dinge queen—Dinge means dirty. That's how thorough the racism was.

Corey Antonio Rose: (narration) We brunch now, but back in the day, the bars were the cornerstone of the queer social scene … How are you supposed to feel welcome in a community if you have to defend your humanity every time you go out?

Corey Antonio Rose: Eventually you got the impetus to start to own a bar, to start a bar. But where did it come from?

Rodney Barnette: There was a bar back in the 70s that Black people felt comfortable going to. It was not in the Castro, It was called Bojangles. But … when we left the bar, the San Francisco Police Department was waiting outside with paddy wagons and arresting Black gay people who were standing around talking, trying to exchange numbers. So you always felt like you had to almost run to get away from being arrested.

Corey Antonio Rose: You told me a story earlier about Deniece Williams at a bar.

Rodney Barnette: She had a new album out, and it was so beautiful. It turned out that she was going to be performing at one of these bars up in North Beach. And we had already had bad experiences trying to get in there, carding us with three pieces of I.D. and dress codes, so we never really went there. But we said, OK, we're going to go see Deniece Williams. Deniece Williams came out and she started performing and singing beautiful songs, and we started clapping and cheering and then between songs, she said, ‘Wow, you guys really liked the music. I can see that you're responding. How come there aren’t more people here?’ And almost in unison we all said, ‘Because it's a racist gay bar.’ It's not that she wasn't popular, there were things restricting access to her performance.

Rodney Barnette: I felt like we had an opportunity to make a difference in the community. I always knew that there weren't any Black-owned gay bars in San Francisco. This was in the late 80s, like 1989. There was a bar. It was actually called the Eagle Creek Saloon. And the owner was selling the bar. The white man’s name was John, and I knew him, and he approached me and he said, ‘Rodney, do you want to buy my bar?’ I said, ‘Wow, I'd love to, but I don't have money.’ So he said, ‘I want to sell this bar to a Black man.’ I said, ‘Wow, OK, I'mma figure on how to get money together and buy this bar.’ We got enough money to buy the bar and my family was active in every way to get it going. And finally, when it got transferred into my name, my brothers came up, I had one brother who was a contractor, another brother who was an electrician.

My brothers always knew that I was gay and I never tried to hide it, but they got a lot closer and understood every aspect of being gay. They became friends with other gay customers and so forth, and they weren't gay. But you know, it was a good experience, a good family venture that we went into.

And I never expected the bar would be just for Black people. I wanted everybody to be welcome there. And when it finally got turned over into my name, it was a big relief because something could have happened along the way. The neighbors could have contested a liquor license being transferred in that building and so forth, so it was a big relief.

I changed the name to the New Eagle Creek Saloon instead of just the Eagle Creek. The idea is that you keep the old name because people from different countries come looking for it and so forth. So it was great cause for a great celebration. We wound up having eight bartenders. We had women DJs, which they didn't have at that time in any of these gay bars. They didn't have any Black DJs. So we were able to provide the entertainment that people wanted and provide employment for talented Black people that weren't able to express themselves in other establishments in San Francisco.

Corey Antonio Rose: And in that way, I guess it was sort of like, yes, it's a bar, but then it sort of functions as a community center.

Rodney Barnette: Exactly. And that's what we would call it, a community center that served alcohol ... We celebrated people's birthdays when they had a birthday, we had food and cakes and champagne … Our customers were able to get involved and somebody came up and said, 'Well, here's a slogan Rodney: A friendly place with a funky bass for every race.' And that was perfect because we wanted to let people know everybody was invited and welcomed there.

Corey Antonio Rose (narration): The New Eagle Creek Saloon had the formula for success: a dedicated clientele, a passionate owner, and a catchy slogan. It was also everything they needed to attract haters. Soon after the bar opened, the Bay Area Reporter ran a story that tried to scare other people from going.

Rodney Barnette: [The article was] pretty much implying that somebody got killed one time for hanging around with Black people or rough trade or whatever. So, you know, they were advising people to be leery of going to places like the New Eagle Creek Saloon. So our customers once again were outraged at that, and we sat down with a couple of our customers and wrote up a reply, demanding that they retract that article. And they actually did.

Corey Antonio Rose (narration): This was 1991 in San Francisco. The same year Magic Johnson publicly announced that he was HIV-positive, a year before AIDS would become a leading cause of death for young American men and several years after Rodney lost a brother to AIDS.

Rodney Barnette: I saw how badly he suffered with the illness, but that was one of the things that drove me to want to do something about the AIDS epidemic… So we did fundraisers, and eventually there were marches and candlelight vigils that took place right on Market Street. So we would shut the bar down when people were marching by and participate in the march to City Hall demanding that they fund AIDS research. We had a group of people that put in an interactive video game that showed people what safe sex was. And that might sound crazy, or anybody should know it, but it showed people a safe way to have safe sex. It was interactive and it was the first of its kind and we were honored to have it in our bar. It wasn't put anywhere else before it was put in the Eagle Creek.

Corey Antonio Rose (narration): It was an arcade-style machine, where the goal was to pick the safest sexual option, a sort of choose your own adventure. And while a video game that teaches safe sex may sound obsolete now, most of the government-sponsored campaigns advertising safe sex as a way to prevent AIDS weren’t really aimed at Black people. So Rodney giving his patrons a lil' education with the libation is community activism at its core.

Rodney Barnette: One of the things that people wanted, they said, 'Rodney, we never had representation in the gay pride parade.' So we figured out, well, maybe we can raise money – because it's expensive. We sold 50 cent plastic cups of beer on Sunday. And a lot of people would come out. So we raised money that way and we got an actual committee together to get the float in the parade. We had one guy whose name was Mario. He designed all these costumes for people that were going to be on the float. We had a Black lesbian woman as the DJ. She played music in the bar a lot. And my daughter was six years old and she had a special costume made for her. And we dressed reflecting different generations of Black people.

Corey Antonio Rose: And we're actually also joined by Rodney's daughter, Sadie Barnette, who is an amazing artist in her own right… What do you remember about this parade?

Sadie Barnette: I would have been, yes, six or seven years old, and I definitely remember it almost as a fairy tale. I remember going to the bar to try on my costume and just feeling so special and like a princess. I can't remember the name on the float ... I call it like Black people through the ages because it was like Egyptian costumes, Victorian costumes … throughout the arc of human history…

Rodney Barnette: When we turned the corner, there was a roar that went out the entire length of the parade. People were cheering us because it's clearly a different float from everybody else's float. We're not just observers, people standing on the sideline watching gay pride. We're part of it.

Rodney Barnette: … Something happened to the economy and all the bars were kind of suffering. I didn't own the property, or the building that the bar was in. And rent skyrocketed. It was on Market Street, one of the most expensive rental places in the city, and I couldn't keep paying the rent; the bar closed at the end of 1993.

What's so ironic is some of these bars came out with Black Night, right? You could come on a Wednesday night and that's when we play Black music and we won't ask you for three pieces of I.D. So that's what they had to resort to to stay in business.

Any time I would run into somebody that went to the [New Eagle Creek Saloon], they had this feeling of, ‘Wow, I wish it was still here.’

To tell you the truth, last night I ran into somebody I hadn't seen in many years, and he realized it was me that I had owned the bar. He came there and we had a birthday party for him. And he came up and hugged me and just started crying and talked about the need for us to get together because there's never been a place like that since then. So it touched people in a real meaningful way.

Corey Antonio Rose (narration): And Sadie commemorates that place—the beauty, history, and resistance—in dope art installations. Since making exhibits featuring the FBI files on her father and photos from his time with the Black Panthers, she was also commissioned [by The Lab] to build a re-imagined version of the New Eagle Creek Saloon’s bar, a recreation that you can actually step inside.

Sadie Barnette: The name of the Eagle Creek Saloon, while it was in people's hearts and meant so much to people who were there, it wasn't something that was referenced in Netflix's documentaries. It wasn't something that grad students were studying. There was not a big paper trail of the Eagle Creek Saloon. And so for me, it was important to make sure that the name wasn't lost and to do that through having really fun parties seemed like a great way to do it.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.